As part of our feature this month on the great energy behind
trails, biking and walking in Illinois, we've opted to take on the probably
unwise task of listing our Top 10 Trails in the Prairie State.
We asked you to submit nominations and make the case for
your local trail - and the people of Illinois responded en masse. Not many
shrinking violets there.
Although it will certainly frustrate at least some of the
passionate trail champions whose favorite pathways didn't make the list, it was
great to hear so much love for a few perennial favorites, as well as a couple
of underdogs you might not have expected.
Without further ado, RTC presents (in no particular order):
The Top 10 Trails in Illinois.
1. The Illinois
57.4 miles - Cook, Du Page and Kane counties.
One of the first rail-trails inducted into RTC's Rail-Trail
Hall of Fame, and a true icon of America's rail-trail movement, the Illinois
Prairie Path (right) has a significant legacy.
In 1963, when the word "rail-trail" hadn't yet
entered the American vocabulary, a local naturalist named May Theilgaard Watts wrote
to the Chicago Tribune about the out-of-service
tracks of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad through the city's western
"We are human beings," she wrote. "We are
able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a
chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one.
"If we have courage and foresight... then we can create from
this strip a proud resource. Look ahead some years into the future. Imagine
yourself going for a walk on an autumn day. Choose some part of the famed
Illinois footpath... That is all in the future, the possible future."
Half a century later, Watts' words look prophetic. Thanks to
a community of volunteers and the nonprofit Illinois Prairie Path organization,
more than 800,000 users now visit the trail each year and it has inspired the
creation of other rail-trails in Illinois and across the country. Get involved:
2. Fox River Trail
43.4 miles - Kane, Kendall and McHenry counties
5-star review after 5-star review at www.TrailLink.com testifies to the love for
this idyllic but feature-filled gem west of Chicago.
Windmills, a myriad of bird species, trestles, woods and
wildflowers make the Fox River Trail feel like a genuine escape. Intermingled
with the natural areas along the way are old mill towns, now great attractions
for trail visitors, with pedestrian-friendly downtowns that boast museums,
casinos, cafés and shops.
Extra points for its connections to other trails, including
Trail in Algonquin, and the Virgil Gilman
Trail and Illinois
Prairie Path in Aurora.
3. Tunnel Hill
55.6 miles - Johnson, Pulaski, Saline and Williamson
A destination trail that has been a huge boost for local
businesses, the Tunnel Hill State Trail (left) is bringing renewed attention to the
small communities of Illinois that suffered from the withdrawal of the Aurora
Elgin & Fox River Electric Company railroad.
Its 23 trestle bridges (including one that is 450 feet long)
and the namesake tunnel are the big highlights. However more and more visitors
these days are coming for the welcoming communities along the route, such as
Vienna and Harrisburg, and the wildlife, which is accessible and wonderfully on
display at the Cache River Wetlands Center, a number of nature preserves along
the trail, and the bordering Shawnee National Forest.
If you need an excuse to go, the Taste of Tunnel Hill trail
ride in June combines a celebration of local growers and produce with trail rides
and tours through the area. More info: www.tunnelhilltrail.com.
County Transit Nickel Plate Trail
21.6 miles - Bond and Madison counties
The MCT system is a remarkable vision well executed. A
hundred miles of urban and suburban trails, many of them former railroad
corridors, all link to the public transit system on Illinois' side of the St
Louis metro area.
The Nickel Plate Trail is the longest and most diverse of
the MCT trails, connecting suburban neighborhoods close to the metro center
with rural rail-trail scenery, tree-shaded lanes and open farmland as the trail
This beautiful piece of community planning also connects
with a number of the other MCT trails, and the Glen Carbon Heritage Bike Trail.
Hook into the excitement behind active transportation in this growing metro
35 miles - Peoria and Stark counties
Credited with inspiring former United States Secretary of
Transportation, Ray LaHood's interest in biking and walking, this "slender
oasis of woodlands and prairies" ranks with the Illinois Prairie Path as one of
the touchstones of the rail-trail movement in the Midwest.
Built along an out-of-service section of the Peoria and Rock
Island Railroad, the Rock Island (right) is now credited with bringing new business to
the small communities of Toulon, Wyoming, Princeville, Dunlap, and Alta, which in
turn are becoming famous among trail travelers nationwide for their
At its more developed end in Peoria, trail advocates and
planners are working to complete missing segments and extend the trail into
downtown Peoria and down to the Illinois River. Behind every great trail is a
great friends group - there are few better than the nonprofit Friends of the
Rock Island Trail, Inc. Learn more about them at: www.ritrail.org.
