A building on the Erie Lackawanna Trail
A building on the Erie Lackawanna Trail Credit: Julia Thiel

After a recent ride from Chicago to the Indiana Dunes and then to Munster, Indiana, with my friend Amanda, my bike computer said our total distance was 108 miles, our average speed just under 12 miles an hour, and our actual biking time eight and a half hours. We left Chicago at 8 AM and reached our hotel in Munster at 8 PM. Planned breaks, for eating and resting, took up an hour and a half. The other two hours were spent staring at a map.

From Hammond to Chesterton, Indiana, the Erie Lackawanna, Oak Savanna, and Prairie Duneland bike paths run almost uninterrupted for more than 30 miles, feeding into each other. There are only three breaks in the trail—but they accounted for most of the time we were lost. Trying to find the start of the first trail accounted for the rest.

Maybe they don’t believe in signs in Indiana. Along the four miles between the Lakefront Trail, which ends at 67th Street, and the Burnham Greenway, which begins at 100th and Ewing, frequent signs guided us. I didn’t see a single sign for the Erie Lackawanna Trail, which begins in Hammond. We biked to where the map said it was supposed to start, but the trail was nowhere to be found. So we biked south, figuring we’d hit it. No dice. We biked west, and eventually ran into the damn thing.

An unmarked turnoff on the trail
An unmarked turnoff on the trailCredit: Julia Thiel

Finding the beginning of the trail proved the least of our troubles. We weren’t expecting any problems from what the map showed as a break in the path that couldn’t have been more than a tenth of a mile. The paved trail dead-ended into a crushed-stone path that passed a building bearing the graffiti “Are you washed by his blood” and “Jesus brings freedom.” We thought we were on the right track as we curved around a golf course, but eventually we realized we’d gone too far, and needed the help of another cyclist to find the turnoff. The dirt path heading under a bridge—mostly hidden by a huge brush pile—looked to me like a logging trail, not a bike route. We’d passed it twice but ignored it since we weren’t hauling logs. There was no sign pointing out the trail, of course.

The next break we came across was longer—about three miles between our turnoff from the Erie Lackawanna Trail and the beginning of the Oak Savanna Trail. Naturally, we immediately took a wrong turn. On the map, you take the first right from Colfax Street onto a road that’s unnamed on the map. So when we came to an unnamed road, we turned right, and went a couple miles until it became unpaved. I didn’t see the dozen-odd No Trespassing signs posted by the gate we passed because I was staring down at the gravel, concentrating on not letting my bike slip out from under me, but Amanda mentioned them just before a man emerged from behind a screen door to yell at us. He looked like the type of person who might have a shotgun hanging beside the door, so we didn’t stop to chat. We turned around, and a few miles later, finally found the trail again.

The Indiana Dunes
The Indiana DunesCredit: Julia Thiel

The last break in the path, in Hobart, is very brief: not much more than a mile as the crow flies. I couldn’t re-create the route we ended up taking if my life depended on it, but I’d guess it was three or four miles. According to the map, we were supposed to get off the trail, make a series of 16 zigzagging turns through a neighborhood—about one turn every block or two—and then we’d end up back on the trail. What we actually did wasn’t nearly that simple. With only four of the dozen-odd streets we were supposed to be taking labeled on the map, we took a wrong turn and ended up on some dead-end streets before finally finding our way back. Again, a few signs would have gone a long way.

From the Dunes, the South Shore train line will take you straight back to Chicago—but not your bike, unless it’s in a box. That sounded like a hassle, so we opted instead to double back along the same trails we’d taken to the Dunes, then bike west to Munster so we could eat dinner at the Three Floyds Brewpub. Besides, we figured, since we finally knew how to navigate the gaps in the trail, the 30-mile ride would be a breeze. Amazingly enough, it was.