As avid cyclists and rail-trail enthusiasts, we decided to ride five Midwestern sections of the Great American Rail-Trail® this September that we’d missed when we journeyed across the country in 2021. We thrive on these adventures—appreciating the unknown, the unexpected and the unique individuals we meet along the way. Being on our bicycles provides us with a sense of freedom and a way to stay attuned to the present moment.
Illinois & Michigan Canal Trail (Illinois)
We began our biking journey in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago. At each mile marker from Joliet to La Salle along the Illinois & Michigan Canal Trail, we could read specific details about the canal’s history, providing us with vivid images of the past. On the outskirts of Channahon, we admired a restored lock and the lock keeper’s cottage. Continuing west, we were overwhelmed by the monument in Morris illuminating how the canal’s construction and subsequent use was responsible for creating the Chicago of today.
In Ottawa, we rode over the remnants of an aqueduct that once carried the canal water over the Fox River. We also visited the city’s Washington Square Park, where we discovered the bronze statues of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas; they are surrounded by a spectacular fountain display commemorating their first of seven debates for a United States Senate seat in 1858. All along the trail we spotted blue herons, muskrats, deer and beavers.
Hennepin Canal State Trail (Illinois)
In northwestern Illinois, we spent two days cycling the Hennepin Canal State Trail from Bureau Junction to Colona. The scenery was exquisite, and the canal was full. We discovered that the vast majority of locks are still in place, and enjoyed cycling through the large diameter culverts at road crossings and passing by the steel truss bridges.
Our favorite highlight was the unplanned night we spent at the Hickory Grove Campground, between Lock 21 and 22 (near Sheffield). Prepared to dine on cold beans and yogurt, we instead were invited to join two families for a chicken barbeque and a bonfire. Mesmerized by the flames and the night sky, we swapped stories with new friends.
Great River Trail (Illinois)
Near the Illinois–Iowa border, we cycled onto the Great River Trail in East Moline. The view of the Mississippi River was grand from the top of the stone dike. When the trail leveled out, we passed by people of all ages on bicycles and scooters and on foot. In Moline’s Ben Butterworth Parkway, a large sign called attention to a local 10,000-steps program, encouraging people to walk more; to measure one’s progress, a sign marked every 1,000 steps along this section of riverfront trail. We also slowed down to enjoy the small flower gardens along the Moline stretch of trail.
Hoover Nature Trail (Iowa)
Eastern Iowa’s Hoover Nature Trail was relatively quiet and relaxing—exactly what we needed after hours of cycling on the shoulders of Iowa county roads and a state highway. In Solon, we easily found the trail behind a high school and multiple recreation fields. The trail’s pavement was in excellent shape, and we stopped to admire the artistically designed concrete bridges across each of the streams.
Cedar Valley Nature Trail (Iowa)
Our two days on Iowa’s Cedar Valley Nature Trail from Ely to Center Point offered a rich diversity of environments: residential areas, a downtown cityscape, industrial plants and farm fields laden with corn and soybeans. In Cedar Rapids, on the 16th floor of a hotel’s restaurant, we celebrated our silver anniversary (25 years together!), plus had an excellent view of the enormous Quaker Oats plant below us.
On our second day, we followed a detour around the Cedar Rapids levee project, stopped in Marion at an organic market, cycled through the Hiawatha suburbs and once again made our way to farmlands. In Center Point, we ate our sandwiches in the perfect setting: a bench outside the restored Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern Railway depot.