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Top 10 Places to Bike in Illinois

Map of Top 10 Best Biking Locations in Illinois

Illinois is home to a sprawling network of mountain biking trails, road biking routes, historic rail trails, and more. If you’re wondering where to bike in The Prairie State, here are ten of the most highly recommended spots.

1. Route 66 Trail – Chicago, IL

Bike Route on Route 66 Trail in Chicago, IL

The Illinois portion of the Route 66 Trail stretches from Chicago to St. Louis, allowing cyclists to explore this fantastic stretch of America’s legendary “Mother Road.” Primarily an on-road ride, this route gives cyclists access to many of Illinois’ excellent trails, historic sites, and unique history along Route 66.

The Route 66 Trail is intended for bicycles, equestrians, hikers, and more and offers a more relaxed and comfortable way for cyclists to explore the historic road. Made up of portions of bike paths, country roads, and highways, beautiful prairies, and gently rolling hills surround the trail for a peaceful and enjoyable ride through the state of Illinois. Of course, you’ll also get to experience many of the iconic Route 66 sights along the way.

Before you head out to bike this historic route, check out the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway website for maps and details on where to begin your ride and the various sights, landmarks, and eateries to check out along the way.

Tips: There is a lot to see along this bike ride, so plan your trip in advance and consider making it a several-day journey, complete with lodging, food, and fun stops along the way.

2. Palos Forest Preserve – Willow Springs, IL

Man Mountain Biking in Palos Forest Preserve

Palos Forest Preserve is Chicago’s premier singletrack destination, with more than 25 miles of singletrack trails and more than 20 miles of multi-track routes. Affectionately referred to by cyclists as the “grandaddy of trail systems in the Chicago area,” Palos Forest Preserve is a must-do for bikers of all experience levels.

This beautiful trail system is as diverse as it gets. With rolling hills, log jumps, wide track, singletrack, challenging climbs, and fast descents, novices and advanced cyclists will enjoy hours spent riding here. If you’ve never taken your bike off-road in the Chicago area, this is the place to do it. You’ll definitely find a challenge here and improve your handling skills, no matter how experienced you are.

The mountain bike staging area at Palos Forest Preserve is at 9500 Willow Springs Road, Willow Springs, IL. You can head out there anytime between the hours of sunrise to sunset.

Tips: The trails at Palos Forest Preserve are also open to hikers, runners, and horses, so make sure to use proper trail etiquette while riding here. You can also use the trail’s intersections to switch routes while you’re biking, so if you want to skip a particular portion of a course or try your hand at an additional challenge, you can. However, this also means it’s easy to get lost, so make sure to keep a trail map on hand while you ride.

3. Farmdale Reservoir Recreation Area – East Peoria, IL 

Woman Mountain Biking Farmdale Reservoir Recreation Area

The Farmdale Reservoir Recreation Area is another excellent mountain biking spot managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Offering everything from a freeride stunt section to singletrack and open fire roads, you could easily spend hours enjoying the trails here.

The Farmdale Reservoir Recreation Area system incorporates about 15 miles of trails, including several expert-level routes. Full of fun dips and ravines, this area has a nice mix of open roads, tight, twisty singletrack, and even an MTX/dirt jump course for cyclists who want an exciting adventure and a great workout.

Farmdale Reservoir Recreation Area is located 3 miles east of Peoria, Illinois, on Farm Creek. You can visit the Peoria Area Mountain Bike Association (PAMBA) website for directions, parking information, and a trail system map. 

Tips: These trails are closed for 24 hours following rain, so keep an eye on the weather and plan accordingly.

4. Tunnel Hill State Trail – Harrisburg to Karnak, IL

Tunnel Hill State Park Trail with Sign

Tunnel Hill State Trail is arguably one of the most exciting trails in Illinois. Winding its way through seven ghost towns, dark tunnels, strenuous inclines, and reclaimed strip mines, the history, and sights along this route are unparalleled.

The Tunnel Hill State Trail is on the former Cairo and Vincennes Railroad. Today, it stretches 45 miles from Harrisburg to Karnak and then continues with a trail spur for another 2.5 miles to the Cache River State Natural Area. Although the trail’s surface is primarily crushed gravel and limestone (potentially making for a challenging and long ride), it carries cyclists through rural farmland, lush wetland, beautiful prairies, and more for a wonderfully diverse riding experience. A portion of the Tunnel Hill State Trail also crosses many other well-known trails, including the River-to-River Trails, the American Discovery Trails, the U.S. 76 Bicycle Route, the TransAmerica Bike Route, and the Trail of Tears.

