Monday, May 25, 2015

Mountain Biking the Outback Trail at Imagination Glen, Indiana Dunes

In search of destinations for outdoor adventure around Chicago, I turned my sights to Imagination Glen's Outback Trail which is a well-maintained, up-and-coming mountain biking area in the Indiana Dunes region.

Roller Coaster on the Outback Trail

Its probably because I wasn't looking hard enough, but I was beginning to get worried that I wouldn't find much in the way of outdoor adventures in greater Chicagoland. That was a bit of a misconception though- after all, in an area populated with 9 million people, there has to be a few other me's out there who need some new stomping grounds for outdoor adventure. I think the Indiana Dunes are that area now.

I've been to the Dunes before but the last time I went we went specifically to the dunes themselves. What I didn't realize at the time is that the entire area of Northwestern Indiana is a playground for outdoorsy types. Since moving here, I've been making frequent trips to Indiana's relatively small stretch of shoreline and discovered some big adventures.

For being a relatively flat state, Indiana has some fantastic mountain biking. Brown County (south of Indianapolis) has achieved the highly coveted "Epic Ride" status from the International Mountain Bikers Association. Closer to me, the Outback Trail at Imagination Glen is actually an excellent mountain biking trail by anyone's standards and is quickly making a bid to become the next Midwestern Epic. Maintained by a fiercely dedicated band of local riders, I headed out here as soon as I could.
Well maintained trails through tranquil woods
I've had the privilege of riding about 7 trails designated as "Epics" from the IMBA and that's brought me from Northern and Southern California through the mountain states and all the way to some fine east coast destinations in Arkansas, Alabama, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New England. This is to say, I don't say just ride any trail and think its an epic.

The Outback Trail makes excellent use of space and terrain, creating both challenging and more cross-country style rides around the well protected salt creek. The Front Side generally contains some easier, more relaxing trails with a stacked-loops style; the biker can make a day out of riding all the difficult trails or make an easier ride out of combining the novice loops.

On the far side of Salt Creek is the Dark Side trails which are a notch higher in technicality. Some of the rides are actually quite demanding including Rollercoaster, Rich's Revenge and Basement. Actually, you might need a full suspension bike to clear some of the features- mine was fine for about 90% of the trail but there were some sections that needed a higher quality ride.

I did meet a few locals who live next door to the trail and I'm happy that they are such a dedicated bunch. I rode with a few folks who were very kind in showing me the better sections of the trails. After almost 15 miles of riding, I was surprised at how winded I was despite my GPS indicating that I didn't get more than a few hundred feet of elevation change. Nevertheless, the trails are well designed and maintained for folks like me who need an adventure base close to downtown Chicago. Can't wait to come back with a new bike!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Crystal Cove, El Moro Canyon Short Dayhike, Orange County CA

This past week we spent some time in Southern California which is where we both went to college. Inevitably, this involved some hiking in the beautiful hills of Laguna Beach. The El Moro Canyon Loop was a nice 4 mile loop with great views of our old home.
A view we've both missed
Hills have become somewhat of a thing of the past with our life in Chicago. There's a few hills here and there but nothing as stark as those of California. One of the things I've always missed since I moved from So Cal out east is the abundance of trails. I used to run the trails of Laguna and Crystal Cove nearly 3 times per week and I suppose that was the genesis of my long-distance running career. I remember being able to run over 20 miles without ever touching pavement here. Naturally, with our nostalgic tour of old college haunts, we were drawn to El Moro Canyon.

This is a very nice 4 mile loop that takes the hiker pretty deep into the Laguna wilderness without too much difficulty. It has some bigger hills but rewarding views of the sparsely populated El Moro coast.

The trail is easily hiked in 1/2 a day but can also be mountain biked. In fact, this is really the premier mountain biking destination of Southern California. The singletrack of Aliso Canyon is some of the finest I've ridden in the state. But we were happy with our pleasant stroll.

The trail walks through the bottom of the canyon which is quite lush, by So Cal standards. The flora is much greener and taller given that its so close to the seasonal creek. Of course, this year there was hardly a drop of freshwater in sight! Nevertheless the robust trees kept the trail shady on this hot spring day.
Easy to forget you're in the second largest metro area in the country with views like this
Wandering further into the canyon, we found our fork which takes up the prominent El Moro Ridge. Its steep and sustained but the coast unfolds as you gain elevation. The higher hills of Laguna become overshadowed by the distant mountains of the Santa Anas. The infamous Saddleback Mountain loomed over South Orange County and I was reminded of all the adventures I've had climbing that mile high mountain. From the effective summit of our ridgeline, I could also see well across the straight to Catalina Island, another place which evokes so many happy memories for me. The views from the El Moro ridgeline were like looking through an old photo album for me.

The trail descended down to Pacific Coast Highway and we reminisced about our college days. We laughed thinking that our young twenties were spent with much more memorable times such as these rather than the typical drunken affairs that permeate most college experiences.
So many hiking options...
Saddleback mountain, the natural landmark of Orange County
Back at the parking lot with 4 miles done in just over 2 hours, we decided to cool off in the ocean. Despite the 80 degree temperatures, we were instantly reminded that the Pacific Ocean is just about as cold as Lake Michigan this time of year. Nevertheless, it was fun to play in a large body of water which actually had salt and waves.

Concluding our day with some old-fashioned beach-combing, we were happy for the opportunity to spend some time in the finer parts of Orange County. I wasn't sad about moving to Chicago but I did miss this type of environment. The nice part about having family in Southern California is that we can always come and visit. Perhaps we may move back someday...

Read. Plan. Get Out There!