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The path on the east side of the Chicago River, south of Costco, as seen from the Damen Avenue Bridge

Grid Chicago Readers seemed to enjoy last week’s write-up of the stealth route from the Loop to Division/Halsted, and I understand that last Friday’s small Critical Mass successfully rode the route. (Does anybody have photos or a write-up of the ride?) So, I thought I’d share another “secret” path along the North Branch of the Chicago River, roughly from Wellington Avenue (3000 N) to Webster Street (2200 N), with the caveat that right now it’s fairly tricky to navigate.

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This is because this river route requires passing through a couple of gates that are locked from November to March (and supposedly between 8 pm and 7 am, although I’m skeptical that anyone is actually locking and unlocking the gates with any regularity). But the path might make for a relaxing alternative to your usual route downtown from, say, Lincoln Square, during the summer. And if you’re crafty, you can get around these locked gates during the winter. Here’s a Google map of the main route:

View Stealth route from Wellington to Webster in a larger map

Let’s say you’re heading to the Loop from Lincoln Square’s Sulzer Library, Lincoln Avenue (2200 W) and Montrose Avenue (4400 N). Jog west on Montrose to mellow Bell Avenue (2230 W). Then head south on Bell for 1.5 miles until School Street (3300 N), where you have to jog east to Leavitt Street (2200 W). Continue south on Leavitt another half mile until you enter the Lathrop Homes, where during the winter you’ll see white clouds of vapor drifting ominously from vents for the housing project’s heating system.

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The trailhead at 2900 N Leavitt

At about 2900 N Leavitt you’ll see the trailhead for a paved riverside path on your right. Riding south on the trail you’ll soon come to an underpass below Diversey Parkway, where the street rises to cross the river.

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This underpass is gated with tall, spiky wrought-iron fencing, although someone has broken down the southernmost of the two gates.

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Presumably the gates are locked to prevent homeless people from camping under the bridge. To make the area especially unattractive for sleeping, the areas on either side of the trail are lined with large boulders.

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If you’re checking out this route during the winter, at this point you’ll need to backtrack from the locked gate. You can either go all the way back to Leavitt and take the street across Diversey, meeting up with the trail south of the underpass, or backtrack just a bit from the underpass and climb a hill to cross Diversey and descend again to the trail.

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The trail south of Diversey

South of the Diversey bridge, the bike path jogs east and then continues south as a sidewalk that hugs the river. In two blocks you’ll come to the twin arches of the Damen Avenue bridge. The arches were recently painted gray, which is a bummer because when they were painted red they nicely echoed the curved red hotdog in the logo for Vienna Beef (2501 N Damen), whose factory is located at the south end of the bridge. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin discussed the change on his blog, Cityscapes, where he also posted Gabe Klein’s response three months later.

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A poster on the Vienna Beef building.

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The Damen Avenue bridge with its original paint job – photo by Serge Lubomudrov

There is another set of gates, one of which is currently locked, under the Damen bridge. When I was scouting the route last week, I carried my bike up to the bridge via a flight of stairs at the left side of the path, rode across the river and got a tasty chicken sausage sandwich at Vienna Beef’s cafeteria.

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The Damen underpass viewed from the west – the staircase visible to the left

After lunch I rode back north over the Damen bridge, turned right into the parking lot for a Costco, and rode around the big box store to meet up with the riverside bike path east of the locked gate under the bridge.

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Looking southeast from the Damen underpass

From here you can continue southeast along the river on a sidewalk/path lined with benches. Soon you’ll come to a black, wave-shaped bike rack. If you turn left here you can follow a zigzag sidewalk/path along the perimeter of the Costco parking lot – watch out for shopping carts blocking your way.

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This spur drops you off directly across the street from the 32nd Ward service office, 2657 N Clybourn Avenue, where I recently interviewed Alderman Scott Waguespack.

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Back at the black wave rack, if you continue straight the bike path disappears for a bit but you can continue along the river through a Dominick’s parking lot and behind the store.

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The steak on the Dominick’s truck in the above photo is labeled “Rancher’s Reserve,” which might make a good name for an alt-country band. After you pass the market, the river bike path reappears on your right and continues behind a Marshalls.

