Top 10 Trails in Illinois

Posted 09/16/21 by Shelby Deering in America's Trails

Illinois' Wauponsee Glacial Trail | Photo by TrailLink user alexrauch84

NOTE: As you head out on the trail, remember to follow the guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments. For resources on how to #SharetheTrail and #RecreateResponsibly, go to railstotrails.org/COVID-19.

While Illinois is certainly known for its Abraham Lincoln roots, Chicago hot dogs and a certain fictitious teenager who had a pretty great “day off,” the state also holds a claim to fame for its 1,000+ miles of picturesque rail-trails. With a varied mix of multiuse trails that run the gamut from urban areas to charming hamlets to countryside brimming with scenery, it’s clear that Illinois has something for everyone when it comes to their trails. Several paths feature restaurants and boutiques that sidle right up to the trail’s edge. From experienced bikers to novices, hiking families to couples, Illinois is a diverse outdoor destination. Here are just 10 of our favorite trails in the Prairie State.

Illinois Prairie Path 

Illinois Prairie Path | Photo by TrailLink user dj123_45
Illinois Prairie Path | Photo by TrailLink user dj123_45

Counties: Cook, DuPage, Kane 

Creating a three-pronged fork shape throughout Chicago’s western suburbs, the 61-mile Illinois Prairie Path has special significance when it comes to rail-trails as one of the first successful rail-trail conversions in the United States. It should come as no surprise that this exemplary trail has an honored place in the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. Since the mid-1960s, the path has been a respite for Chicago’s urban dwellers, providing views of idyllic parks and native prairie restorations, such as Elmhurst’s Great Western Prairie, a thousand-year-old natural area that serves to beautify the trail with its flora and fauna. 


RELATED: American Icons: Rail-Trails That Helped Shape the National Landscape

Bloomingdale Trail (The 606) 

Illinois' Bloomingdale Trail | Photo by TrailLink user dgoodwin
Illinois' Bloomingdale Trail | Photo by TrailLink user dgoodwin

County: Cook 

Although you may be used to a ground-level ride or hike, Chicago’s nearly 3-mile Bloomingdale Trail, also known as The 606, is a more elevated experience—literally. Located near Wicker Park and running parallel with West North Avenue, the elevated trail provides views of urban buildings punctuated with native plantings. Serving as a handy transportation corridor meets nature trail, be sure to stop at the Exelon Observatory at the western trailhead, where astronomers lead educational events. Or stop at Damen Arts Plaza next to Churchill Field Park and discover a striking modern sculpture garden. 

Great River Trail 

Illinois' Great River Trail in Port Byron | Photo by Barbara Cray
Illinois' Great River Trail in Port Byron | Photo by Barbara Cray

Counties: Carroll, Rock Island, Whiteside 

The 62-mile Great River Trail, its name a nod to its Mississippi River locale, is part of the Great American Rail-TrailTM, an in-progress trail system that will span 3,700 miles and traverse 12 states coast to coast. Providing gorgeous sightings of the Mississippi River banks, this Quad Cities-based trail runs through riverfront communities like Moline and Thomson, both known for their delightful downtowns. A fun attraction is Fulton’s Windmill Cultural Center with its collection of 22 real-deal European windmills. 


RELATED: Shining a Light on the Transformative Impact of Trails in the Quad Cities

Tunnel Hill State Trail 

Illinois' Tunnel Hill State Trail | Photo by TrailLink user amandarobertsphotography
Illinois' Tunnel Hill State Trail | Photo by TrailLink user amandarobertsphotography

Counties: Johnson, Pulaski, Saline, Williamson 

At the southern tip of Illinois you’ll find the Tunnel Hill State Trail, an incredibly scenic 55-mile route. Though it starts in Harrisburg at a flat grade, it eventually transforms into a trail marked by inclines and not-for-the-faint-of-heart dark tunnels once frequented by trains. You’ll cross into the beautiful Shawnee National Forest, which takes up a sizeable portion of the path since it comes in at a whopping 289,000 acres. It’s followed by a diverse offering of bluffs, wetlands and prairies. During your trip, you’ll see 23 trestles that harken to the trail’s railroad past. 


RELATED: How a Rail-Trail Helped Save My Life and Redirect My Focus

Old Plank Road Trail 

Illinois' Old Plank Road Trail | Photo by TrailLink user tommyspan
Illinois' Old Plank Road Trail | Photo by TrailLink user tommyspan

Counties: Cook, Will 

Located east of Joliet, the Old Plank Road Trail has it all. Its 21 miles will provide a hefty dose of nature, punctuated with flourishing prairie plants and wildlife-filled wetlands. It also goes through towns, like Frankfort and New Lenox, that offer shopping and restaurants. During your travels, soak up even more of the outdoors with a stop at the Old Plank Road Prairie Nature Preserve or Hunters Woods County Forest Preserve. Mid-trail, Frankfort, with its plethora of restaurants, offers a great spot to refuel. 


