The best places for families to ride bikes in the suburbs
Getting the family out on bicycles is a great way to get everyone away from electronic devices, exercising and doing something together while perhaps exploring the scenery. And the suburbs make it easy to do.
Depending on where you live, you likely can ride around the neighborhood safely. But the suburbs offer an abundance of trails, too, that could be near your home or are an easy drive away.
Busse Woods Trail
Ned Brown Forest Preserve, Elk Grove Village and Rolling Meadows, paved: You could call Busse Woods a classic trail that's popular with families, especially on weekends. And with good reason. Most of the trail is a 7.75-mile paved loop with only one street to cross, at Higgins Road just east of the I-290/Route 53 ramps (and Cook County is talking about building a bridge here someday). There's an offshoot east of Streets of Woodfield that extends out to Wilke and Golf roads, which is one access point if you ride from Rolling Meadows or Arlington Heights. Or there's ample parking, including off Arlington Heights Road north of Higgins Road, where you can see the famous elk herd (signs implore you not to feed them), or off Higgins Road east of Route 53.
Poplar Creek Trail
Poplar Creek Forest Preserve, Hoffman Estates and Streamwood, paved: Poplar Creek is a newer Cook County trail accessible at Shoe Factory and Higgins roads, or off Barrington Road south of Golf Road, or at Bode Road and Route 59, or another spot on Bode just west of Barrington Road. It's a 9-mile, paved loop through the forest and prairie. There also are some busy streets to cross, but the biggest -- at Route 59, Bartlett Road, Golf Road -- have traffic lights.
Algonquin Road Trail
Paul Douglas Forest Preserve, Hoffman Estates, paved: It's called the Algonquin Road Trail, but a few years ago Cook County made a surprisingly pretty loop through the forest preserve. You can now ride about a 7.5-mile circle with only one major street crossing, Algonquin Road at Roselle Road. The trail extends east along Algonquin up to about Meacham -- you can also ride on the Harper College campus a bit. The trail is easy to access from north Hoffman Estates neighborhoods, but unfortunately not from south of the tollway, and there are no parking areas unless you park at Harper College or somewhere off Algonquin Road.
Illinois Prairie Path and Great Western Trail, nearly all crushed limestone: The DuPage County trail system is nothing short of amazing. The Illinois Prairie Path extends from Elgin to Wheaton, curves southwest and goes all the way to Aurora, with offshoots from Wheaton east to Villa Park, or the Geneva Spur through West Chicago to its namesake suburb. And there's a Batavia Spur that appears as a fork in the trail as you ride toward Aurora, and a paved Fermilab Trail northeast of that. These spurs connect to the Fox River Trail (below). Access to the system is easy from the downtowns of many suburbs, including Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Lombard and Villa Park, or Aurora right by Metea Valley High School. The trails are mostly crushed limestone, so you'll need knobby tires. And do be careful, as there will be a number of street crossings.
Des Plaines River Trail
Lake County (and Cook County), crushed limestone: The Lake County portion of this beautiful trail along the river covers more than 30 miles in a peaceful forest setting, and with few street crossings. The limestone trail starts at the Lake County border and extends nearly to the Wisconsin border, stopping at Russell Road. Access points with parking are many: The Wright Woods Nature Preserve off Milwaukee Avenue just north of Half Day Road is an excellent spot to start, with a small trail loop within and then no-hassle riding north. Independence Grove is another good access point in the middle of the trail, and then there's Sterling Lake Forest Preserve at the northern end. The Des Plaines River Trail has a Cook County counterpart that's a bit more rough-and-tumble, though the city of Des Plaines improved its access point there.
Fox River Trail/Prairie Trail
Kane and McHenry counties, mostly paved: Another classic in the suburbs, this trail system is more than 40 miles long, extending as far south as Montgomery past Aurora, and north to Richmond in McHenry County. In northern Carpentersville the Fox River Trail becomes the Prairie Trail, which goes off the river and into pretty McHenry County. But a favorite family spot is around the Tri-Cities, through St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia. You can ride both sides of the river in spots, or even surrounded by it, on Island Park in Geneva (though the trail through the park will be closed, and users detoured, for most of the summer starting June 12). You can stop in any of the downtowns for dining, snacks or bike shops. Another good spot is East Dundee, where you can start and come back to a Dairy Queen or other eateries downtown. A more out-of-the-way access point is the Blackhawk County Forest Preserve south of South Elgin. You'd have to drive there, but the parking is ample and you can picnic before or after in this peaceful place along the river.
Lake County, crushed limestone and paved: Lake County is working on a trail system throughout the county, but for now there are a few segments that make good rides. Its core starts at the Lakewood Forest Preserve at Fairfield Road and Route 176. You can park there and, with knobby tires, you and the family can ride nice loops within the forest preserve. You can also ride to and from Mundelein on a paved trail along Hawley Road. Other segments are along the Round Lake Bike Path, Hook Drive east through Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve in Grayslake, and from Bonner Heritage Farm to the McDonald Woods Forest Preserve in Lindenhurst.
