RTC's List of the Top 10 Trails in Illinois

Posted 10/28/13 by Jake Lynch in America's Trails

Hennepin Canal Parkway | Photo courtesy Thomas Photographic Services, Trails for Illinois

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.

Without further ado, RTC presents (in no particular order):

The Top 10 Trails in Illinois

1. The Illinois Prairie Path

Photo of the Illinois Prairie Path © TrailLink.com

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 theChicago Tribune about the out-of-service tracks of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad through the city's western suburbs.

"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: www.ipp.org. 

2. Fox River Trail

Fox River Trail | Photo by TrailLink user lkgatu
Fox River Trail | Photo by TrailLink user lkgatu

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 the Prairie Trail in Algonquin, and the Virgil Gilman Trail and Illinois Prairie Path in Aurora. 

3. Tunnel Hill State Trail

Tunnel Hill State Trail | Photo by TrailLink user kevinmemmel_tl
Tunnel Hill State Trail | Photo by TrailLink user kevinmemmel_tl

55.6 miles - Johnson, Pulaski, Saline and Williamson counties

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. 

4. Madison County Transit Nickel Plate Trail

MCT Nickel Plate Trail | Photo by TrailLink user tom.binger.b5111
MCT Nickel Plate Trail | Photo by TrailLink user tom.binger.b5111

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 runs northeast.

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 area: www.mcttrails.org. 

5. Rock Island Trail

Rock Island Trail | Photo by TrailLink user chia57
Rock Island Trail | Photo by TrailLink user chia57

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 hospitality.

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: https://rockislandtrail.org/. 

DON'T MISS: The Rock Island Trail Is a 144-Mile Would Be Game-Changer for Missouri

6. Des Plaines River Trail

Des Plaines River Trail | Photo by TrailLink user vhines1101
Des Plaines River Trail | Photo by TrailLink user vhines1101

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 

7. Chicago Lakefront Trail

Chicago Lakefront Trail | Photo by TrailLink user jgator
Chicago Lakefront Trail | Photo by TrailLink user jgator

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. 

8. The Constitution Trail

Constitution Trail | Photo by TrailLink user barbaralbrown
Constitution Trail | Photo by TrailLink user barbaralbrown

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

Green Bay Trail | Photo by TrailLink user czikagovianka
Green Bay Trail | Photo by TrailLink user czikagovianka

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 between communities.

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 

10. Hennepin Canal Parkway

Hennepin Canal Parkway | Photo courtesy Thomas Photographic Services, Trails for Illinois
Hennepin Canal Parkway | Photo courtesy Thomas Photographic Services, Trails for Illinois

104.5 miles - Bureau, Henry, Whiteside

The trail links 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

Old Plank Road Trail | Photo by TrailLink user daveboersema
Old Plank Road Trail | Photo by TrailLink user daveboersema

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 Chicago.

Plug in to the local effort to extend the Old Plank: oprt.org

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