I talk a lot about my favorite place to ride my mountain bike, Saw Wee Kee park (Oswego, Illinois), but I really haven’t shared much beyond the parking lot. Today I thought I would take advantage of a quiet day on the trails, with time to pause, and take some pictures along the way. Here in northern Illinois, most of the trees have just finished shedding their leaves, changing the views in the woods. So much of what was behind all the foliage is now in clear view, adding even more beauty to the woods at Saw Wee Kee. The riding there is challenging and an absolute blast, but the peace of the place might be just as beneficial as the exercise. Saw Wee Kee is a hidden gem in Chicagoland, passed over by the magnificence of Palos Forest Preserve, but I like SWK just as much. I am glad that it’s not well known as Palos. Like the dessert that my son didn’t know was in the fridge, there’s more for me!
Yesterday my boss gifted me with today off for good behavior, as well as letting me out at noon yesterday. He reminded me that I have covered for him a ton lately, secured a great deal of business for our little company. It’s nice for work to be acknowledged and my boss does a great job of doing that. When he delivered the news to me yesterday, he walked through the door of my office with a huge smile on his face, made a pedaling motion with his hands as he told me to get out of the office early for a ride.
I did. It was 70 degrees yesterday, sunny, with a pleasant breeze. Palos is a rare treat for me, so I dashed off for three and a half hours of riding at Palos. That place is mountain bike heaven, as well as a place with spectacular scenery. There are woods, lakes, a canal, meadows, and some of the most challenging trails in the Midwest. Saw Wee Kee is small with roughly 7 miles of trails. Palos has nearly 30 miles of trails. I squeezed every last ounce of daylight out of yesterday afternoon, left the parking lot for home with the headlights of the VW blazing.
Today was my fourth day in a row of mountain biking. As my bike fanatic friend across the big lake commented on his blog, it’s been more like May than November. Tuesday and Wednesday were butt crack of dawn rides at Saw Wee Kee, fog shrouded hour long jaunts in the woods, worth the effort of getting to the trails before the sun’s rays. I am going to squeeze as much outdoor riding out of this year as I can!
OK. I did mention a tour of Saw Wee Kee. You’re going to see pictures from the back and middle of the park, but not the front section of trails. I always warm up by heading towards the back of the park, then hitting the middle and finishing at the front (and then head back for another round or two). I got tired of stopping to take pictures!
Riding Saw Wee Kee park can be intimidating for the first timer there. Here is the trail description from the CAMBR (the organization that develops and maintains of road trails in the Chicago area) web site:
Palos could be considered the preferred child of the Chicago area trail systems. It gets the most attention and is the one people will most likely talk about. By comparison, Saw Wee Kee is more like the wild child. The terrain is more untamed and throws more at you per mile that its big brother. While the roughly 7 miles of trail might seem small compared to what Palos offers, you’ll find that you work a lot harder to cover that distance than you would at Palos.
The reason: Saw Wee Kee Park is teeming with dirt mounds! Once upon a time, the park was a strip mine and piles or rows of mined earth were deposited around the property. That has turned out to be an exceptional gift for mountain bikersâ€”most of the trails course around and over the lumpy and long-since reforested terrain, making for a truly unique riding experience for this area.
Local riders compare the park to an amusement park, and have named many trails after roller coasters: Vertical Velocity, Wildcat, Anaconda, Colossus…. These trails offer short but sometimes steep climbs, lots of low rollers, quick turns, and winding decents. Overall elevation change here is minor, but the frequent climbs over the mounds give your legs a good workout nonetheless.
This is not purely a playground for those with well-developed leg muscles. There are trails for less-experienced riders too, like Cotton Candy and Lolligagger. And all riders can try the roller coasters trails, if they don’t mind dismounting from time to time.
I have to add that Saw Wee Kee is next to the Fox River, adding to the scenic beauty of the park. One has to take a short road along the river to get to the park, with a choice of two parking lots along the road. The first parking lot has a boat and kayak launch. I always start from the second parking lot.
Saw Wee Kee’s trails are shared use trails, meaning that the trails are used by mountain bikes, horses, and hikers. No motorized vehicles are allowed. It’s not uncommon to see horses reined at the rail you can see in the background of the first picture. Today, I shared the trail with a few runners who like to train on the rough and rocky terrain.
From the parking lot, the trail is a slightly steep and sandy singletrack trail. I take a right to enter the twisty and rolling connector trail called Bobcat to the middle of the park. The connector makes a quick dip and over a log obstacle, then gives the choice of going left or right. I take the right over a fun series of bumps (the term is pump track) that I can catch air on if I give a little extra effort. By the way, most of these pictures don’t do the steep drops and climbs justice. The picture to the right is taken looking back on the pump section and that section, while not scary, is definitely not flat.
