Nicknamed the Prairie State, Illinois is a literal wonderland of mountain biking trails, with courses designed to please riders of all ages and ability levels. Located in the breathtaking Midwestern and Great Lakes region of the United States, Illinois is the 5th-most populous state in the union, despite being only the 25th-largest in terms of total area. Most of this population density is found in the state’s largest cities, including a division known as Chicagoland, comprised of the massive city of Chicago and its many suburbs.
The terrain of Illinois is somewhat diverse. Though most of the state lies entirely in the Interior Plains, it does have some minor variation in its elevation. In extreme northwestern Illinois, for example, a region known as the Driftless Area has some higher and therefore more rugged terrain, and Charles Mound, located in this region, has the state’s highest elevation above sea level at 1,235 feet (376 m). Other highland areas include the Shawnee Hills in the south, and there is varying topography along the state’s rivers.
Illinois’ beautiful cityscapes and virtually untouched wilderness areas makes it a haven for mountain biking enthusiasts. To illustrate this point, below we have highlighted five of the state’s most popular trail systems, and provided a brief description of each location.
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The fun and rapid trail system at Kickapoo provides a real treat for the region’s mountain biking fans. Located in the small town of Oakwood, this 14-mile collection of courses is strictly directional, meaning most riders opt to ride in a counterclockwise direction as they commence upon their ride from the course’s trailhead.
The trail system features hard-packed single track with an assortment of log jumps, dips, breathless climbs and some very fast sections that are noted for their even flow. Some of the descents on this highly-rated and well-ridden trail offer riders the exciting opportunity to maximize their speed—speeds that are only regulated by the course’s many switchbacks and technically challenging obstacles.
Riders at Kickapoo are certain to encounter a small number of shallow water crossings and a slew of manmade impediments. Taken together, the speed and uphill difficulty of this 14-mile course, as well as the several trail bailouts and connections, make each trip to this gem of a trail a new and truly distinct adventure.
Situated in the town of Willow Springs, Illinois, the Bullfrog Lake Recreational Area is home to some 50 miles of pristine and well-maintained trails, with a variety of tracks/loops for every level of rider. The beginner-level courses are mostly wide and flat, although the lack of any significant climbs does enable riders to build up some bike-rattling speeds along certain, flatter sections of the course. These tracks feature some mild and fairly easily-navigable obstacles—just enough to help novice riders build their confidence and practice their bike handling skills.
The blue-dot or intermediate-level courses at Bullfrog Lake definitely represent a step up on the difficulty scale, mostly because of the increased frequency of the impediments and the change in elevation. On these trails riders will face some fairly steep and rocky climbs, but the exhilaration of the descents make each of these uphill sections well worth the effort.
Riders who opt to tackle this mixed-level multipurpose system of trails will undoubtedly enjoy all of its beautiful scenery, as the trail winds its way through the Bullfrog Lake Preserve, and into the Red Gate, Wolf Road, McMahon, Pulaski and Willow Springs woods—a trek that showcases all the splendor the state of Illinois has to offer.
Saw Wee Kee Park
Located in the town of Oswego, Illinois, Saw Wee Kee Park is truly one of the hidden treasures of the state’s mountain biking scene.
The 10-mile, advanced-rated (black diamond) trail at this beautiful park is definitely not for the faint of heart, as the course features a whopping 600 feet in elevation gain in addition to its many challenging obstacles. The trail system, which is laid out mostly on single track, commences on a track known as Jack Rabbit Trail, an entertaining section of course that takes riders over both low and medium-sized rollers before coming to a Y intersection. From there, most riders opt for the trail on the left, a course known as Cotton Candy Trail, which closely follows the scenic Fox River, forcing cyclists to navigate some often treacherous water obstacles.
Each of the loops here present riders with an assortment of competition-style terrain and obstacles, accented by steep, heart-pounding climbs, rocket-like descents and more impediments than the eye can see. Some of the unique challenges on this course include large, intermittent root-laden sections of trail; gravel and rock gardens; skinnies; berms of various sizes; and a number of manmade features, ranging from log jumps to narrow bridges. When taken together, the elevation gain (and drop) on this course, coupled with its many challenging obstacles, makes this trail system one of the premier mountain biking destinations in the entire state of Illinois.
Once used as a strip mine, Saw Wee Kee Park is now managed by the City of Oswego and the local mountain biking club.
The trail system at Raceway Woods is historical and very popular among the region’s off-road cyclists. Situated in the small town of Carpentersville, Illinois, the 8-mile system of trails is built upon what was formerly the Meadowvale International Racetrack, which decades ago was a very popular site in the world of Illinois racing.
This fantastic intermediate-rated track draws riders from all over the region looking to tame the course’s many facets and challenging obstacles. Here riders will find several climbs of various steepness and difficulty, and an equal number of tantalizing descents that will have less experienced riders fumbling for the brake handle. The many obstacles cyclists are faced with when riding the courses here include an abundance of wild roots and rock formations; log jumps; side-hill berms; loose gravel; and a couple of tricky manmade bridges.
Overall, the course gives riders an up-close and personal look at the amazing Illinois scenery and the breathtaking mountains, bluffs, ravines and foliage that comprise it.
Today, the old racetrack has been expertly restored into a dynamic paved bike course which intersects a number of off-road trails, giving riders a near unlimited number of ride options. Cyclists will find some fairly serious downhill sections that closely follow the track’s fall lines, and obstacles that include a series of switchbacks through a scenic hardwood forest.
Located at the old military base known as Camp Camfield, this trail system, situated in Sullivan, Illinois, features a fantastic combination of loop trails just waiting to be ridden. Boasting six miles in total distance and an elevation gain of roughly 650 feet, this intermediate-rated track is comprised of surprisingly rapid single track and some amazing technical sections, including a few narrow, manmade bridges; tight, twisting switchbacks; and some fairly decent climbs.
At Camp Camfield, riders will experience an interesting mix of trails, with each course feeding from and branching out from the other. This design offers an unlimited number of ride possibilities, a fact that has made this park one of the most popular mountain biking oases in the whole Illinois area.
The scenic camp that hosts this trail system draws thousands of riders and recreation enthusiasts each year, most of them bent on tackling the course’s many unique impediments and obstacles, including an assortment of grueling uphill climbs, thrill-seeking descents and speed-producing single track that is fraught with natural and manmade features, including creek crossings—both wet and dry—whoop-dee-doos, berms, and a bevy of roots, rocks and soft-sand turns that serve as a type of speed check mechanism on this very rapid course.
The Camp Camfield trail system additionally offers some breathtaking views of Lake Shelbyville and its surrounding flora—sights that continually draw outdoor biking and hiking aficionados to this gem of a recreational paradise.
image credit: Andres Bike Park