Well, yeah, it’s true that you’re not going to find any trains along local rail-trails. But you will find that these long linear paths provide an adventurous way of seeing the countryside and experiencing a taste of local history.
For a longer rail-trail trip, most people prefer to saddle up on a bike. This is because hiking more than a couple of miles along a gently graded and straight-as-an-airplane-runway trail often induces the desire to nap. And, of course, schlepping your camping supplies is simplified immensely on a bicycle.
Camping options alongside local rail trails come in various styles, and range from a fire pit and small patch of grass to pitch your tent to red carpet treatment with spacious campsites, picnic tables, nearby hiking trails, and–rejoice–restrooms.
Most cyclists choose to ride rail-trails out-and-back. Some opt for leaving a vehicle at one end of the trail. However you do it, here are few options within a 3-hour drive from Chicago.
Rock Island State Trail
Initially running from Chicago to the Quad Cities, the Rock Island Railroad Line soon branched out to 14 states and played an important role in bringing white settlers west. The railroad acquired nearly mythical status by way of a folk song first recorded in a southern prison in the 1930s, and later recorded by everyone from Lead Belly to Johnny Cash to Pete Seeger.
North of Peoria, a section of the Rock Island Line has been transformed into a 26-mile-long path. Five miles outside of Peoria, you’ll encounter Kickapoo Creek Recreation Area, a spacious trailside campground within an oak savanna. The park’s campground is specifically for Rock Island Trail users, as well as people who are willing to walk a half mile from the nearest parking lot. While you’re there, take a hike along several trails that run through a restored prairie and alongside a stream.
Don’t miss: The graceful old trestle bridge over the Spoon River at the north end of the trail.
Distance: 26 miles one way
Completed in 1848, the 96-mile-long Illinois and Michigan Canal provided the final shipping link between Chicago and the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, Chicago became the largest grain market in the world. Mules were guided on a path alongside the waterway as they pulled canal boats halfway across the state.
Better described as a mule trail than a rail-trail, I&M Canal Trail now runs from the outskirts of Joliet west to the town of LaSalle. From end to end, the I&M Canal Trail wanders through a variety of landscapes: dense woods, marshes, prairies, riverbank, agricultural land, and small towns. Primitive campsites appear along the side of the path, as do small public campgrounds in the towns of Channahon and Morris. The best camping spots are alongside the Illinois River at McKinley Woods. (Call first: As of the late June, 2008, a couple sections of the I&M Canal Trail were closed–but not impassable–due to erosion damage.)
Don’t miss: Between Channahon and McKinley Woods, the route traces a thin sliver of land between the canal and the wide and mighty Illinois River.
Distance: 61 miles one way
Hennepin Canal Trail
After it was finished in 1907, the Hennepin Canal never gained the prominence of the nearby I&M Canal. The growth of railroads, the waning production of Illinois coal, and the dredging of the Illinois River all conspired to make it obsolete. Nine small campgrounds are spaced out along the 62 miles of the main Hennepinn Canal Trail running from north central Illinois to the outskirts of the Quad Cities (camping is not allowed along the 29-mile north spur of the path to Rock Falls).
Along the way, don’t expect to see any towns. But you will see big soft shell turtles basking on logs, great blue herons fishing along the banks, and kingfishers and hawks looking for meals from above. Small wooded bluffs often appear alongside the east half of the canal, while wide-open corn country dominates the west half.
Don’t miss: 32 locks that were used to raise and lower the boats on the canal and six aqueducts that carried the canal and its traffic across rivers and streams.
Distance: 91 miles one way (including the north spur)
Glacial Drumlin State Trail
Named for the many glacial mounds bulging up from the Wisconsin landscape on the eastern half of this trail, the Glacial Drumlin Trail runs from Waukesha to Madison. It cuts through a half-dozen towns and skirts the edges of numerous lakes, ponds, and wetlands. Plenty of farmland appears along the way. At the west end of the trail, you’ll meet up repeatedly with Koshkonong Creek and cross the southern tip of Rock Lake. Near Lake Mills, keep an eye peeled for a herd of bison.
The Sandhill Station State Campground, less than a mile south of the trail near Lake Mills, offers walk-in campsites near the shore of Mud Lake. Keep watch for the campground’s namesake bird, an enormous grey crane with a red spot on its forehead. At the west end of the trail on the outskirts of Madison, cyclists can continue pedaling on the Capital City Trail; the east end of the trail connects with the Fox River Trail in Waukesha.
Don’t miss: Between Dousman and Sullivan, the trail passes through a vast marsh busy with waterbirds.
Distance: 52 miles one way