From the first set of pumps, I follow the trail to the right, take the widetrack of Bobcat to a small side shoot called Cat’s Tail and join the widetrack trail called Lolligagger. It’s a good warm up and, by the time I get to Lolligagger, I am warm enough to be spinning fairly fast. Off Lolligagger is a fast, flowy, twisty, fun trail called Jack Rabbit. On the Saw Wee Kee map the Jack Rabbit trail is classified moderate difficulty. If ridden fast it throws some fairly challenging tricks at me. I have been on that trail with my friend Jon, a Strava fan, and we have done that trail fast enough to be among the top riders. That gives this old man an ego boost.
Jack Rabbit joins up with a trail called Devil’s Dip, a trail that starts with a fairly steep and very rocky drop, leading along the Fox River to a wide track trail called Cotton Candy. Since the trees have dropped their leaves, there is a spectacular view across the river. I love looking at the cabin and houses on the other side.
After the first view of the river (pictured above), Devil’s Dip takes one more roller coaster like dip to join Cotton Candy. I take a trail right after the dip that undulates, then drops sharply to a water crossing (dry today), where the challenging ups and downs, back and forth of the Colossus begins. The picture looks tame, but the descent is rough and made more difficult by the sharp left turn immediately after the crossing, followed by several very steep and twisting climbs. I like the Colossus trails, namely because there are a few short steeps that always are tough to climb. If I pick the wrong line, slip or bounce on the way up, I am forced to quickly clip out of my pedal to keep from falling.
Colossus also offers up some unique beauty. There are ponds and swamps that have formed in between the berms of Saw Wee Kee. Colossus offers enough elevation to give a good view of the peaceful ponds there, especially this time of year.
The trails of Colossus are mostly sandy, very soft in some areas. Those soft sands are fun simply because it takes the right amount of speed and powerful quads to keep from sinking to a stop. I also see the most wildlife when riding Colossus — turkey and white tail deer. This morning there was evidence of those deer. I had to laugh at the irony of seeing the tire track next to the hoof print in the sand.
There is a large campground along the back border of Saw Wee Kee. Often, especially on weekend afternoons, I encounter hikers from the campground. There is a latrine with actual toilets (not a pit toilet) there that I will use for “personal emergencies”, preferred to using the woods and the plastic baggie with TP that I keep in my hydration pack. For the past few months, there was a person living in a tent at the very back of the campground, close to the river. His tent was visible from the back of the Colossus trail. Rumor is that it was a guy who builds haunted houses, here to work until after Halloween. His tent and car was there when I rode last Tuesday morning, gone when I rode Wednesday.
From the back of the park, off of Colossus and on a high berm, is where I head next. This picture does not do this drop justice. At the bottom there are three very fast pumps. It is an absolute blast, but it’s treacherous if I am not ready. As soon as I start the drop, my big butt is over the back of my bike’s seat to keep from going over the handlebar. When I ride this drop, the smile on my face is so huge that it hurts!
I join back up with Cotton Candy and ride back towards the middle of the park, taking a fun (and unofficial) trail called Butterburger along the way, then usually travel to one of the most popular sections of the park — the Concession Stand. There are four screaming drops there. One Sunday afternoon, I rode with a guy who put on a show for some young hikers watching us ride the Concession Stand, catching some major air much to the admiration of the young onlookers.
By the time I finish Colossus, I am definitely warmed up. When I get to the Concession Stand, I have roughly 2-3 miles under my belt. That doesn’t sound like much, but those trails require a lot of effort. I feel good if I maintain a 10 mph average to that point.
From there I meander through the Dominator and over the log bridge there, or through another challenging connector that spits me out at the entrance to Vertical Velocity or the exit from Anaconda. Those trails are rated moderate to difficult, lead to some of the most fun/challenging rides in the park on trails like Wildcat, Timberwolf, Coney Island, Boulderdash, Vortex (one of my faves), and Kentucky Rumbler. Today, I wanted to ride those trails instead of taking pictures. Sorry!
After it’s all done, it’s back to the parking lot. Today, I came back for a quick breather in the parking lot, interrupted a couple locked in a lustful embrace, an obvious tryst. That’s one of the results of the remote location of the park. I did not take a picture. Most days, though, the parking lot is a place to enjoy the company of the other bikers who are basking in the glow of the wonderful sport of mountain biking at Saw Wee Kee. I have made a lot of friends in my years riding Saw Wee Kee.
I hope you enjoyed this not so brief account and tour. If anyone wants to join me for a ride when visiting Chicagoland, let me know. I love to share the fun!