TRAIL OF THE MONTH: Illinois’ Old Plank Road Trail (October 2013)

Jane Addams Trail 

Illinois' Jane Addams Trail | Photo by TrailLink user tracydoyle
Illinois' Jane Addams Trail | Photo by TrailLink user tracydoyle

County: Stephenson 

Starting at the Wisconsin–Illinois border and ending in Freeport, the Jane Addams Trail, named after a local social worker who won the Nobel Peace Prize, follows the route of the former Galena & Chicago Union Railroad. Today, there are several points of interest along the trail’s 19 miles, like the connection to the Badger State Trail, a 40-mile pathway that leads to Madison, Wisconsin; you’ll find that connection 17 miles from the Tutty’s Crossing Trailhead in Freeport. Other places to explore as you go include the Freeport Art Museum, the Cedarville Historical Museum and, in Freeport, the very square where Lincoln and Douglas had their famous debate. 

Rock Island Trail 

Illinois' Rock Island Trail | Photo by Eric Oberg
Illinois' Rock Island Trail | Photo by Eric Oberg

Counties: Peoria, Stark 

With a trailhead in Peoria, and winding 38 miles through small Illinois communities like Wyoming, Princeville and Alta, the Rock Island Trail is a tribute to the state’s rural beauty. Along the way, catch glimpses of Peoria Lake and sights from simpler times, such as the wildflower-dotted tall-grass prairie found on the Peoria/Stark county line and the trestle bridge that crosses the Spoon River. For more nature in all its glory, couple your trip on the trail with a stop at the Kickapoo State Recreation Area, located north of Alta and brimming with opportunities to kayak, fish or hit the mountain bike trails. 


TRAIL OF THE MONTH: Illinois’ Rock Island Trail (July 2013)

MCT Nickel Plate Trail 

Illinois' MCT Nickel Plate Trail | Photo by TrailLink user barkrism
Illinois' MCT Nickel Plate Trail | Photo by TrailLink user barkrism

County: Madison 

Situated not far from St. Louis, the Madison County Transit (MCT) Nickel Plate Trail can be found next to the Great River Road, the famed 3,000-mile scenic byway that follows the course of the Mississippi River. At 28 miles, the trail goes from downtown New Douglas to Pontoon Beach, spotlighting woods, parks and noteworthy historic districts in Edwardsville and Glen Carbon. With a flat, comfortable grade, it’s a trail that’s particularly geared toward families, especially since the Edwardsville Children’s Museum, filled with fun and educational exhibits like an art studio, outdoor garden and pretend animal hospital, is near the trail. 

Wauponsee Glacial Trail 

Illinois' Wauponsee Glacial Trail | Photo by TrailLink user tommyspan
Illinois' Wauponsee Glacial Trail | Photo by TrailLink user tommyspan

County: Will 

Spanning a relatively easy 22 miles, the Wauponsee Glacial Trail, just southeast of Joliet, is named for the lake that covered the area 13,000 years ago. On the journey, travelers will pass through rural towns like Manhattan, Symerton and Ballou. Along the southern segment of the trail, going from Sugar Creek Preserve to the Kanakee River, you’ll be able to view bison grazing in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. To see even more animals, visit Manhattan’s Round Barn Farm, covering 94 acres just off the path with a petting zoo and pumpkin patch the kiddos will love. 

Cal-Sag Trail

Illinois' Cal-Sag Trail | Photo by TrailLink user tommyspan
Illinois' Cal-Sag Trail | Photo by TrailLink user tommyspan

County: Cook

South of Chicago and running along the Calumet Sag Channel, the appropriately named Cal-Sag Trail includes an extensive nature corridor in the Palos Forest Preserve system. The trail’s 15 miles will bring you to other natural areas, like Sagawau Canyon, lying not far off the trail in Lemont Township and packed with rocky streams, verdant ferns and ravine forests. Another nearby destination that pays homage to the outdoors is the Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens. Found in Palos Heights, it’s complete with a stunning manmade waterfall, wooded gardens and kayaking spots.

Rail-Trails Illinois, Indiana and Ohio guidebook

Want to experience one of these trails or other amazing Midwest destinations? You’ll find maps, helpful details and beautiful photos of 72 multiuse trails in our Rail-Trails: Illinois, Indiana & Ohio, available in our online Trail Shop.

ILLINOIS, INDIANA, AND OHIO GUIDEBOOK

SubscribeWhen you subscribe to Rails to Trails magazine, you'll have access to many other features like this one. Our magazine is a premium of Rails-to-Trails Membership. Join today to start receiving the magazine!
TrailLink App by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Banner
COMMENTS
comments powered by Disqus