Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Biking to Milwaukee (with Some Help from Metra)

The idea was simple. Inspired by a recent long-distance bike ride, I would push myself to bike all the way from Chicago to Milwaukee. I eagerly looked up the distance online: About 90 miles.

Forget that.

Then I remembered that Metra allows you to put your bike on the train— and the Union Pacific North Line goes as far north as Kenosha, Wis., just over the state line. From there, I estimated from looking at a map, it would be just 30 to 35 miles to Milwaukee. Definitely doable in a day. Plus, riding up on a Saturday could set the stage for a nice weekend getaway in Wisconsin, offering the chance to explore communities and other local attractions along the shoreline, followed by an evening and part of the next day in Milwaukee.

The trip was set.

Under a bright sun, I arrive at the Clybourn Metra station, at Ashland and Armitage Avenues, in time for the 10:43 a.m. train. When it arrives, I secure my bike to a row of fold-up seats with a bungee cable, one of the requirements for bringing your bike on board. Because it’s Saturday, I take advantage of Metra’s weekend fare, five dollars for unlimited rides on its network (although I’ll be taking Amtrak back down tomorrow, five dollars is less than the price of a one-way ticket to Kenosha).

After a pleasant trip through the northern suburbs of Chicago, we arrive in Kenosha at around 12:15 p.m. I’ve figured that by keeping an average pace of about 10 miles per hour, including stops, I’ll arrive in Milwaukee in time for dinner.

As I set off from the Metra station on my bike, I feel a sense of freedom. Ahhh… the open road.

Downtown Kenosha. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Wisconsin’s fourth-largest city, Kenosha is perhaps best known for its factory outlet stores. But those are at least a couple of miles inland, and my plan today is to stay as close to the lake as I can, both for the scenery and to keep the route to Milwaukee as direct as possible.

Not far from the Metra station, I stop to get a glimpse of a Kenosha streetcar. One of five refurbished vehicles that date back to 1951, the streetcar makes a 1.7-mile loop through the downtown area. The green-and-white car is photogenic (and the fare is only 25 cents), but I pass on taking a ride, opting instead to bike over to the waterfront. There, I come upon HarborMarket, an outdoor market along 2nd Ave. between 54th and 56th Streets, where vendors under white tents sell food, art, toys, and raffle tickets.

After browsing for a bit and purchasing a bottle of water (important in the mid-day heat), I stop briefly next door in the Kenosha Public Museum. Having opened in 1937 in a large restored post office building, the museum hosts exhibits on natural history and fine and decorative arts.

Continuing north, I head up 6th and then 7th Ave., passing local businesses, including a bike shop and The Coffee Pot, a coffee shop with outdoor seating next to a wall with a mural of greenery. It’s a cute setting, but I’m too eager to make progress to stop for lunch now. A little farther north, any thought of food has left my mind when I come upon a beautiful, expansive view of Lake Michigan from Pennoyer Park.

Unfortunately, there’s no one lakefront path all the way from Kenosha to Milwaukee. The best you can do is combine lakeside paths, inland trails, and roads. My goal this trip is to have as scenic of a ride as possible, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find before me the Pike Bike Trail, a path that heads up alongside the lake.

Soon, the path empties out onto a road at the edge of the campus of Carthage College. Because it keeps to the lake, I decide then to take state Highway 32, a four-lane road (now reduced to two lanes because of construction). But before long, I’m tired of riding over sand because of the construction, and I decide to head west for a more bike-friendly route— the Pike Bike Trail again, now a gravel-covered path that lies where tracks of the old Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad used to run.

Although it’s three-quarters of a mile inland from the lake, the mostly-straight trail makes for an easy ride, with trees and farmland on either side and the sound of birds chirping in the air. At 1st St., I pass from Kenosha Country into Racine County (the name of the path changes here to North Shore Trail), and in a little less than half an hour of biking, I’ve reached the village of Elmwood Park, just south of Racine. There, I leave the bike path for local streets, finally sitting down at around 3 p.m. to a pizza burger at Reflections, a family-style restaurant. Wanting to keep the break short, I soon head off again, zigzagging along the local roads of Racine towards the lake.

A bluff in General John J. Pershing Park offers a good view of the water. The sight of the lake during this ride soothes, if not inspires, me. Here, boaters and even a jet-skier are out. A little further north, a cluster of boats sits in Racine’s harbor; nearby, on a plaza adjacent to Festival Park, children in street clothes run through fountains.

Downtown Racine. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Rather than seek out the North Shore Trail again, I decide to try once more to keep to the lakefront. Turning north on Main St., I come upon a succession of local stores and eateries, as well as the Racine Art Museum, whose collection of over 3,000 objects consists of contemporary works on different media; pieces dating to the 1930’s; and works on paper, paintings, and sculptures.

Main St. continues on over a drawbridge, which offers a view of moored boats off to either side, and then for some three more miles— passing right next to the Racine Zoo, which claims its own beach on Lake Michigan. A series of turns then takes me further north into Racine County, through areas with houses close enough together to resemble suburbia interspersed with open spaces that make for a rural feel. I don’t think I’ve ever passed so many signs for garage sales in a single day, and I stop at one to browse, walking off with a few pens for 25 cents.

Around a quarter to 6, I cross into Milwaukee County. Less than 45 minutes later, I’ve made it into Grant Park, a 381-acre park perched on Lake Michigan in the city of South Milwaukee. Riding through the lakefront greenery, I feel a renewed eagerness. I’m in the home stretch.

The trail I’ve stumbled onto leads through a thick cluster of trees with a ravine down below, providing the most dramatic change of scenery this trip. At some point, if I haven’t already, I make it onto the Oak Leaf Trail, part of the Milwaukee County Park System that continues along the lakefront all the way to the city of Milwaukee. I head up through Warnimont Park and Sheridan Park; past a game of volleyball; past people having a picnic on a patch of grass above the lake. Finally, shortly before 7 p.m., I glimpse a faint outline of the Milwaukee skyline in the distance.

Approaching the Milwaukee city limits. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Another mile or so, and I reach the city. Unfortunately, there’s no way to keep to the lakefront beyond the Cupertino neighborhood, as Interstate 794 monopolizes the waterfront for some two miles. Instead, trail signs guide me through local streets. Being on roads hardly matters, though, so revitalized am I to be so close to the end.

I snake through industrial neighborhoods, advancing up Bay St., then 1st St., then across the Water St. Bridge into the Historic Third Ward district. Around 7:30, I stop at the intersection of Water St. and Milwaukee Ave.

To my left, I spot a Borders bookstore sign beyond the Wisconsin Ave. Bridge. I recognize the sight.

I’m in downtown Milwaukee!

Yes, I’ve been here before. Only this time, I think with a mixture of joy and disbelief, I’ve arrived by bike.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really inspiring. I'm planning to make a similar trip once per week.
Congrats, and thanks for sharing