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As you approach the Fullerton Avenue bridge (2400 N) you can carry your bike up some stairs to your left to access Fullerton, where you can ride east to Lincoln Park or west to Bucktown. Or, you can continue on the trail under the bridge, although this segment of the path is basically a road to nowhere.

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Assuming you choose the latter, you’ll see what can happen, for better or worse, when underpasses are not gated. Underneath Fullerton there’s plenty of broken glass on the path and a wall covered with graffiti. To the left of the path, homeless folks have created an encampment that can be accessed through a hole in the chainlink fencing. When I was there I saw tents, coolers, cookware and garments hanging on a clothesline.

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South of Fullerton the bike path goes behind an Office Max (1829 W Fullerton) and continues for a couple of blocks until it ends in a turnaround by a railway embankment and railroad bridge just west of the Asland Avenue Bridge. At this point one could crawl through a hole in chainlink fencing and scrabble along the riverbank, but it doesn’t seem practical to continue here with a bike.

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So, from the turnaround, make a hairpin turn and ride north through the parking lot for Office Max, T.J. Maxx, etc., to Fullerton, where you can jog east to Clybourn and continue southeast towards the Loop. This is not the most useful route in the world, especially when the gates are locked, but I hope you’ve found it interesting to read about and might consider exploring it yourself.

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  • Jason Marshall

    Just a quick note on the riverfront route that you posted last week:

    Cool to hear that people like this but I am kind of not so glad that critical mass is going through there.  I work at 600 W Chicago (and use this route everyday).  The section of path north of the river is private property (I assume that the arcade section south of the river is as well considering it basically goes through a building.

    From my experience working here, building management is quick to overreact to anything that they perceive as undesirable to tenants.  Until this summer one could access the norther section of this river walk via the stairs at the Chicago Ave bridge. They permanently sealed this door when the restaurant complained.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it is B.S. that this is private property.   Just be aware that you might not have the rights that you assume you do when CMing there.

    Just to reiterate:  I am not siding with 600 West’s management policies nor am I in favor of cutting off riverfront access to anyone.  I am simply stating the fact that (like it or not) this is private property.  If you enjoy using this route like I do, it might not be wise to bring negative attention from management.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      John probably knows about this more than I do, but riverfront access for the public is a requirement for developing riverfront property. I don’t know what the ordinance or policy says about when and how the property owners can restrict access. 

      I think it’s odd that the gates in the river route in this article are supposedly open only from 7 AM to 8 PM, and closed from November to March. All park district properties where it’s common for people to bicycle close at 11 PM, yet the Lakefront Trail is open 24 hours (just don’t step off the trail after 11 PM).

      Oh, and Mayor Emanuel wants the City Council that changes the Park District opening and closing times to support his anti-protest desires.

      • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

        I think the riverfront access issue would make a great future post. I’ll make a note to interview someone from CDOT’s Bridges or Urban Design divisions about this in the near future.

        • Jason Marshall

          I would love to read that.  I notice that the new east side river path north of grand (by east bank club) has signs saying that it is closed at dusk.

  • Steven Lane

    Great post! Very timely for me as I spent the last couple of weeks compiling public input for the 2020 Chicago Bike Plan (West Region). I guess I’ve always known that rivers, expressways, and railways make cycling in Chicago more difficult, but it really sunk in when looking at a map and seeing that most of the big problem areas cyclists identify are bridges and underpasses, which rarely have a bike lane.
    A friend of mine that used to live in Portland gets so angry when she talks about how Chicago let all it’s riverfront property go to waste. She has a point. Bike paths along all of our rivers would make for an awesome bike network connecting our neighborhoods in ways roads can’t.  

  • Justin B Newman

    Thanks for your detailed write-up. I had noticed the trail entrance at Leavitt and checked Google Maps, but in isolation you can’t see much. You’ve at least enabled an “extension” on this little bit of trail.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Sure thing. Look for some more stealth route suggestions collected from members of http://TheChainklink.org, appearing here and on The Chainlink in the near future.