One of our goals this year has been to discover more outdoor adventures near Chicago. We’ve camped at Bullfrog Lake and Starved Rock State Park, visited the beach, kayaked on the Chicago River, and listened to outdoor concerts. Our next adventure to check off the list was a long bike trip!
Located 45 miles north of Chicago, we chose Illinois Beach State Park as our destination. On a Saturday morning we packed up the car & bikes (we cheated & didn’t carry camping gear on our bikes), clipped on our helmets and pedaled away!
What to Pack for a Bike Trip
One of the most important parts of the trip was making sure that we were prepared for anything that might happen on our bikes. None of us had ever ridden this far before! While we cheated with our camping gear (it was driven to the campground for us), we made a comprehensive list of what we wanted with us for the ride.
Bike Gear Checklist
- Helmet – safety first!
- 1+ extra inner tube per bike
- Tire levers
- Bike pump and/or CO2 pump
- Bike gloves
- Water – we took bottles on our bikes + hydration packs
- Food – take more than you think you’ll need! We were staaarving by the time we arrived
- Salt tabs/nuun – these can be really helpful if it’s hot outside
- Bike lock
We packed everything up in a combination of backpacks and saddle bags. Don’t forget a charged cell phone for emergencies as well!
How to Get There
Before the trip, we researched bike paths and routes to get up to the park. Leaving from Lakeview in the morning, we followed Clark Street (which eventually turns into Chicago Ave) up to Northwestern University where we encountered our first of two flat tires.
From there, we picked up the Green Bay Trail to the Robert McClory Bike Path which led us almost all the way to Illinois Beach State Park. Here’s a map of the route we were trying to take.
The Green Bay Trail is approximately 9 miles long and runs along the metra line. It is confusing in parts – there are a lot of turns and street crossings that aren’t always well marked. At one point we accidentally ended up on Sheridan Road, and I think we would have preferred to take that over the Green Bay Trail. You’ll deal with more traffic, but the road is very smooth, well-traveled by other cyclists and has views of some incredible homes along the shoreline.
We eventually picked up the Robert McClory Bike Path, which was a little more straightforward. The path is 26 miles long with a mix of crushed gravel and asphalt. For those with road bikes, we had no issues with the gravel. This was definitely the most boring stretch of trail.
There are two areas we got lost at – the Great Lakes Naval Station and the exit from the bike path to the campground. Don’t trust google maps if you just type in “Illinois Beach State Park”. We ended up at the nuclear power plant (more on that later), which meant we had ridden a couple of extra miles north.
Our bike trip to Illinois Beach covered 45 miles and took 6 hours (4 hours of riding time). It’s longer than expected, but we took a few breaks, got lost 2+ times and had two flat tires to change along the way. For never having done something like this before, I thought it went pretty well!
Camping at Illinois Beach State Park
Once we arrived at the campground, we scarfed down a late lunch and set up camp. Illinois Beach is situated right along Lake Michigan in Zion, IL. It offers offers swimming (the water is cold but clear!) along with a few hiking and biking trails. I wouldn’t say there’s a lot to do, but it’s great for anyone that’s looking for a quick getaway from Chicago.
We reserved sites 256 and 257 in advance (~$20/night). They are well-shaded and fairly distant (for a state park) from the next sites. The beach was only a 5-minute walk from our site. The beach feels almost apocalyptic. There’s an abandoned shower house/concession stand and a nuclear power plant fills the horizon to the North.
There’s actually a lot of interesting history to the power plant. The plant was built in 1973 and supplied power to Chicago until February, 1977, when an operator accidentally shut down one of the reactors. The other reactor was shut down for refueling at the time, and a decision was made not to turn them back on.
Nuclear fuel is currently held in an on-site pool while the site is being decommissioned. From the beach, you can walk fairly close to the plant where they are currently tearing down some of the buildings. The Atlantic published an interesting article in 2011 if you’d like to read more.
After some exploring, our evening ended in thunderstorms, a trip to a pizza joint and games in tents. We woke up the morning with better weather, but decided to take the Metra back to Chicago instead of biking. We biked 8 miles to the Waukegan Metra station and hopped a train back to Chicago.
If you’re interested in trying out a long bike trip from Chicago, Illinois Beach State Park makes a great first trip. What destinations have you biked to from Chicago? We’re hoping to take a bike trip to the Chicago Botanic Gardens soon!