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Branching Out: The North Branch Trail to Extend Further South, East

Local cyclists have long dreamed of a complete network of bicycle paths along the various branches of the Chicago River. This fall we’ll be moving three miles closer to that goal when the Cook County Forest Preserve District begins construction on a southern extension of the North Branch Trail. Meanwhile, the trail is also being expanded about a mile east from its northern terminus to connect with the Green Bay and Robert McClory trails.

One of the region’s most beloved multi-use trails, the North Branch currently stretches about 18 miles from Devon and Caldwell on Chicago’s Northwest Side, ending at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. It roughly parallels the North Branch of the river, meandering through lush forest preserve land where deer are a common sight. The path attracts over 250,000 users annually, partly because it's a convenient car-free route to the garden for both city dwellers and suburbanites.

For years the southern extension has appeared on local bike maps as a dotted line, indicating that it was proposed but not built. The proposal to extend the trail south has been around since 1995, according to Pamela Sielski, a landscape architect with the Forest Preserve District. “But we have over 100 miles of paved bike trails to maintain and many other projects and funding priorities,” she explains. “It’s like a house – you have a lot of things to take care of so you have to prioritize.”

The south trail extension will wind 3.1 miles from Devon and Caldwell through forest preserves to the Irene C. Hernandez Picnic Grove at Foster and Kostner. The roughly $8 million project is being bankrolled with federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds plus Forest Preserve District money. Construction should be completed by summer of 2014.

The new southern terminus will be less than a mile from an existing bike route that runs along Carmen Avenue, alternating between on- and off-street sections on its way to the North Shore Channel Trail. That trail currently leads north to Evanston and, with the addition of a new segment the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) is planning between Irving Park and Addison, will soon provide a nearly car-free passage as far south as Lakeview. While there are no current plans, Chicago’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 proposes to connect the North Branch Trail to the Carmen route and the North Shore Channel Trail via an on-street route of Keeler, Ainslie, Albany and Argyle according to CDOT spokesman Pete Scales.

Meanwhile, the extension of the North Branch from its northern terminus at the botanic garden will head .8 miles east along the south side of Lake-Cook Road, leading cyclists safely to a Metra line and Pace routes, as well as the Green Bay and McCormick trails. “Those paths go all the way to Wisconsin, so it’s going to be a really great regional trail system,” says Sielski. That $1.7 million project is funded by the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program (ITEP), plus money from the Forest Preserve District and the botanic garden. Construction should start this summer.

View Eastern Extension of North Branch Trail in a larger map

“Bringing the North Branch Trail south to Foster is a thrilling development,” says Active Transportation Alliance spokesman Ted Villaire. “It will allow more people in Northwest Side Chicago neighborhoods to access the botanic garden and the north suburbs with off-street biking routes. And the new trail along Lake-Cook Road will connect not only two of the great scenic trails in north Chicagoland - the North Branch Trail and the Green Bay Trail - but it will also provide a needed link between the Botanic Garden and Metra’s Union Pacific/North Line. As one of the organizations that helped secure funding for this new connector trail, we’re excited to see the trail get plenty of use by local residents and people throughout the region.”

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