Well, howdy there, folks! I’m your Salt Creek Bicycle Trail guide, here to take you on a tour full of fun, adventure, and exercise. So, are you biking, hiking, jogging, roller skating, or just plain walking? Maybe you’re pushing a baby stroller or you’ve got your dog with you.
It appears to me that things will move on a mite quicker if we do this by bike, but everything looks pretty much the same, even if you’re not riding on two wheels. So get your bikes out of the garage and dust off the rust. Oil up the wheels, check the brakes, and fill up the tires with air. Speaking of filling up, be sure to bring along a snack and a bottle of water or juice, too.
Have you gotten hold of a Salt Creek Bicycle Trail folder, issued by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County?
You know those folders only tell part of the story. The maps are useful, but how do you get on the trail? What if it rains? Is there shelter? And, most important of all, are there lavatories, and where are they? See, it helps to have an old trail guide like myself, who’s been traveling it since back in the olden days, the 1960s.
Well, let’s start from the beginning. Did you know that it was back in the April, 1932 that 50 men first started to create a “trail for hikers to start at 22nd Street and Salt Creek, and end at the ‘Hollywood Zoo'”? This was a Depression work relief program that existed before any begun by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Regular trails for hikers were made, with orange markers which started at 22nd Street, following Salt Creek, and ended up at the zoo. So, funny enough, the trail wasn’t originally intended for bicycles.
Time passed, and bicycles did ride the trail, even though it wasn’t paved with asphalt. Back then, it was crushed stone you walked or rode on. You couldn’t jog or roller skate on its uneven surface until asphalt was laid in the 1980s.
But that was then, and this is now, right? How do you get on the trail today? Well, let’s get on it at Brookfield Woods. Where’s that? No, I don’t mean Kiwanis Park.
To get to Brookfield Woods, we go to the north side of Prairie Avenue and 31st Street, then go east, towards the zoo. After we cross the bridge over Salt Creek, keep on going. You walkers or bike riders will have noticed that besides the sidewalk on the bridge, there is no paved walk and you’re walking in the grass or on hard muddy ground, just inches away from autos zooming at you.
On the left is a roadway and a sign with peeling, faded paint, with words announcing the “Forest Preserve Brookfield Woods.” Take notice that the name of the president of the Forest Preserve, John H. Stroger Jr., is easily readable. Go up the forest preserve’s parking lot. If you’ve been here, park.
Now just walk or bike it up to the trail’s beginning, on the right hand side of the grass circle. By the way, there’s a shelter, picnic tables and also bathroom facilities here.
On a map sign, it shows that the trail goes all the way to Bemis Woods, a mere 6.6 miles away. You feel up to that long walk? Or bike ride? Will your leg muscles be in pain tomorrow? Well, nobody said you had to go on the whole trail. Why not just travel on a part of it?
Like Jim Orders, a resident of Broadview, who cycled from 17th Street (Maple Avenue) to Mannheim (LaGrange Road), and then from Mannheim to here, the eastern origin point. Along the way, Orders said he saw hawks and blue herons. Yes, the trail is a bird watcher’s paradise, even this early in the season.
Ride single file now. The trail is split in two, just like a real road, with a yellow line painted down the middle. Going along on the trail, we come to a normal road, and go left and follow it, past the zoo’s north parking lot on the right, until we link up with the asphalt trail again.
Now the real fun begins. We pass through a field, and then through the woods. There’s a dirt side path to the right. Actually, it goes to North Riverside, and comes out on the corner of 7th Avenue and 26th Street. This is an unpaved way onto the trail, about 400 feet long.
Back on the main trail, further on, there’s another path on our right, but this one is paved, and leads to the corner of 9th Avenue and Forestview Drive, still in North Riverside. This path is much shorter, only about 250 feet long.
We next come to some rustic wooden fences, like many along the trail. This one’s creekside, on the left. Then cross 17th Street (Maple Avenue), and be ready for a steep decline of the trail on the other side. Sooner or later you will spy an overgrown dirt path on your left, which is not great for bikes, and a challenge for foot travelers. This leads to 26th Street, but in LaGrange Park.
Continuing along the main trail, welcome to the Forest Preserve’s 26th Street Woods, Grove No. 2 trail entrance/exit, at Harrison and 26th Streets, still in LaGrange Park. Here we have a picnic shelter, tables and bathroom facilities. Then down the trail, we pass by two short dirt paths to it, on the left. These are at Cleveland and 26th streets.
After going through the woods, we hit Kemman Avenue, which can be quite infested by autos, especially during rush hours from 3 to 6 p.m. Cross here carefully.
Now comes another steep decline, and the creek’s on our right, and then we go through the woods. There before us is the underpass tunnel below the trackbed of the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad. You remember? Those danged freight trains are always blocking up Harding and 31st streets. Here we’ve put one over on them!
A word of caution. The tunnel is 6 feet high at the sides, and 7 feet high in the exact center. If you are cycling, this can be a dangerous area, especially on weekends and holidays. Watch out for people who have stopped in the tunnel to hear their echo.