You can use several trailheads for parking and access to the Tunnel Hill State Trail. For details on how to get to each one, visit TrailLink.com. The site office for the trail is on State Highway 146 on the east side of Vienna.

Tips: If you plan to ride this trail with a group, groups of 25 or more are required to register in advance with the site office. Although you might be able to bike the Tunnel Hill State Trail in one day, several camping areas are located nearby, including Shawnee National Forest, Lake of Egypt Buck Ridge Campground, and Bell Smith Springs.

5. Kickapoo State Recreation Area – Oakwood, IL

Start of Kickapoo State Park Recreation Area Trail

The mountain biking trails of Kickapoo State Recreation Area are some of the top-rated by cyclists in Illinois. This area is home to 16 different named and numbered routes, with at least 12 miles of singletrack and challenges for all skill levels, including a Kids Loop for families with younger riders.

For a complex challenge, make sure to check out the “Heaven & Hell” section, one of Kickapoo’s most technical trails. Although it clocks in at just over one mile long, it’s not for the faint of heart. With technical switchbacks, fast downhills, intense climbing, and blind landings, this exhilarating ride will push you to your limits. Here is a map of the Kickapoo mountain biking trails from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

To access the Kickapoo trail system from I-74, take the Oakwood exit 204 and head north for about one mile before taking your first right. Drive through Kickapoo, and the trailhead will be on the left approximately one mile out of the park. The Kickapoo State Recreation Area address is 10906 Kickapoo Park Rd, Oakwood, IL 61858.

Tips: One of the best things about the trails at Kickapoo is that they are one-way trails, meaning all bikers ride in one direction. That makes for a much safer experience. If you’re traveling to the area and don’t have your bike with you, you can rent a bike nearby at Kickapoo Adventures. They offer full-day or half-day rentals.

6. Great River Trail – Rock Island to Savanna, IL

Sign of the "Great River State Trail" in Illinois

The beautiful Great River Trail runs about 62 miles along the Mississippi River in Northern and Central Illinois, boasting gorgeous views and plenty of fun along the way. According to cycling enthusiasts, this is one rail-trail that all bikers need to experience!

The Great River Trail passes through several small, charming river towns that invite you to stop, check out the attractions, eat, drink, or even stay overnight. The trail also continues through marshes, beautiful grasslands, and the Quad Cities region, a bustling area in Illinois and Iowa on the Mississippi River. This interactive map of the trail makes it easy to locate food, lodging, parks, and activities along the route. 

The trail’s endpoints are at Sunset Park at 18th Ave. and Mill St. in Rock Island, IL, and at Broderick Dr. at US 52 in Savanna.

Tips: The signage on the Great River Trail is spotty in areas, so it’s best to bring a map with you. Some trail surfaces are also deteriorating, so be prepared for rough patches.

7. Saw Wee Kee Park – Yorkville, IL

Shaded Bike Trail at Saw Wee Kee Park in Illinois

The Saw Wee Kee Park is located on the far western edge of the Chicago Metro Area and offers about 10 miles of rough BMX biking trails. The park is 134 acres, with a canoe and kayak launch, picnic tables and benches, fishing areas, hiking trails, and more. But for cyclists visiting the area or who call it home, it’s a must-visit spot for mountain biking.

Saw Wee Kee Park used to be a strip mine, so the terrain is best described as lumpy and rocky, which makes for some excellent off-road biking. There is a decent variety for riders of all experience levels and plenty of challenging technical areas. Although the overall elevation change is very minimal and leaves something to be desired, cyclists still enjoy the park’s thrilling short climbs, quick drops, and twisting, wriggling trails.

The easiest way to get to the park is to head straight to 7350 Sundown Lane in Yorkville, Illinois.

Tips: Just a heads up: there is a hunting club that borders the south portion of Saw Wee Kee Park, so stay safe by remaining inside the park at all times. While you ride, you’ll likely hear gun activity, but the shooting ranges have backstops to prevent stray bullets from flying into the park.

8. The Illinois American Discovery Trail – Rock Island, IL to IL State Line and East St. Louis to New Haven, IL 

A Bike Trail on the Illinois American Discovery Trail

The American Discovery Trail features two routes in Illinois that cover the whole state: the northern route, which is primarily flat and runs along a canal, and the southern route, which runs through the Illinois Ozarks and Shawnee Hills, a geologically-significant area that has been untouched by glaciers for hundreds of years.

