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Our Next Bicycle Tour: Chicago Trails Loop 2014

Our Next Bicycle Tour: Chicago Trails Loop 2014

Two months have now passed since our grand European bicycle tour in the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria. And we are already itching for another!  Our next tour will need to be a bit closer to home due to cash and vacation time constraints SO we’ve elected to do a 200 mile loop in the Chicago area over six days in September 2014.  Craig and I have been throwing around the idea of a Chicago tour for many years now and this seemed like a logical, affordable, doable tour to sandwich between our extravagant European tour this past October and our anticipated bike tour in Nepal in 2015.

I just LOVE planning our bike tours.  When one tour ends, I’m usually on the computer plotting out another trip the very next day.  We arrange our U.S. tours completely on our own without any sort of guide company as we used for our tour in Europe.  Our Chicago trip is still 10 months away but I’ve been researching for it since November and much of the preliminary work is done.  And so this post begins my Chicago Bike Trail Loops 2014 journal as I document the planning process.  Perhaps some of you might find the process interesting, especially if you’re looking for advice on planning your own bike tour in the U.S.

The Grand Illinois Trail

GITlogoThe very first step was to decide WHERE we want to ride.  We had already decided upon the Chicago area so my next step was to head for Google.  Craig and I prefer to use off road bike trails whenever possible so I started by searching for “Chicago bike trails” to see what I could find.  Something interesting kept coming up in my search results… “Grand Illinois Trail.”  Hmmm… what could this be?  I’d never heard of it before but it certainly sounded intriguing so I focused my searches and discovered bike tour planning gold.

GITlogoThe Grand Illinois Trail (GIT), I found, is a network of dedicated bike trails in northern Illinois.  Huge kudos to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources who have been working since the 1990’s to build and connect existing paved trails, bike lanes and the very first U.S. rail trail into this humongous system of trails in the midwest.  Today the GIT offers over 575 miles (575 MILES!!!) of dedicated bicycle trails throughout northern Illinois.  WHOAH!!  How have I not heard of this cycling mecca?  It’s practically in my backyard!  And I thought the Katy Trail was a big deal.  The GIT is almost twice as long!  I can’t wait to GIT our biking butts over there and start cycling!  But first I must plan…

Planning the Route

The entire trail system includes of 575 miles of connected off road paved trails, bike lanes, and the very first rail trail in the U.S.

The entire trail system includes of 575 miles of connected off road paved trails, bike lanes, and the very first rail trail in the U.S. Image from League of Illinois Bicyclists.

With this exciting discovery in mind I began plotting potential routes.  We can only manage enough vacation time for six days of touring so obviously we can’t bike all 575 miles.  Over the years, we’ve found that 35-40 miles a day is our ideal distance which gives us time to cover about 200 miles.

I really wanted to include the Chicago Lakefront Trail section of the GIT which runs along Lake Michigan through downtown Chicago.  So I  started with the Lakefront Trail and mapped out a tentative 206 mile loop in Google Maps south to Chicago Heights, west to Joliet, north through Downers Grove to McHenry, east to Lake Forest and south again back to downtown Chicago.   This included the Lakefront Trail,  and sections of Old Plank Road Trail, the I&M Canal Trail, the Prairie Path Trail (the rail trail section) and the Green Bay Trail.

Searching for Shelter

The Chicago Lakefront Trail along Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago

The Chicago Lakefront Trail along Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. Photo from Openlands.org.

The next big quest was to find where we are going to lay our heads each of the five nights of our tour.  Craig and I prefer to camp.  It’s cheaper and we love the freedom of carrying our abode and food along with us.  However as I searched around Google maps for potential camping spots, my suspicions were confirmed.  There’s just no camping available in this area.  It’s all either urban or farmland.

On to PLANS B and C.  I started with PLAN C which includes hotels, motels and hostels.  We don’t like to go that route for a variety of reasons.  Obviously hotel touring is a lot more expensive than camping.  Plus hotels are usually in areas that aren’t very bicycle friendly which means we would have to leave the trail and cycle with traffic through areas that aren’t bike friendly to begin and end our journey each day.  Not my idea of fun!  But since camping isn’t an option and we have to sleep somewhere every night, I needed to find hotel possibilities just in case PLAN B doesn’t pan out.

I divided the 206 mile route into 6 roughly 34 mile chunks and zoomed in to find lodging possibilities close to each night’s destination, opting for inexpensive places as close to the trail as available.  I was able to locate at least one motel option under $75 a night within several miles from the trail route for every night except for our stay in downtown Chicago.  Obviously as we neared downtown, hotel prices skyrocketed.  But I found an interesting hostel option in the city.  For around $40 we could stay in a dorm room in the Chicago Getaway Hostel.  We don’t mind staying in a dorm setting, in fact one of our favorite aspects of bike touring is meeting people.  So this sounded perfect for our stay in the city.  Not only is it cheaper than all the other lodging along our route but I’m more excited about staying there than any of the other places.

