One of the upsides of the COVID-19 pandemic is a boom in outdoor recreation. Activities such as hiking, cycling, boating, fishing, camping, picnicking, and winter activities (skiing, snow shoeing, snowboarding, tobogganing) have seen increased interest. Participation in outdoor recreation usually hovers around 50% of the population, but last year it increased to 69%. As stay-at-home restrictions have relaxed, many people discovered that outdoor pursuits are an appealing response to living with COVID-19. The desire to focus on health and wellness and make the best of these trying times has resulted in more people getting outside to play.
In Chicagoland we have a great resource--the Forest Preserves District of Cook County (FPDCC) which consists of 70,000 acres for exploring nature according to Kevin Kuhn, Volunteer Program Specialist. He spoke at the Jan. 12, 2021 Chicago Cycling Club virtual meeting to fill us in on the FPDCC history, what facilities are available for cycling and other outdoor activities, and how to volunteer.
History of the Forest Preserves
Over 100 years ago leaders in Chicagoland had the wisdom to create the first forest preserve in the nation. They set aside and protected natural areas during a time of explosive population and industrial growth. They started with just 500 acres and followed the same ideals as the National Park Service which was launched about the same time. They sought to create an area teaming with wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, environmental education, and habitats that offer plant and animal diversity. The FPDCC acquired additional land over the years and built roads, trails, and recreational facilities. The Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden are located on forest preserve land. In 2014 they created a conservation plan to restore and expand the protected lands and a commitment to making the preserves accessible to the diverse people of Cook County. As Cook County has become more populated over the past 100 years it changed from “humans in a sea of nature to nature in a sea of humans.”
Where to Cycle in the Forest Preserves
Fast forward to current times and a visit to the FPDCC website shows 33 trails, both paved and unpaved, totaling 350 miles. Some trails are for hiking or equestrian use only and others have been built out for mountain biking. Following is a list of the most popular trails for cycling:
Use of all trails in the FPDCC is free of charge, supported by tax dollars, and they are open from sunrise to sunset daily. Trail rules and etiquette for cycling include what you would expect, to obey all signs, ride single file on the right side, stay on the trail, and to provide an audible single when passing other trail users. Recommended COVID-19 specific precautions include bringing a mask and staying 6 feet from other cyclists. Helmets are recommended, but not required, but are required for cyclists 14 years old or under. While enjoying FPDCC facilities if you see something illegal going on, say something by alerting a park official or calling 9-1-1. While some outdoor events are still being held, it is recommended that you check before heading out for last minute schedule changes.
Mission to Protect and Restore the Forest Preserves
The mission of the FPDCC today includes protecting and restoring the various habitats: woodlands, savannas, wetlands, and prairies. These habitats depend on each other to stay in balance, but over the years, invasive species have been introduced impacting space and light. There is much work to be done to restore some habitats and volunteers are always welcome. Volunteering these days is especially worthwhile since it provides an opportunity to connect with other people outdoors in a safe manner while making a difference to the environment.
If you are looking for a place to ride your bike away from auto traffic this is the place to start. It is a break out time to get out on two wheels or two feet and enjoy the great outdoors!
Resources for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Earth Rider Blog about Cycling
Sharon Kaminecki and others comment on adventures in bicycling and other stories