6. Des Plaines
56.3 miles - Cook and Lake counties
This recent review at www.TrailLink.com
about sums it up: "The trail has a little bit of everything. Some sections go
through prairie, others through forests and still others travel next to the
river. The trail is relatively flat, making it an excellent trail for biking,
running or horseback riding."
The Des Plaines River Trail traverses north to south along its
namesake waterway, and plays an important role in protecting a huge tract of
riverine habitat in the counties. Beginning deep in the Chicago suburbs, this
trail connects a population of millions to numerous forest preserves, parks and
natural wonders, all the way to the Wisconsin border.
Each year a group of energetic folks stage a half-marathon,
marathon and 50-mile ultra marathon along the trail. Start training: www.desplainesrivertrailraces.com
18.5 miles - Cook County
"A fantastic representation for the incredible City of
Chicago." A must for visitors and locals alike, the Lakefront Trail (left) is a
brilliant example of what centrally-located trails bring to big cities.
The list of highlights and amenities is long and varied: beaches,
volleyball courts, playgrounds, baseball diamonds, tennis courts, soccer fields,
neighborhoods, transportation connections, museums, galleries and cultural
centers, a Ferris wheel and an amusement park - if the pure joy of stretching
out alongside sparkling Lake Michigan isn't enough.
The lakefront has done a lot to boost Chicago's reputation
as an attractive home for people of all ages - and has inspired a succession of
bike-friendly planners and leaders in the city looking to build on its drawing
power. As far as trails go, this one packs a punch. Keen to live the good life
in Chicago? www.activetrans.org.
36.4 miles - McLean County
A connected web of trails weaving in and throughout the Town
of Normal and the City of Bloomington, the Constitution Trail is known and
loved as one of Illinois' most important trail systems.
So named because it was dedicated on the 200th birthday of
the U.S. Constitution, September 17, 1987, the strength of the Constitution
Trail is its great utility, connecting a wide range of employment, educational,
shopping and recreational spots.
In addition to the unique collaboration between Normal and
Bloomington, the trail benefits greatly from the support of the Friends of the
Constitution Trail, a nonprofit that works for expansion and beautification of
the trail. More info: www.constitutiontrail.org
9. Green Bay Trail
8.9 miles - Cook and Lake counties
A terrific blend of transportation and recreation, the
utility of the Green Bay Trail (right) is multiplied by its connection to Chicago's Metra
commuter rail line, which it parallels. Commuters can take the trail to train
stations along the way, bikes are allowed on the Metra (in limited numbers), and
residents and tourists alike use the trail for exercise and car-free travel
Restaurants, community parks and lovely gardens in the North
Shore towns of Kenilworth, Winnetka, Highland Park and Lake Bluff line the
trail and double the pleasure of the already expansive lakefront views. Beauty
and function = a perfect match.
The Green Bay Trail is actually a rail-with-trail. What, you
ask? Learn more: www.railstotrails.org/railwithtrail
104.5 miles - Bureau, Henry, Whiteside
Originally built in the early 1900s to link the Illinois and
Mississippi rivers, the length of the Hennepin Canal is now on the National
Register of Historic Places. The Hennepin Canal Parkway which follows it is an
excursion into the area's past and a peaceful rural journey.
The landscape changes slowly from forest to grasslands, to
marsh to farmland, and the trail is particularly pleasing during fall when the
leaves are changing colors. During winter the canal often freezes, making it
suitable for ice skating. In warmer months, fishermen come for the stocked
bluegill, crappie, walleye and bass.
The deteriorating condition of the trail, which is managed
by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, has become a growing frustration
for riders. Rather than bemoan the state of affairs and wait for someone else to
do something, Friends of the Hennepin Canal have started an adopt-a-trail
program, and is eagerly trying to raise the profile of the trail to help
attract more investment. Get involved: www.friends-hennepin-canal.org
11. The Old Plank Road Trail
22 miles - Cook and Will counties
Because 10 just wasn't enough and it's impossible to leave
out what is one of the most heavily-used trails in the state...
This rail-trail through the towns of Joliet, New Lenox,
Frankfort, Matteson, Richton Park, Park Forest and Chicago Heights follows a
route that was originally a Native American transportation corridor, later used
occasionally by traders, trappers and missionaries. The old Michigan Central
Rail Road (MCRR) line followed, from Lake Station in East Gary to Joliet. Today,
more than 127,000 people ride or walk the trail each year. The Old Plank Road Trail is now becoming a crucial
part of redevelopment efforts in the region and is boosting transportation and
recreation options for many more thousands of residents on the outskirts of
Plug in to the local effort to extend the Old Plank: oprt.org
Got a favorite local trail you'd like to see get the credit
it deserves? Or think RTC got the Top 10 (11) about right? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
All photos courtesy www.TrailLink.com