Winter Biking in the Preserves
By Jason Halm
There comes a time in Chicagoland winters when the need to go outside is so strong it overpowers the reality that it’s frigidly cold outside. For me this winter, cabin fever just happened to come early. So, in spite of my Dad accusing me of being crazy, I went for a couple long bike rides on the Salt Creek Bike Trail. The first day I took on the segment from Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook to Cricket Creek Forest Preserve in Addison (about 10 miles each way); the second time I rode from Cricket Creek to Busse Woods in northern Cook County (about 11 miles each way).
Winter brings joys that seem to belong exclusively to it, particularly on the bike trail; it also brings its own set of challenges, as bike enthusiasts well know. Unfortunately for some reason, we seem to focus constantly on the challenges and not the subsequent joys.
Starting near the historic Graue Mill and Dam at Fullersburg Woods, I rode northbound the first day and quickly wondered if my Dad was right and I was in fact crazy. Thanks to the frigid weather, I knew from the start that I was outside, and that the chances of being a little loco were maybe very much worth it.
To begin the ride, you jog along York Road and then Roosevelt Road, and, if you’re like me, are grateful that you’re not among the throngs flocking to Oak Brook Center, at least until you must focus on where you’re going and keeping your scarf up (for directions, the sequential and consistent mile markers and trail signs help you stay on course). Dipping into York Woods Forest Preserve — the oldest preserve in DuPage County — you get a sense of what the area was like before all the development.
Enjoy the view
Weaving between the Salt Creek Greenway and the mid-century plat homes of Elmhurst, glimpses of both past architecture and past vegetation come alive, and, if you’re lucky like I was, a hawk swoops in just slightly far enough away (a Cooper’s hawk, I believe). The Great Western Trail cuts through Elmhurst here, giving you plenty of riding options (including riding east for a coffee stop) with the Salt Creek Route overlapping for a block or so.
After the Great Western Trail, you arrive at Cricket Creek Forest Preserve comes up, which has some of the better nature views of the whole trip. The starkness of the winter landscape also makes the one or two cardinals you’re likely to spot stand out in stark contrast to the muted landscape.
North of Cricket Creek, the route weaves between electrical right-of-ways and on-street segments. There is the odd juxtaposition between the uptick in air traffic due to nearby O’Hare Airport, and the solitude of the trail in the winter. For me, on a recent late November day, I could hear the rattling bugle calls of sandhill cranes alongside the Boeing and Airbus traffic.
After Devon Avenue, you come to the end of the DuPage County segment of the Salt Creek route; I highly encourage, though, further exploration north through the lovely town of Elk Grove Village and the gorgeous Ned Brown Forest Preserve (Busse Woods).
For my first ride, I called it at Cricket Creek because I was too cold to carry on for the day. I made the mistake of wearing lighter gloves, a lighter coat and an unsecured scarf. In summer, it makes sense to dress lighter than you think you’ll need. But in the winter, you need to dress slightly warmer because the wind will cool you down dramatically, and you won’t sweat nearly as much. I highly recommend dressing for below-freezing temperatures, in three or more layers for your torso, insulated gloves, and a balaclava or scarf you can tie securely around your mouth and possibly your nose as well.
I made a few mistakes, but I still had a wonderful time. In winter, by far the most important aspect of the bike ride is staying warm. After you’ve got that base covered, take care to stay hydrated. You don’t need to drink much water while biking, but always bring it with you, and drink plenty before and after your ride. Keep yourself visible — outfit your bike with lights and wear bright or reflective clothing, particularly early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
Finally, while riding, please be kind to yourself and flexible to conditions. If you feel sluggish after a few miles of riding, it might be better to call it a day. When I went in late November, there were only a few patches with snow cover, all under a hundred feet or so. Never try to ride over or through snow or ice unless you have specially studded and wider tires. It’s not a race, just a leisurely bike ride. In the middle of winter. Go crazy.
About Jason Halm
Jason lives in northern Will County and loves exploring the outdoors of the DuPage and Chicago regions, paddling, hiking, biking, and eating a broad swath through the area, while approaching the outdoors with experience and passion in education, tourism, food, adventure, restoration and agriculture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jason.ph on Instagram.