Destinations

Bike Ride on the Chicago’s Lakefront Trail

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During my recent visit to Chicago I have decided to go for a bike ride on the Chicago’s Lakefront Trail. I have seen many pictures of the trail, and wanted to see if it is as great as it appears…

Chicago's Lakefront Trail
This is a kind of image of the Lakefront Trail you see in travel brochures.

Lakefront Trail

The Lakefront Trail is an 18.5-mile paved path that follows the Lake Michigan shoreline. It extends from Ardmore Street (5800 N. Sheridan Rd) in the north to 71st Street (7100 S. South Shore Drive) on the south side, going through a number of lakefront neighborhoods, including Edgewater, Uptown, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, South Loop, Bronzeville and Hyde Park.

Bike Ride on the Chicago's Lakefront Trail
Busier section of the Lakefront Trail just north of downtown.

The trail is used by walkers, runners, in-line skaters and cyclists. Therefore, expect it to be busy at any time. I rode the trail on Wednesday. Middle of the week. Part of it in the late morning, part of it in the mid to late afternoon.  And it was busy! The southern half of the trail, maybe south of the 31st Street Beach was definitely the least busy.

Bike Ride on the Chicago's Lakefront Trail
The section south of downtown is a lot less busy.

Expect the cyclists on the trail to not be very polite. They will fly by you, if you are going slower, without any warning (like the usual: “passing on the left”), and pass you only inches away. Sometimes at high speed. Sometimes on the left, but if they can’t – then on the right. Maybe they are used to the high traffic, but I found it unsafe.

The trail is paved or concrete and fairly smooth. It is mostly flat, but occasionally there are some inclines to climb. At times, it directly follows the lakefront, providing some amazing views of Lake Michigan. However, often, it diverts inland, going by many beaches, parks, marinas, and some other attractions that lie between the trail and the lake.

Chicago's Lakefront Trail
Very rarely there is a busy street to cross.

Unfortunately, the trail is squeezed between the busy Lake Shore Dr and the shoreline. And quite often it gets close to that very busy, with constant traffic, street. So, you are exposed to exhaust fumes, and a LOT of road noise!

Chicago's Lakefront Trail
When the trail gets close to Lake Shore Dr the traffic noise level gets pretty high.

The Lakefront Trail is open 24 hours a day, but the parks and beaches along the path close at 11 PM.

There are bike rentals in few places along the trail, and in the nearby areas of the city. And, I have seen many riders on the trail using rentals.

There are many attractions along the path. Some of them (listed from south to north) are the South Shore Cultural Center, the Museum of Science and Industry, McCormick Place, Soldier Field, Chicago’s Museum Campus, Monroe Harbor, Navy Pier and Belmont Harbor.

Chicago's Lakefront Trail
Navy Pier, still at the distance. The trail passes by it. However, the bicycles are not allowed to be ridden on Navy Pier.

According to one official website: “There are few trails in the country that can match the Lakefront Path’s blend of beauty and functionality.” I have to agree that for active residents of Chicago the trail is definitely of a great benefit. I don’t know many other cities, that preserved and provided for public use its almost entire lakefront. It is very unusual, at least in the U.S.

Bike Ride on the Chicago's Lakefront Trail
Downtown Chicago skyline seen from the trail

Safety

I, normally, do not include a section on safety on biking trails. However, Chicago is one of the most dangerous cities in the country, and my personal experience during my short visit prompted me to include it here.

Something, that surprised me, was the amount of patrols in parking lots and on the trail itself. I don’t know if it is because of the number of people using the trail, or because some disturbance or crime occurs fairly regularly, but there is a steady and frequent police presence on the busy parts of the trail. During my ride, I saw few two-person patrols on bikes. So, in comparison, one of the busiest bike trail in Detroit suburbs, that I ride on, on the regular basis, is also patrolled by police. But I see them, maybe twice…, three times a year. They don’t have to patrol it very often, because it is very safe… Going back to Lakefront Trail, on one hand it is nice to see regular and frequent police patrols, but on the other hand, do they suggest that crime and other issues are pretty frequent occurrence?!

Personal Experience

I was a victim of a crime during my one day visit to Chicago. For my second ride, I parked at the 3100 block of Lake Shore Dr, in a parking lot of Fort Dearborn Dr. I always lock my car. But something happened this time. Either I did not press the button hard enough, or I clicked by mistake the “OPEN” button. Anyway, it appears, I left the car unlocked (even though I still find it hard to believe, but there were no signs of forced entry). I was gone biking for four hours, and when I came back, some items were gone from the vehicle… So, be careful when you are out there. Make sure your car is locked. Don’t leave anything of value in full sight.

Chicago's Lakefront Trail
Lakefront Trail often passes by beaches and parks

Final Thoughts

The Lakefront Trail is a quite scenic trail providing for some spectacular views of Lake Michigan, nice beaches along, Chicago’s downtown skyline and some other man-made attractions. However, it is very busy at any times, and therefore, in many spots, it does not provide for a relaxed ride, because you have to watch constantly for other trail users. There are sections, where bike ride on the Lakefront Trail can be stressful instead of relaxing.

Also, in sections that get close to Lake Shore Dr,  the bike ride on the Lakefront Trail is unpleasant because of constant and quite high traffic noise from the road. This is definitely something that you can’t deduct from the peaceful and scenic images of the trail in Chicago travel brochures.

So, in my opinion, the Lakefront Trail is not worth a special trip to bike on it… However, if you are visiting Chicago for another reason, and have nothing else to do, it might be worth renting a bike and going for a ride on it, or at least some nicer sections of it.

If you do, be careful out there. I would say especially, if you go all the way to trail’s south end. Along the last few miles I did not see many other cyclists.

Bike Ride on the Chicago's Lakefront Trail
Besides mile markers, there are signs for all the attractions along the trail. There are also block numbers (painted on the pavement) of Lake Shore Dr providing easy reference to where you are relative to the city blocks.

My Ratings

Scenery (0-boring, 10-breathtaking): 10.0 (quite often you are riding along the lake, by some scenic beaches, or parks; also downtown’s skyline is amazing, as viewed from the sections of the trail)

Easy-to-Follow (0-no maps, often broken into section without clear directions, 10-well marked with maps showing current location): 10.0 (very well marked with distance markers every 0.5 a mile. I have not seen any printed maps available, nor could find a good map on-line.)

Food Access (0-no food facilities at all, 10-food available every few miles): 7.0 (many choices along, but not immediately of the trail)

Restrooms (0-none, 10-moderen restrooms every few miles): 3.0 (I have seen only one porta along the trail. I am sure there are more restrooms at the parks and the beaches, but I was surprised that there were not more along the trail, especially with the amount of people using it.)

Surface Quality: 10.0 (fairly smooth, all paved or concrete)

Accessibility: 7.0 (many trailheads with parking lots; relatively easy to access. All parking lots require payment. Some are quite expensive!)

Usage (0-not used at all, 10-extremely popular): 10.0 (high usage, most of the time)

Hills (0-completely flat, 10-Extremely hilly): 1.0 (occasional hills in a form of man-made bridges)

Sun/Shade (0-no shade at all, 10-competely shaded): 1.0 (very little shade)

Chicago's Lakefront Trail
There are many pedestrian bridges connecting the trail to the city over the busy Lake Shore Dr.

Resources

Chicago Park District  

Chicago's Lakefront Trail

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Rich S. is a lifetime photographer and traveler based in Metro Detroit area. He has been traveling the Great Lakes area for over 30 years. Follow his blog about his trips, interesting activities and destinations in the Great Lakes region.

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