The Illinois American Discovery Trail is a part of a more extensive trail that spans 15 different states. Bikers who ride the north or south route in Illinois will enjoy a quiet ride along trails, sidewalks, and small roads or shoulders. In addition to passing through quiet small towns, bikers will enjoy all the historical sites and stunning state parks filled with natural beauty and local wildlife along the way.

Visit the American Discovery Trail website for detailed trail directions and points of interest along the northern and southern routes.

Tips: Depending on what kind of road or trail surfaces you prefer and what sites you’d like to see and visit while you ride, you may enjoy the north or south portion of this trail better. Do your research before you head out to make the most of your ride.

9. U.S. Bicycle Route 76 – Southern, IL

Bike Route 76 Route

U.S. Bicycle Route 76 is a part of the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, a 4,000-mile transcontinental bike touring route. It crosses through the beautiful Shawnee Hills region of Southern Illinois and offers an incredibly memorable cycling experience through Illinois.

The Illinois portion of U.S. Bicycle Route 76 spans 136 miles and has an elevation increase of about 6,000 feet if you’re traveling east. Connecting to Missouri in the west and Kentucky in the east, this route passes through six counties in Illinois, boasting plenty of great views of the southern part of the state. Cyclists will also enjoy riding through historic sites like the Trail of Tears and seeing scenic vistas featuring local wildlife.

The Adventure Cycling Association offers a detailed map of U.S. Bicycle Route 76, which you can use to plan your route.

Tips: Follow the signage and bring a map with you to stay on the route. Also, consider stopping to check out Carbondale, a fun college town with the backdrop of the Shawnee National Forest. And don’t forget to stop in the village of Cave-In-Rock, best known for a local 55-foot-wide cave carved out of the limestone rock by water thousands of years ago.

10. Chicago Lakefront Trail – Chicago, IL

Sunset Chicago Lakefront Trail

The Chicago Lakefront Trail invites bikers to explore one of Chicago’s most beautiful features: the expansive Lake Michigan shoreline. Packed full of cyclists, walkers, and runners on any given day, this trail is an active transportation route for many Chicagoans and visitors to the city.

The Chicago Lakefront Trail stretches 18 long miles, from Ardmore Street on the North Side to 71st Street on the South Side. Whether you soak up the skyline while you ride, explore lakefront neighborhoods like Edgewater or Hyde Park, or stop at one of the many benches along the way to enjoy the scenic views of Lake Michigan, there’s always something to see or do on this trail. You’ll also find recreation areas, parks, gardens, sports fields, restrooms, and concession stands all along the route.

The trail is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The Chicago Park District offers details on the various segments of the trail with easy-to-follow maps so you can plan your ride.

Tips: This is a heavily congested trail and one of the most popular in Chicago, so be wary of pedestrians and little ones while you’re riding.

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References:

  1. https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/publications/Documents/00000766.pdf
  2. http://host8.viethwebhosting.com/~camb/palos_forest_preserve.php
  3. https://rootsrated.com/chicago-il/mountain-biking/palos-trail-system-mountain-biking 
  4. https://www.mvr.usace.army.mil/Portals/48/docs/Recreation/ODI_FarmCreek/Farmdale%20Brochurerev3.pdf
  5. https://www.trailforks.com/region/farmdale-reservoir-17114/?activitytype=1&z=14.1&lat=40.67652&lon=-89.48935 
  6. https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/recreation/greenwaysandtrails/Pages/TunnelHill.aspx
  7. https://www.singletracks.com/bike-trails/kickapoo/
  8. https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/Parks/Activity/Pages/Kickapoo.aspx 
  9. https://greatrivertrail.org
  10. https://www.traillink.com/trail/great-river-trail/ 
  11. https://www.oswegolandparkdistrict.org/parks/saw-wee-kee-park/
  12. https://www.singletracks.com/bike-trails/saw-wee-kee-park/
  13. https://www.adventurecycling.org/routes-and-maps/us-bicycle-route-system/maps-and-route-resources/ 
  14. https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/publications/documents/00000642.pdf

Photo Sources:

Yinan Chen, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
gillfoto, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
AMcDermot, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Brian Stansberry, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Stojak1, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Royalbroil, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Andymii, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Chamberednautilus, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
edward stojakovic from Portland, OR, United States, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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