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A day trip using Metra to explore Chicago’s suburban trails, forest preserves, and breweries

Metra's "Rails, Trails, and Ales" promotion was the perfect opportunity to get out and explore the southwest suburbs along the Des Plaines River.

Waiting for the Heritage Corridor train in Romeoville. Photo: AJ LaTrace

This post is sponsored by The Bike Lane.

Having Metra rail connect the core of Chicago with the broader metropolitan area — including Indiana and Wisconsin — is one of the greatest perks of riding bikes in this region. The commuter railroad offers bike riders the ability to take a quick day trip, plan a weekend bikepacking adventure, or even leave on a more ambitious regional (or national) bicycle tour.

Biking downtown on Jackson Boulevard over the Dan Ryan Expressway towards Union Station. Photo: AJ LATrace

Recently, Metra launched a promotion along its Heritage Corridor — which starts in Union Station and follows the Des Plaines River southwest to Joliet — aimed at cyclists. Dubbed “Rails, Trails and Ales,” the promo saw Metra run three round-trip trains with its new bike cars six Saturdays from early September through mid-October. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to get out and explore the southwest suburbs along the Des Plaines River.

Another perk of the promotion was the $7 Saturday day pass that allowed purchasers to take unlimited rides along the route — particularly for those who planned to imbibe in the “ales” part of the promotion. A supplemental map for the promotion highlighted attractions and things to do along the route, including five breweries.

Map of breweries and other landmarks along the Heritage Corridor route. Image: Metra

But perhaps the biggest draw for bicyclists is the direct access to the Palos Trail System, the John Husar I&M Canal Trail, and Centennial Trail

Described as the “grand daddy of trail systems in the Chicago area” by the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers volunteer organization, Palos features winding singletrack trails for all levels of experience. The paved portions of the Husar I&M Canal Trail and Centennial Trail run parallel along the Des Plaines River between Willow Springs and Lemont. 

For my trip, fellow journalist Daniel McMahon and I planned a leisurely 14-mile ride between Willow Springs and Romeoville. 

There was, of course, an option to keep riding out towards Joliet, should time allow. However, with just three round-trip trains scheduled for the day, we had to plan accordingly so that we wouldn’t miss the single morning train from Union Station or the early-evening train back home to the city. 

Metra's bike cars can easily be identified by the bicycle symbol on the side of the train car.  Photo: AJ LaTrace

We got to Union Station with time to spare and carried our hybrid bikes on the train and secured them in the bike car. These train cars have individual parking "stalls" for 16 bikes. The rider places either the front or rear wheel of their bike on an elevated rack and then secures it with the attached belt and bucket. It’s a significant upgrade from the traditional passenger car that only had room for roughly five cycles secured to folded-up seats that would otherwise be used for seating passengers. 

The entire lower level of the bike car is outfitted with racks that secure up to 16 bicycles. Photo: AJ LaTrace.

Our first stop after getting off at Willow Springs was 2 Bici Bicycle Shop, which is owned and operated by former Cycle Smithy store manager and Bike Shop Society podcast host, Joe Gaspar. (I worked at Cycle Smithy myself long ago.) Afterwards, we headed straight for the I&M Canal Trail, which is literally one-tenth of a mile away from the Metra station. 

Staff at 2 Bici Bicycle Shop. Photo: AJ LaTrace

Once on the trail itself, riders will find it to be a quiet, low stress path through the woods away from drivers. It felt like a much-welcomed reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city where car traffic has only worsened in recent years. And of course, the early autumn crisp air and clear skies were another plus.

A bench next to the path by the canal. Photo: AJ LaTrace

The trail winds through different forest preserves and industrial corridors. It’s a uniquely Midwestern — or more specifically, Great Lakes region — experience where nature and heavy industry coexists. We pedaled along without any major disruption and stopped at points to hang out at a couple of the park benches placed along the route. 

A quiet, leafy stretch of the I&M Canal Trail. Photo: AJ LaTrace

We were passed by other riders at several points, but the trail was relatively quiet compared to Chicago's Lakefront Trail and the mostly north-suburban North Branch Trail. For people seeking a long stretch to log miles on a bicycle without any hassle or crowds, the I&M Canal Trail provides that.

The trail opens up and goes through various industrial corridors. Photo: AJ LaTrace

We eventually arrived at our destination, Metal Monkey Brewing in Romeoville, and grabbed a quick beer. Coincidentally, it was also the brewery’s last weekend in business.

An old steel truss bridge hangs over the bike path. Photo: AJ LaTrace

Getting to the Romeoville Metra station from the brewery was the only real hectic part of the trip. There was only a narrow shoulder along the two-mile stretch of Romeo Road that we had to take. And then there was construction on the bridge that passed over the canal, which was a bit hazardous to navigate.

Having a beer with fellow journalist Daniel McMahon at Metal Monkey Brewing.

On the ride back, we ran into most of the same group of people who took the same train from Union Station. After chatting a bit, it turned out that a couple of them were Metra employees who worked on the schedule for the promotion, one who was in operations, and another who sourced and ordered the bike racks for the train. It’s interesting to hear about and understand some of the complexities of scheduling routes on a rail that is shared by commuter and commercial rail. 

With the great weather and in the spirit of “ales and trails,” we finally finished our ride at Pilot Project brewery incubator and tasting room on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square for one final beer before parting ways. 

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