The Prairie Path Trail is the first rail trail in the U.S.  Looks a lot like the Katy!

The Prairie Path Trail is the first rail trail in the U.S. Looks a lot like the Katy! Photo from Wikipedia.

But that is only PLAN C.  With hotel options determined for each night, now I can safely tackle PLAN B… WARM SHOWERS HOSTS!!!  If you’re not already familiar, Warm Showers is an international online community that connects cycling tourists with people who want to host them.  Craig and I have been Warm Showers hosts for years and have enjoyed hosting many touring cyclists from all over the world as they biked across the midwest.

So far we’ve always been the HOSTS rather than the HOSTEEs except for one night in Washington D.C. at the beginning of our COGAP tour in 2010.  That was a marvelous experience and our gracious host had even allowed us to leave our car parked in front of his house until our tour’s end.  Part of the idea of Warm Showers is “paying it forward.”  Many hosts use Warm Showers to find lodging for themselves when they are able to get out of the house and go on their own tours.  So we’re hoping to cash in on some of our many hosting “deposits” by staying with Warm Showers hosts during our Chicago tour.  Hopefully we’ll be able to find hosts for all five nights.  We’ll save some cash this way but most importantly, we’ll meet a lot of fantastic people.

So if PLAN B works out, we’re hoping to meet some great folks and learn more about biking around Chicago.  Warm Showers hosts are typically cyclists themselves and often know all the best places to bike in their area.  When we’ve got a tourist coming in to stay with us, I always try to take a day off work to cycle out to meet them and guide them through the city to our house.  I do the same thing when they’re ready to leave.  I love any excuse to bike!  And this gives the tourist a nice ride through the city along a bike friendly route without worrying about getting lost.  Many other Warm Showers hosts do this sort of thing as well.  We love to bike and it’s so fun to share our love of biking with others!

So I logged into the Warm Showers website and searched for hosts close to our destination each night.  Each Warm Showers host has their own page on the website where they list how many people they can host at a time, what amenities they offer and any other comments they want to share (such as how much advance notice they need).  Tourists who have stayed with them are able to leave comments about their stay and hosts can also leave comments about the tourists who they host.  I suppose this weeds out any potential creepers.  (Many friends have been astounded that we bring strangers into our house and are willing in turn to stay in the houses of other strangers when we tour.  But I haven’t found it risky at all.  Touring cyclists are a stellar bunch and we’ve never had any problems.  Besides, it’s rather difficult to make an effective getaway on a bicycle so it would hardly be the preferred vehicle of a ne’er do well.)

Here's my Google map after I finished marking our proposed route and all of our hotel and Warm Showers options.

Here’s my Google map after I finished marking our proposed route and all of our hotel and Warm Showers options.

Fortunately there are a LOT of Warm Showers hosts in the Chicago area and I was able to find at least two or three possible hosts for each night.  It’s probably too early to start contacting them this many months before our tour.  So as much as I want to immediately send emails to each of them exuberantly outlining our amazing tour plans, I’m waiting.  I’ve noted each one and will try contacting them around April or May (which is still very early).  Hosts aren’t always available for a variety of reasons so it’s good to have a variety of options.  It is always possible that none of the hosts in a particular area would be available which is why I started off by making sure there were nearby hotels for each night if necessary.

I set up a Google Map for our trip and marked each hotel and Warm Showers option as I went along.  CLICK HERE to see the interactive map.

 Getting There

As I began the planning process, Craig and I assumed we would drive to Chicago with our bikes and then hopefully find a Warm Showers host who would let us leave our car on their property during our tour (as we did for our COGAP tour).  Our preference would be to take an AMTRAK train to Chicago and leave our car at home like we did for our two Katy Trail tours.  But the Lincoln line to Chicago doesn’t allow bikes to be rolled on board as does the Mule Runner line to Sedalia, MO.  That means we would have to disassemble our Long Haul Truckers, box them up, and check them in as baggage.  Nope.  Too much trouble.  So we just planned to drive the five hour trek up to the windy city.

speed_D7_unfolded_large_baltictangerineBut recently we’ve considered purchasing folding bikes for the trip.  Folding bikes are allowed on all the AMTRAK trains as carryon luggage.  Touring on foldies would open up many more travel options for us when we start touring more after Craig retires.  So we’ve been researching foldie bikes and are very interested in the Dahon Speed D7 model.  But folding bikes aren’t as easy to ride as our Surley Long Haul Truckers.  The wheels are smaller and they don’t have as many gears.  Their profiles are much lower to the ground and our larger panniers might not fit.  So we’re thinking hard about this one and I’ll let you know what we decide.  Stay tuned as plans progress!

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