The Best Mountain Bike Rides Near Chicago

To the unfamiliar, the sprawling metropolis of Chicago may not seem like a hub of outdoor recreation; however, there are numerous riding opportunities if you know where to look. Whether you want to take the kids on a family outing, improve your skills, enjoy some flow or escape for the weekend, the trail systems around the Chicago area provide abundant opportunities. With options that range from easy to advanced, mountain bikers of any level can find a ride within two hours of downtown Chicago. Always check trail conditions before you head out, and check in with CAMBr (the Chicago Chapter of IMBA) for local group rides.

Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve

  •       Location: Chesterton, IN, in Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve, 47 miles southeast of Chicago
  •       Length: 3.2-mile round-trip loop
  •       Difficulty Rating: Beginner
  •       Best For: A great place to bring the family for an outing
  •      Dogs: Leashed

Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve is a large complex filled with wetlands, prairies and woods that’s home to numerous plant and animal species. A popular spot for naturalists, hikers, runners and bikers, the preserve also offers a variety of classes, workshops and races throughout the year, making this a great place to bring the whole family. With abundant wildlife, bridges, ponds and some nice overlooks, this ride won’t disappoint. The route navigates through most of the preserve, and the gravel and brick-paved trail surfaces make it an easy ride for beginner riders of all ages.

The ride begins by following the eastern side of the loop on a fine gravel surface. It loops along the edge of the woods, in places getting close to Coffee Creek. This is what really makes the ride! You’ll get to see and hear all kinds of wildlife around the creek, and the gravel surface allows for easy riding with the kiddos. When the route reaches the southern end, it crosses the creek via a bridge which offers an excellent viewpoint of the creek. Where the trail turns to pavers, you can take a quick jaunt north to Trellis Overlook for a break and a snack. Though younger kids might be getting tired at this point, there is only about one mile left in the ride; however, if needed, from this spot it is also possible to cut straight back to the parking area. The last mile heads along the western perimeter of the preserve, following a brick-paved trail that makes for easy riding. After looping past a pond, you’ll follow a short boardwalk before jumping onto gravel and pavers back to your car. This route is heavily trafficked by walkers and joggers, so keep your speed under control and respect other users. 

Beulah Beginner Loop

  •       Location: Zion, IL, in Beulah Park, 57 miles north of Chicago
  •       Length: 2.4-mile round-trip loop
  •       Difficulty Rating: Beginner/intermediate
  •       Best For: A pleasant family-friendly spin through the woods of Zion
  •      Dogs: Leashed

At first glance, Beulah Park seems like an ordinary city park. However, it is quickly becoming a biking destination near Chicago thanks to the effort of the city of Zion and Chicago Area Mountain Bikers (CAMBr). While many rides in the Chicago area can be intimidating, this one is a great option for new riders eager to improve their skills on the dirt, families looking for an easy ride with young kids or even more advanced riders who want to test their handling skills at speed.

The trails are mostly packed dirt that twist and turn through the park, with the occasional root, rock or optional feature along the trail. The ride starts on the paved Zion Bike Trail that heads into the heart of the system to the main trail junction dividing the park into eastern and western halves. This spot can get a little busy, so watch for oncoming traffic. Riders then make two loops around the western side of the park. First take the Outer West (Purple Loop), where a couple alternative features like berms and flowy turns offer up a small challenge. Once back at the main junction, take the Inner West (Orange Loop) clockwise. Just over halfway along the loop, stop in at the Skills Area to get a little practice on some obstacles such as log rides and stepped skinnies. Continue on the Inner West Loop to end back at the main junction, then head back along the paved Zion Bike Trail to finish up your ride. If the Beulah Beginner Loop wasn’t enough, there are plenty of trails on the east side of the park, including a well-developed skills park that has recently gained popularity with local riders.