Away from the tunnel, there appears, on the left, a wide dirt path. This one will take us, if we so choose, to the Village Field Club’s swimming pool, which is a private pool operating from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Following this rough path takes us along the backs of homes on Forest Preserve Drive, in LaGrange Park. Eventually the path links up with the main paved trail.
But let’s say we pass up the swimming pool path and continue along the main trail. This takes us through some very beautiful woods, with, on the left, small mysterious side paths ready to lead us astray.
Now we come to “Horseshoe Curve,” which is a sharp turn that can give you some grief, especially if you are racing on a bike, which is against the Rules of the Trail. You might end up being unable to turn, and hitting a tree.
Coming off the curve, there’s the western part of the “pool path” on the left, and also a path on the right. This path leads to the Brezina Woods’ parking lots, shelters and lavatories. If we take this shortcut to the main trail on the opposite side, we must keep a sharp eye out for the many potholes in these lots. On weekends and holidays, these parking lots are filled with cars.
So let’s take the safe trail, even if it is a little longer. We’ll head south and take a right, going along backs of homes along Stonegate Road in LaGrange Park. As we go down a ways, there’s a split in the wooden fence, and a cement sidewalk that gets to within 10 feet of the trail. This walk is another entrance/exit located between 109 and 117 Stonegate.
On we go, and back into the woods, finding a split in the trail. The left trail goes only a short way, and is cut off. The right trail takes us to the main entrance road to Brezina Woods, and continues on the other side. A small stop sign faces us trail users, and is meant for us to obey. Or else we might get flattened by an auto.
I hope your legs can handle the rise in the trail here going into the woods. But once you’re up, you’re on level surface again. On your right, and far below, is The Swamp. In the late spring and summer, you can hear all sorts of creatures down there. I swear I’ve heard bullfrogs.
By the way, we are truly in deer territory now, so keep your eyes peeled. I have seen many but, unfortunately, never seem to have a camera with me at the time.
Watch out for that tree limb overhead, across the trail. It has been hanging like this for four months and hasn’t fallen yet, but who knows? Duck your head, anyway.
Finally we come to the bridge over Salt Creek, and the busy corner of 22nd Street (Cermak) and Mannheim Road. Here is a steep path down to the forest, used mostly by mountain bikers. Perhaps even more dangerous is the auto and truck traffic. Cross Mannheim quickly, watching for autos turning left. Some people on the trail just turn around and go back before even trying to cross.
So you’ve made it to the other side! Congratulations! Go along, back of the bus shelter, and connect up with the trail again, which goes straight for awhile, then meanders through the woods.
Also meandering along with the trail is good old Salt Creek, on our left. The creek moves so slowly here at times that you might think it was made of runny, muddy Jello.
In no time we come to 31st Street, where a blue sign reads “Forest Preserve Reforestation, Planted 1958,” with the Forest Preserve District’s official seal. Somehow, John H. Stroger Jr. never got around to having his name slapped onto this sign.
Now comes the tricky business of trying to cross 31st Street. This is a tough road to cross, so watch out. Then we come to a street on the other side that has a sign saying “No Outlet.” But going down it far enough, the trail continues.
Down further, on the left, there’s another part of the bike trail that will not take you to your final destination, Bemis Woods. Along this trail is a sign saying “Caution. Do not use bicycle route when flooded. Proceed at your own risk.” The trail is dry, so we’ll move on, coming to the steel bridge over Salt Creek. It was made by the Continental Bride Company, and looks very much like the pedestrian bridge over Salt Creek on Brookfield Avenue in Brookfield. But here the bridge has never seen rock salt, and so is in mighty fine condition.
A little way on, this side trail comes out on the corner of Brainard and Jackson avenues in LaGrange Park. Here is a boulder and plaque, commemorating the installation of the bridge and side trail on June 14, 1997.
Back on the main trail again, comes up another “Horseshoe Curve,” and then yet another side trail, unmarked and unpaved, leading off into the mysterious woods. Will we ever get to Bemis?
Suddenly, on the left is a concrete and limestone shelter, with an actual, useable fireplace. This is a very welcome sight if you’re stuck on the trail when rain starts coming down. There are pieces of glass on the ground around here, so tread carefully.
The Wolf Road Crossing at last! If you’re cycling, work your brakes here, because when the trail approaches Wolf Road, the trail slopes so sharply that you could find yourself shooting out into traffic that’s roaring by at 40 mph.
It’s not easy to cross this street, but be patient, because both sides of the road may, quite suddenly, be traffic free. Now run across like your life depended on it. ‘Cause it might. The trail begins again on the other side of the bridge, and down left.
Not far to go now. Here we have come six miles, with only .6 remaining. The creek is on our right, and few footpaths lead down to it. The end at last! Welcome to South Bemis Woods, Groves No. 5-8.
The entrance road is on our left, here it comes in off of Ogden Avenue. Here, autos going into the parking lots must travel at 15 mph, although someone has markered up a speed sign with a “1” in front, making the limit 115 mph. No drivers seem to believe they can go that fast, though.
So, had enough exercise yet? If not, there are many foot paths inside South Bemis, leading to North Bemis Woods. Or maybe you’d just like to rest a while, before we go back the 6.6 miles to Brookfield Woods. And then there are still some side paths to explore. Well, that concludes our tour. See you all on the trail!