People may wonder "What's the big deal about the Salt Creek/Bemis Woods Singletrack?", and, in fairness, this is a good question. While it certainly isn't world-class competitive trail such as one might find in, say, Colorado, it is very scenic and challenging.
Even more important, it is just minutes from downtown Chicago, a place devoid of any kind of singletrack riding, yet full of people who would love to see what their shiny new mountain bikes are capable of. Sure, they are great on the paved trail when in the face of the inevitable Chicago headwind, but what can they do in their intended environment?
Here is where the Salt Creek valley really shines - in almost any conditions, you can find a place to ride without sinking up to your axles in mud (although there are plenty of those places as well!), and the trails vary considerably in terms of their direction and elevation all along the way.
There are, besides the paved Bemis Woods/Brookfield Zoo trail, all kinds of trail riding, from steep hillclimbs to technical twists to World Rally-class runs which are different every time you ride them.
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When heavy rains make the trails nearest the creek a bad idea, simply take the paved trail to Bemis South and you will find miles of trail elevated high above the creekbed. Add to this the fact that the Forest Preserve District spent many years fortifying the main trails with layers of wood chips (which have since settled down to the point that they seem like regular dirt) and you have trails that one can ride responsibly under most any conditions.
It is irresponsible (though tempting and, some would say, fun) to tear through a saturated stretch of trail, leaving deep ruts in the mud in your wake (which harden into ankle-breakers for many months to follow). This is where Bemis Woods and most of the Dean Estate and Fullersburg Woods shine. Under all but the highest creek water levels you can find lots of trails that you can ride without leaving much of a trace.
If you do find yourself downtown, you have a number of options for getting out to these trails. The commuter railroads (Burlington Northern trains get you very close) and PACE busses allow bikes on board with some scheduling restrictions, as do the CTA's El and bus routes.
You could also ride out from downtown (I would recommend Ogden Avenue west from the city until 26th Street in Cicero, then West to 9th Avenue in North Riverside where you can connect with the paved Bemis Woods trail), although this is an adventure on an entirely different level, with many urban obstacles and dangers in your path.
I'm not much for street riding, and so I would opt to get out West by some other means, then enjoy the trail ride in tranquility the way it is supposed to be.
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If you want a challenging canoe trip with lots to see and a wide variety of paddling conditions, the Salt Creek from Graue Mill in Hinsdale to the creek's end in Lyons (wheere it confluences with the DesPlaines River) is one of the best choices in the Chicagoland area!
We launch from the parking lot of Graue Mill, on the East side of York Road. We will either paddle all the way to the boat launch at First and Ogden Avenues in Lyons, or pull out at 31st Street in Brookfield, just before the creek passes through the Brookfield Zoo.
Be sure to check the water levels before setting out on your journey, as the creek is best paddled only after a good rain, when surf is up! On the maps above are two points to visually inspect the levels, both in the stretch of paved trail between 22nd Street/Cermak Road and 31st Street in Westchester. If these two low points are fully submerged, you have a good chance of rowing the whole way rather than walking a good portion of it.
If the surf is up too far, there are many dangers ahead, not the least of which being very low/non-existent clearances under a number of bridges (especially the footbridge in Bemis Woods). Always ride the paved trail first to get a feel for conditions before setting out. It's good cross-training, and it will prepare you for the paddle ahead.
Under any circumstances, the Salt Creek is not the place to introduce young children to canoeing expecting a leisurely, hassle-free ride. There are surprises around every corner, and many have been dumped into the cold water for a moments' lapse in concentration. The Salt is not Class 5 rapids, but it will kill you if you give it a chance, so be prepared, be sharp and have fun.