Taking a bike trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden
from the city requires a lot of time, energy, and if you're anything like me, patience.
I began my excursion bright and early, armed with my iPod and a backpack full of snacks and water, and rode west down Addison to Elston. Once on bike-friendly Elston, helpful green signs took me on a straight 5-mile path to the start of the North Branch Trail at Devon and Caldwell.
The trail was highly impressive from the get-go. Pedaling mere feet away from Devon Avenue, I was in what this city girl would call a forest…one with real-live trees, flowers and rolling streams. However, with 20 miles standing between me and the Botanic Garden, I didn't spend too much time taking it all in.
Before setting off, I glanced at the map posted at the trail's entrance and found one problem: I was so far away that the Botanic Gardens weren't even on the map yet! This is the part where bringing my own bike map would have been helpful, as my method of asking people, "Which way to the Botanic Garden?" every time I hit a fork in the road, wasn't exactly efficient.
Once pointed in the right direction, I found the trail gloriously flat, crowd-free and dripping with nature. Had I known that I was supposed to follow the red-colored postings until they changed into black-colored postings (right at the lagoons), my ride may have gone more smoothly. However, it wasn't all tears and wrong turns: I got a great workout, saw a deer and felt like I had temporarily moved to the country.
After two hours of biking (often in circles), the black postings spit me out at Lake Cook Road, where I finally rolled into the Botanic Garden…hungry, cranky and in no mood for smelling the roses. However, my spirits quickly elevated when I discovered that the gardens were free and absolutely stunning.
Picking up a complimentary map at the visitor center, I wandered into the first garden I saw, the Bruce Krasberg Rose Garden, and sitting on a step, inhaled an apple and a Power Bar while admiring the Buckingham Fountain look-alike. Rejuvenated, I set out to stroll through parts of the 385 acres that are home to 23 gardens. I did note a few tours going on—both by foot ($10) and "tram" car ($5)—but I decided to go-it alone.
Fortunately my aimless wandering led me to a few outstanding spots: the Waterfall Garden, the Japanese Garden and Evening Island. Just as beautiful by day, Evening Island sits a bridge and a basin-away from the other gardens, making it the perfect spot for viewing the "mainland" gardens. Plus, featuring five-acres of bright red roses, purple perennials, rolling hills and sweeping grasses, the Island has some gorgeous sights of its own.
However, my top-pick of all had to be the English Walled Garden. Pulled right out of a Jane Austen novel, this garden was surrounded by ivy-covered walls and filled with hundreds of flowers. I even met some knowledgeable gardeners inside, who taught me a thing or two about a geraniums aversion to the heat.
At this point, a couple hours had passed and my stomach was starting to grumble, so I checked out the cafe before heading out. Unfortunately, the pickings were slim: a small selection of salads, burgers and chicken sandwiches…all at fillet mignon prices (about $9-$14 a pop). It was too bad I hadn't brought more food, as I could have chowed down in the picnic area by the parking lot. Skipping the cafe, I gave the garden one last glance and headed out for my 20-mile return. Only this time, I knew where I was going. Sort of.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is open every day except Dec. 25. Summer hours are 7 a.m.-9 p.m. To learn more about visiting the Garden, visit www.ohwow.org; for more about the North Branch Trail, visit http://www.fpdcc.com/home.php.