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Beyond Chicagoland

The Chicago Region’s Bike-Friendly Rail Service Makes Car-Free Camping a Breeze

Carrying bikes aboard a Metra train. Photo: Andrew St. Paul, Out Our Front Door

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

I hate it when someone acknowledges that Chicago is a wonderful place in terms of architecture, art, music, and food, but whines that it’s too difficult to access outdoor adventure or natural beauty here. Sure, we’re not Denver or Seattle, or even Minneapolis, in that respect. But in addition to the fact that we live next to a watery wilderness in the form of Lake Michigan, we’ve got something that many of our peer cities lack: easy access to car-free camping.

Our wide-ranging and bicycle-friendly Metra commuter rail system offers multiple options for taking a train out to the exurbs and then pedaling a few miles to a forest preserve, natural area, or state park. (In contrast, in a recent op-ed in the Stranger, Chicago expat Dan Savage noted that Chicago’s regional rail system is “functional, not perfect,” but Seattle’s is almost nonexistent.)

We’re also the nation’s intercity rail hub. As the Reader’s Julia Thiel discussed last week, Amtrak and the South Shore Line train to South Bend recently became more bike-friendly. Amtrak, which has allowed unboxed bikes on downstate Illinois routes for many years, introduced roll-on service on its Blue Water train to Port Huron, Michigan, in 2013. And last year the service installed bike racks on the Hiawatha Line to Milwaukee and the Pere Marquette route to Grand Rapids.

Loaded bikes onboard a Metra train. Ezra Hozinsky, Green Machine Cycles
Bikes onboard a Metra train on the way back from Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine State Park. Ezra Hozinsky, Green Machine Cycles
Loaded bikes onboard a Metra train. Ezra Hozinsky, Green Machine Cycles

The South Shore Line, which dragged its feet about accommodating bikes for years, finally piloted a bikes-on-board program last year. It’s not perfect—bikes aren’t allowed on most weekday trains, nor are they permitted on all of the weekend runs, and you’re only allowed take them on and off the train at a handful of the Indiana stations, the ones that are wheelchair accessible. But these new bikes-on-trains policies open up several more options for communing with nature without polluting the environment on your way there.

The advantages of the train-and-bike combo as urban escape strategy were obvious during a ridiculously easy camping excursion I took over Memorial Day Weekend to Illinois Beach State Park, located just south of the Wisconsin border. Instead of joining the exodus on the Edens Expressway, I pedaled my touring bike, loaded with saddlebags and camping gear, a few minutes from my Uptown home to the Ravenswood station on Metra’s Union Pacific North line. After an hour or so of relaxing, reading, and snacking (you can also drink booze on the train if you like), I arrived in Zion, where it was only a couple of miles to the park. The whole trip took about an hour and 40 minutes—about the same as if I’d driven there in traffic, without all the stress.

The park’s beach is pebbly, and it lies in the shadow of the defunct Zion Nuclear Power Plant, but the leafy campground is a peaceful place to hang out, and there are plenty of scenic hiking and biking trails, as well an on-site resort hotel that would make a good destination for a romantic winter getaway. Backpacking is also an option for this trip, but it’s useful to have a bike to take a side excursion to the completely insane Gold Pyramid House, 37921 Dilley’s Rd., in nearby Wadsworth. It’s a six-story replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza, guarded by a 40-foot-tall statue of the pharaoh Ramses II.

Illinois Beach State Park. Andrew St. Paul, Out Our Front Door
Illinois Beach State Park. Andrew St. Paul, Out Our Front Door
Illinois Beach State Park. Andrew St. Paul, Out Our Front Door

Like Illinois Beach, the Indiana Dunes have also long been a popular destination for car-free camping, because the South Shore Line has stations within walking distance of campgrounds in both the state park and national lakeshore sections. But now that there’s the option of taking a bike with you instead of backpacking, that makes it easier to get to various trailheads for epic hikes along the giant mountains of sand, as well as make a run to cozy Shoreline Brewery, at 208 Wabash in Michigan City, Indiana.

Note that you can’t exit the train with a bike at Beverly Shores, the closest stop to the Dunewood Park campground, the nicer of the two sites. Therefore it’s necessary to detrain at the Dune Park stop and pedal a few miles east along the Calumet Trail, which parallels the tracks.

I’ve also used Amtrak’s bike-friendly intra-Illinois routes for countless downstate adventures—I have the perimeter of the state tattooed on my left arm to commemorate my pedaling, in stages, the entire outline of the Land of Lincoln. There’s a $20 roundtrip charge to bring along an unboxed bike. The Saluki route, a roughly five-hour trip ending in Carbondale, is great for accessing the surprisingly hilly southern tip of Illinois, and the many picturesque state parks in the Shawnee National Forest.

Riding the Kenosha County Trail on the way to camping at Kettle Moraine State Forest. Andrew St. Paul, Out Our Front Door

But the new roll-on service on Wisconsin and Michigan routes ($10 roundtrip bike surcharge on the Hiawatha, $20 on the Blue Water and the Pere Marquette) opens up some intriguing new possibilities. For example, from Milwaukee’s Amtrak station it’s a 56-mile bike ride to Kohler-Andre State Park near Sheboygan, one of my favorite camping spots in the Badger State, featuring miles of undulating lakeside boardwalk. Be sure to stop in the quaint, Cape Cod-like town of Port Washington to buy some locally smoked whitefish to enjoy by your campfire.

The Blue Water route’s New Buffalo stop would be handy for accessing the beaches of Harbor Country, as well as Warren Dunes State Park, 11 miles north along the coast, plus many inland campgrounds across the mitten-shaped lower Michigan peninsula.

The Pere Marquette line has a stop at Holland, the state’s tulip-growing capital, where it’s an eight-mile pedal to coastal Holland State Park. I once had a pleasantly existential moment there as I watched one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen, a fireball sinking into Lake Michigan to the west. If you’re feeling more ambitious, you could take a multi-day bike ride 175 miles up the coast from Holland to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, the gateway to the Manitou Islands.

Riding the Oak Savannah Trail to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Andrew St. Paul, Out Our Front Door

There’s not enough space here to enumerate all of the car-free camping excursions I’ve taken from Chicago during my 28 years here. But a few other standbys are Metra’s Milwaukee District North line to Fox Lake and Chain O’ Lakes State Park; Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route to Mendota and Starved Rock State Park; and Metra’s UP-North line to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Bong State Recreation Area—put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Heck, some buddies and I once even rode Amtrak’s Empire Builder route for two days all the way to Montana for a backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. The West Glacier station is a just a hop, skip, and a jump from the park entrance. When you live in a rail-rich city like Chicago, the car-free camping possibilities are endless.

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