Built in 1915, a Dutch
windmill along the Fox
River Trail near Geneva.
Destination: Fox River Trail, Illinois
by Ted Villaire
ivers are the perfect traveling companions. That's particularly true when you're walking or skiing, moving at a speed that allows you to study the water's habits.
It rushes through narrow passages, ripples down the straightaway, sprays over rocks, plays in eddies. In northwest Illinois, you'll find this camaraderie with water on the 33-mile Fox River Trail.
Several hundred miles of regional rail-trails testify to Chicago's longtime title as the railroad hub of the nation. For many Chicagoans, this network of trails evokes a fondness typically reserved for the city's downtown skyline, its Lake Michigan shore and its captivating neighborhoods. Within this rail-trail mecca, the Fox River Trail stands out for its mix of urban and rural, its many parks and, above all, the eye-catching river it follows.
A green oasis located some 35 miles west of Chicago's downtown Loop, the trail extends nearly 33 miles through grassy parkland and bottomland woods, never leaving the side of the wide, lazy Fox River. Tree-covered bluffs swell up above the riverbanks, and wetlands flood the low spots. After a deep freeze, the river ices over. Most of the winter, though, ice hugs the shoreline and covers only pockets of backwater.
Intermingled with the natural areas along the way are old mill towns famous around the late 19th century for making a range of products, from watches to windmills. With most of the manufacturing ended, a number of these communities have made the switch to tourist destinations, creating pedestrian-friendly downtowns that boast museums, casinos, cafés and shops. Many streets still feature fine 19th-century architecture. Riverbanks are graced with pleasant walkways, footbridges and grassy parks.
Built in segments during the 1970s and '80s, the Fox River Trail occupies the right-of-way where the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad, an interurban passenger train, once operated. Paved almost its entire length, the versatile trail invites users to walk, run, inline skate, cycle, ski and snowshoe. Except on the few on-street portions, wheelchair users will feel welcome, too.
Near the north end of the rail-trail, in Carpentersville, Fox River Shores Forest Preserve provides a good starting point for a trip. North from here, the Fox River Trail soon becomes the Prairie Trail, and then shoots up to the Wisconsin border. Headed southward toward Aurora, the Fox River Trail slips through a tunnel of trees for two miles to East Dundee, one of several towns where Victorian storefronts line shopping streets. As you enter East Dundee, you may be enticed indoors for a snack and warm respite at either the Measuring Cup coffee shop, located steps from the trail on the right, or Piece-A-Cake Bakery, two blocks farther ahead on the left.
Nearly five miles ahead, in Elgin, you'll find parks and riverfront walkways with lush landscaping and arched pedestrian bridges reaching out to islands in the river. One block away from Elgin's historical downtown strip, this riverwalk replaced a series of riverfront factories. The most famous was the Elgin National Watch Company, once the world's largest watch manufacturer.
Leaving Elgin, the trail ducks under an enclosed walkway that leads to the Grand Victoria Casino, a three-story structure floating in the river and gussied up to look like an old-time riverboat. A couple miles outside town, the trail takes you on a roller-coaster ride up and down a series of wooded river bluffs. Here you'll find the first of four Fox River Trail connections with the Illinois Prairie Path, which runs east to Chicago's near-west suburbs. (Look for the other Prairie Path connections in Geneva, Batavia and Aurora.)
Four miles south of Elgin, take a stroll among the historic trolleys and passenger trains at the Fox River Trolley Museum. Some of the train cars ran along the "L" tracks in Chicago, and others were owned by the old Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad. In summer, you can board a historic trolley at the museum for a several-mile trip along the river.
The natural splendor of the Fox River takes center stage one mile later, where a 250-yard footbridge connects two wooded parks. Downstream from the bridge, the river curls around an island covered by a fairytale forest. After crossing the bridge, you'll follow the trail up a steep, 120-foot bluff that, from a distance, resembles a vertical wall.
Once you've conquered that grueling climb, you can catch your breath along a mile-long gentle downhill segment on a modestly trafficked road with no sidewalks. Closing in on St. Charles, you'll return to the trail and snake through thick bottomland woods at Norris Woods Nature Preserve. As you navigate the residential streets of St. Charles for another mile of on-street travel, trail signs direct you through the town's historical district, past a bookstore, a coffee shop, gift shops and restaurants.
A couple miles past St. Charles the trail rambles through a series of riverside parks in Geneva. One contains a five-story Dutch windmill erected in 1915 by George Fabyan, an eccentric millionaire whose estate once sprawled along the riverbank. (After a good snow, throngs of kids sled down the hill where the windmill stands.) In addition to the windmill, Fabyan's estate included a private zoo and a laboratory that performed research on acoustics, code cracking and—believe it or not—human levitation. Fabyan's Japanese garden remains, as does his farmhouse, which was remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright. Now the house serves as a museum focusing on Fabyan's estate and the artifacts he collected over the years.
The trail runs on both sides of the river for the next five miles south of Fabyan Forest Preserve. If following the trail on the east side, cross back over to the west side in Batavia or North Aurora. (The frequently updated Kane and Northern Kendall Counties Bicycle Map shows all alternate routes, connecting trails and local landmarks on the Fox River Trail.)
In downtown Batavia, take a break to watch skaters gliding on the outdoor skating rink fashioned on one of the river's backwater ponds. A series of 20-foot-tall windmills along Batavia's riverwalk honors the town's former specialty—manufacturing water-pumping windmills.
Big views of the river and wooded islands open up to the trail as it traces the top edge of a small bluff for most of the final seven miles between Batavia and Aurora. The river threads its way among the islands, where in winter bare tree branches brush the water's surface. Other stretches of riverbank feature shelves of ice, where geese and ducks line up like statues.
A series of gentle bends in the river guides you into Aurora, the second-largest city in Illinois. The trail ends across the river from an island that once served as the city's administrative center. As you explore Aurora's downtown streets and admire its vintage architecture, you feel immersed in the town's history and commerce. But the Fox River remains close by, curving through town on its way to the Illinois River and the Mississippi River beyond.
Ted Villaire is the author of Best Rail Trails Illinois; Road Biking Illinois; 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Chicago; Camping Illinois; and Easy Hikes Close to Home: Chicago. He works as a writer and editor for the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago.
Read the article as it appeared in the magazine:
Destination: Illinois (PDF/1.4MB)