Late Winter on the North Branch Trail

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When something sits in front of you every day, it can be easy to forget it's there at all. On the NW side of Chicago, we have the North Branch Trail, and I am often surprised by how few people have been on it. Some don't even know about it.

The North Branch Trail is surely a gem among Chicagoland's network of bicycle trails. It has everything a great bike trail should have: distance, scenery, variety, along with excellent pavement conditions and generally well-designed street crossings (a notable exception being the deplorable crosswalk at Touhy). The NBT will take you through woodland and prairie, along the river and its adjacent wetlands, and if you follow it to the end, between Tower & Dundee Roads you will come to the Skokie Lagoons, which can almost make you forget that you are still in the big city.

You can easily turn this ride into an all-day excursion, with a mid-day break at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, accessible through the gate off Dundee Rd. (admission is free if you cycle in!). We skipped the CBG on this winter day, and instead parked ourselves above one of the dams in the Lagoons for a fresh-air picnic, a diversion that I heartily recommend.

The new NBT extension begins in just west of the Gompers Park, on the North Side of Foster Ave. From this point, it is about 17 miles to the end of the trail at Dundee Rd. (The Gompers Park/LaBagh Woods section will eventually be linked to the existing Skokie Valley (Sauganash) Trail and Weber Spur Trail at Bryn Mawr & Kostner.)

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On a side note, this was the first time in recent memory that I rode a 700c-wheeled bike. I usually ride my ancient 1990 Bridgestone, with its stout steel frame and sturdy 26" wheels outfitted with heavy-duty Schwalbe Marathon Premium tires. Because the weather was mild and dry, I picked up a Kona Dew Plus (photo at right) from the shop: a lightweight aluminum hybrid with nimble 700x32 tires and disc brakes. At $700 this bike is everything that any recreational and commuting cyclist would want: it's fast, responsive, versatile enough to move effortlessly between pavement, light gravel and grassy slopes. And I'm pretty sure it cut my riding time and effort in half compared to my old-faithful Bridgestone. I love, love, love this bike!

Seriously, ride the North Branch. Take a day, pack a nice lunch, bring a friend -- you will not regret it.

Season: February
Distance: 33 miles
Weather: Sunny and mild, high 40's
Highlights of the ride: basking in the warm sun on the riverbank above one of the dams.