Deer Grove Trail and Palatine Trail
Deer Grove Forest Preserve, Palatine: One of the older trails in the Northwest suburbs, the Deer Grove Trail offers a simple ride for the family, at about 4 paved miles. And you can ride more paved miles through Palatine on the Palatine Trail. Either one is easily accessed from Palatine neighborhoods, or off Quentin and Dundee roads.
Pratt's Wayne Woods and James "Pate" Philip State Park
Bartlett and Wayne: Park at the state park off Stearns Road and ride the limestone trails within or the nearby Pratt's Wayne Woods;http://www.dupageforest.com/Conservation/ForestPreserves/Pratt__39 to the south, where you'll find a nice loop. It's a pretty, peaceful ride through prairie and woods.
Bartlett: If you're from Bartlett you have easy access to these two forest preserves off Stearns and County Farm roads. They offer pretty rides through the forest and around Mallard Lake, a few miles each on crushed limestone.
Blackwell and Warrenville Grove forest preserves, Warrenville/West Chicago/Winfield: Go off the Illinois Prairie Path at Butterfield Road east of Route 59 and you can ride into this forested area, circling a loop a couple miles in.
Trails and forest preserves: And farther east off Butterfield Road you'll find these forested and lakeside trails, about 4 miles' worth. You'll find picnic areas here, and a trail is planned to someday connect these trails to the Morton Arboretum.
Lisle: Speaking of, the arboretum touts its 9 miles of paved roads inside, and even offers bike rentals. The main entrance is off Route 53.
Naperville: About 7 miles of crushed limestone trails, most in a loop, offer a nice ride quite literally through prairie in this preserve on Naperville's west end between 75th and 87th streets. A windy day makes for a tough ride here, but otherwise it's peaceful.
In the neighborhood
You might know better than anyone if your neighborhood is a good one for taking the family out on the side streets. But many suburbs offer marked bike routes.
Schaumburg: Schaumburg marks bike lanes on many, many of its streets, providing many bike trips without worrying about major traffic. The village offers bike paths along major roads, too, even up to the Woodfield area, but the neighborhoods are definitely a nicer option. Its bike map offers "Schaumburg's Top Ten Bike Paths."
Arlington Heights: You'll find "bike route" signs throughout, providing many ways through the village and to and from downtown with minimal fuss.
Naperville: You can get a map provided by the city where its bike routes are marked. You can easily get to and from downtown, including via a paved trail along Hobson Road and 75th Street.
Bartlett: Off Bartlett's downtown you'll find paved trails up Stearns Road or down South Bartlett Road, connecting to the Hawk Hollow and Mallard Lake forest preserves. Or a few more miles of paved trails take you through the village.
This doesn't nearly cover all the trail and riding options in the suburbs. Find more info at:
•Mikebentley.com: Loads of links to maps and information
• TrailLink.com is run by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and provides links to several Illinois trails.
• The Active Transportation Alliance offers an excellent map showing all the bike trails and bike-friendly roads in the suburbs and Chicago.
• And consult county, forest preserve and village websites for information and any closures and construction updates.
Key bike safety tipsThe League of Illinois Bicyclists, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the best local bike shops offer common bike safety tips.
Ÿ Wear a helmet: Yes, it's common advice despite some holdouts. All it takes is one bump on the head to create a major injury.
Ÿ Properly fit the helmet: Too many kids' (and adults') helmets are tilted backward on their heads. The helmet should be level so that it covers the forehead, and the straps should be snug on the chin.
Ÿ Properly fit your bicycle: There should be 1 to 2 inches between you and the top bar if using a road bike and 3 to 4 inches if a mountain bicycle. The seat should be level front to back. The seat height should be adjusted to allow a slight bend at the knee when the leg is fully extended. The handlebar height should be at the same level with the seat.
Ÿ Check your equipment: Before riding, inflate tires properly and check to make sure your brakes work.
Ÿ See and be seen: Wearing neon, fluorescent or other bright colors is recommended at all hours. Have reflectors and perhaps lights, too, on your bikes.
Ÿ Watch for road or trail hazards: Be on the lookout for hazards such as potholes, broken glass, gravel, puddles, leaves and dogs. If you are in the lead, yell out and point to the hazard to those behind you. When in doubt, go slower.
Ÿ Go with the traffic flow: Ride on the right in the same direction as other vehicles.
Ÿ Obey all traffic laws. A bicycle is a vehicle and you're a driver. When you ride in the street, obey all traffic signs, signals and lane markings.
Ÿ Be predictable. Ride in a straight line and single file. Signal your moves to others.
The League of Illinois Bicyclists offers "bike safety sheets" with which you can teach and quiz your kids. Download them from bikelib.org/safety-education/kids/bike-safety-sheet. Also see websites of bike shops like The Bike Rack in St. Charles, thebikerack.com.