Trail of the Month: August 2023
“As vehicle costs continue to increase, these pedestrian routes will become more important to allow for connectivity from community to community.”
—Mark Heintz, Munster’s director of parks and recreation
It’s finally possible to hop on a nice, paved trail in Calumet City, Illinois—on the southeastern edge of the Chicago suburbs—and ride or walk across state lines all the way to Crown Point, Indiana. Following what was once a Penn Central railway route, the 14.5-mile Pennsy Greenway now connects two counties in two states (Cook County, Illinois, and Lake County, Indiana), as well as the communities of Lansing, Illinois, and Indiana’s Munster and Schererville along the way.
Completed piece by piece and growing by a mile or two at a time in a series of construction projects over the past few years, the trail serves as an idyllic green space for a walk or bike ride, and its smooth asphalt makes it friendly to strollers, wheelchairs and other mobility devices. For people living in eastern Illinois and northwest Indiana, this is a place to get away from it all without having to go very far—an escape to nature that’s close to the neighborhood.
“We’re excited that it’s done and so are a lot of people judging by the use of it,” said John Novacich, superintendent of the Schererville Parks Department. “It’s become a popular trail.”
Bringing the trail to fruition has been a decade-long effort for municipalities along the route, work supported by federal transportation grants as well as state funding, like the Next Level Trails program, designed to incentivize collaborative efforts that accelerate trail connections. The Pennsy Greenway’s newest 2.3-mile section, which was completed this summer, stretches from Rohrman Park (Schererville’s largest park with athletic fields and other amenities) to Clark Road in Crown Point. It’s the trail’s fourth completed segment and a welcome addition for local communities.
“As vehicle costs continue to increase, these pedestrian routes will become more important to allow for connectivity from community to community,” said Mark Heintz, Munster’s director of parks and recreation.
The greenway also links up with two other rail-trails, extending its reach to more residents. In Illinois, it starts where the Burnham Greenway ends at the eastern edge of Green Lake Woods, known locally as a great fishing spot. The trail soon passes under I-94 and cuts through a swath of residential neighborhoods as it makes its way toward the Indiana state line. Just over the border, it meets Lake County’s Monon Trail, which connects Munster and Hammond (not to be confused with the Hall of Famer of the same name in the Indianapolis area).
In Munster, the greenway is already having an impact on residential construction, noted Heintz, with developers increasingly “making it an amenity of the development and even planning to have buildings face the trail rather than turn the back of their buildings to the trail user traffic.”
And the trail is an integral part of the local culture with connections to several parks, including Centennial Park, Munster’s largest, which hosts a series of summer concerts and outdoor movie screenings, as well as the annual Grape Escape Wine Festival. The trail even has its own Pennsy Bike Ride under the stars each August hosted by the local parks departments.
“Pathways become anchors in a community,” Heintz said. “Parks and greenways are amenities people look for when they’re moving.”
A Great Route
Trails like these are not only pathways to discovering suburban downtowns and interesting commercial strips, but they’re also the safest way to get around, according to Jesse Elam, director of strategic planning and policy for the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways. “You’re not in any way fighting traffic,” he said. “An 8-year-old or an 80-year-old can ride here.”
Cook County is focused on completing its trails, particularly on Chicago’s south side and in its south suburban neighborhoods. “We look for the gaps and do what we can to fill them,” Elam said.
Some riders are eager for longer trails that cut across multiple state lines, Novacich added, recalling the phone calls he gets from ambitious travelers hoping to bike across the U.S. The Pennsy Greenway is a key link in the Great American Rail-Trail®, an effort to connect 3,700 miles of multiuse trails between Washington State and Washington, D.C.
In Illinois, a significant portion, 87%, of the state’s planned Great American route is complete, crossing the northern half of the state from the Pennsy Greenway to the Mississippi River border with Iowa. In Indiana, the Great American route is about 55% complete and cuts diagonally across the state. On its southern end, the Pennsy Greenway will soon make a connection to another Great American trail when it joins the Erie Lackawanna Trail—the two trails are only about a mile apart.
As the Great American network fills out, Novacich expects interest will only increase. “I think you’re going to see more usage of that nature as you get more of these state-to-state connections going,” he said.