Raceway Woods

  •       Location: Sleepy Hollow, IL, in Raceway Woods Forest Preserve, 43 miles northwest of Chicago
  •       Length: 4.5-mile round-trip loop
  •       Difficulty Rating: Intermediate
  •       Best For: Getting a workout on a fast trail with options for obstacles
  •      Dogs: Leashed

A highly rated system, Raceway Woods Forest Preserve has some multiuse trails that are open to mountain bikers of any skill level—as long as they ride within their limits. Though the mountain biking system isn’t terribly extensive, the nature of the trails makes up for the shorter distance. This ride uses almost every trail open to bikes and, except for one section, is accessible even to newer riders and kids. On top of all that, there are weekly Tuesday night group rides. Since there are also hikers, runners and horseback riders that use the preserve, stay alert while on the trails to avoid any conflicts.

Most of the trails used by this ride are rated as beginner or beginner/intermediate, and as such, the area is accessible to most riders. Head west out of the parking lot toward the trails, and take a right to head north on Little Monza to climb a meandering forest trail. At a three-way junction with Corkscrew and Silo Hill Trail, take a right to wind down the aptly named Corkscrew; the trail is quite narrow and features some tight turns. Continue south and tackle the punchy climb that takes you to Serpentine Trail. As you start this section, stay right for the easier route, or go left for the more technical line. The trail spins around the southern end of the park, pops out of the trees, then winds north. When you reach the split, take a right on Scarab’s Revenge Trail for a little extra mileage. Head north along some fast and flowing trail up onto Silo Hill Trail—a rather steep and punchy climb—then take a final spin on Little Monza back to the parking lot.

Palos Tour

  •       Location: Willow Springs, IL, in Palos Forest Preserve, 21 miles southwest of Chicago
  •       Length: 15.3-mile round-trip loop
  •       Difficulty Rating: Intermediate
  •       Best For: Getting in a workout on a fast trail without too much tech
  •      Dogs: Leashed

The Palos Forest Preserve is one of the oldest mountain biking spots in the Chicago area. When combined with other preserves and parks in the region, there are around 50 miles of trails that can entertain riders for days. This route takes you into the heart of Palos Preserve, passing several lakes and sloughs along the way, while providing a fast and slightly technical ride that more experienced riders will enjoy. This is not a family-friendly ride. Instead, it draws intermediate riders looking to push their limits and more advanced riders wanting to rip along some trails. It’s true that there are a few technical features, but everything has a bypass or is walkable. Skilled riders will love the combination of speed and features.

Begin the ride at the Maple Lake East parking lot. The trails take you past Maple Lake via nice and easy wooded singletrack that ends in a short section of road. After this mellow warm-up, the trails increase in intensity with some switchbacks, tight turns, waterbars, berms and a few climbs and descents. The ride eases for a bit but then quickly takes you down into the XX Extension, one of the more challenging sections of the park. Rock gardens and narrow trails await those who head this way. Don’t worry—if gnar is not your style, this out-and-back extension is easily avoided. Continue the ride through the rolling whoops of Three Ravines, then zip through some bermed switchbacks and flowy singletrack. You’ll pass through some of the most scenic sections of the park as you finish up the ride.

Saw Wee Kee Loop

  •       Location: Lynwood, IL, in Saw Wee Kee Park, 51 miles west of Chicago
  •       Length: 7.1-mile round-trip loop
  •       Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/advanced
  •       Best For: Improving or testing your riding skills
  •      Dogs: No dogs

Some love from the Oswegoland Park District helped develop Saw Wee Kee Park from a former gravel pit into a thriving recreation spot. Mountain biking is the highlight of the park, but there are plenty of other things to do while visiting, including hiking, boating, fishing and wildlife viewing. This little park along the shore of the Fox River is a scenic spot to enjoy the day. The natural setting is inviting, and the flowy trails are a riot to zip along. Though the elevation profile may look tame, you’ll face some unexpectedly punchy climbs.

If you believe the rumors, the trails at the park were named after amusement park rides and roller-coasters, and, boy, does that hit the mark. The trails here may be short, but the area is well designed so you hardly notice the transitions as you swoop along. The old piles of mined earth make for tough climbs and swooping descents as you rip around these trails. Leaving Parking Lot #2, turn right to head south on some fun singletrack before joining Lolligagger, which takes you to the southern section. Take a spin or two around these more technical and rolling trails before heading back north. Zip along through the northern section of the park as the trail rolls, winds, drops and climbs through the woods. In the unlikely event that you haven’t yet figured out why these trails are named after roller-coasters, you’ll understand once you get on Anaconda. A pulse-quickening finish to the ride, Anaconda flows around tight corners, up tough and dynamic climbs, down through the trees and over loose rocks. There are blind corners, though, so watch out for oncoming traffic.

Andrews University Full Tour

  •       Location: Berrien Springs, MI, at Andrews University, 94 miles east of Chicago
  •       Length: 8.6-mile round-trip loop
  •       Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/advanced
  •       Best For: Riders with gumption wanting a workout
  •      Dogs: Leashed

Located in southwestern Michigan, the trails at Andrews University are tough and technical, making them well worth the 95-mile drive from Chicago—particularly if you’re already on the east side of the city. Though frequented by students, the multiuse trails are available to the community and are open from dawn to dusk. Check the local trails page for conditions and updates before heading out. As you zip along these trails, be sure to keep an eye out for hikers and runners—and yield appropriately.

From the parking lot off Campbell Road, you’ll follow a quick descent to Green Trail. This loop is rather convoluted, so stay alert as you make your way to the other trails in the system. You’ll descend a couple of switchbacks, cross an unmarked trail and climb through the woods before picking up the Orange Trail. You won’t be on the Orange Trail long before it drops you off at the Blue Trail which is generally considered the best in the system. It’s fast and flowy as it winds through bowls and corkscrew curves. When you reach the second entrance to Red Trail, stay right and follow it clockwise around the northern end of the system. The turns can get a bit technical, but the straightaway back south offers good flow and the chance to recover before jumping back into the challenges of the Blue Trail. Climb up to the Orange Trail and head right for a rugged, rooted descent before hitting the first of several punchy climbs. This grueling up-and-down pattern is punctuated by some technical features that typically require less experienced riders to hike their bikes. Once you hit the Green Trail, follow it back and enjoy the easier rolling nature of the Pink Trail to the parking lot.

Kettle Scuttle

  •       Location: Palmyra, WI, in Kettle Moraine State Forest, 103 miles northwest of Chicago
  •       Length: 29.6-mile round-trip loop
  •       Difficulty Rating: Intermediate/advanced
  •       Best For: A long day out or a great weekend trip
  •      Dogs: Leashed

If you’re looking for a longer trip, the Kettle Moraine State Forest – Southern Unit is an ideal destination. With camping nearby and more than 30 miles of biking trails, this is a great place to spend the weekend. If you’re bringing any non-bikers, there are plenty of other activities to keep them entertained while you shred the trails. A $5 daily or $25 annual State Trail Pass is required to ride the trails. If you plan on riding Kettle Scuttle in one go, be sure to bring everything you need for a long day out, including water, food, an extra layer and a basic maintenance kit. At just under 30 miles of singletrack, this ride is a hearty undertaking. Though it’s a long ride, Kettle Scuttle is well designed and easy to follow, making it perfect for intermediate riders looking to push themselves and advanced riders on the hunt for a long, flowy ride.

These trails are directional, so be sure you’re heading the correct way. Begin the ride at the John Muir Mountain Bike Trailhead and head south on the Blue Loop. The ride starts out on some tight and twisty singletrack before entering flatter and sandier sections around some kettle lakes. Don’t get too used to the easy riding, as you’ll quickly find yourself at Hell’s Kitchen, a section of steep climbing with tight switchbacks littered with rocks and roots. Continue heading north on the Blue Loop as other trails join and again diverge. When you reach the connector trails, take the Connector – North, a mostly singletrack trail that winds north through forests and meadows. This does occasionally merge with the Connector – South trail, so if you’re feeling tired, there are multiple opportunities to turn back. You’ll be greeted with a nice overlook of Spring Lake and Palmryra once you reach the Green Loop in the Emma Carlin section of the forest. Take a break and enjoy it because things are about to get technical. The Green Loop is rocky and narrow and has some steep climbs and descents throughout. When done with the Green Loop up north, simply follow the Connector – South back to the Blue Loop, which will end at the parking lot.

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