Cycle Chicago, Sightseeing Ride, Illinois & Michigan Canal Trail

This bike ride allows you to experience history by seeing part of what’s left of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, a waterway that played a vital role in the development of Chicago. Starting in Willow Springs, this short easy ride will introduce you to the canal, which put Chicago on the map in the 1840s. Afterward or on another day you’ll be ready to ride the Centennial Trail, where you will be able to explore this canal in greater depth as well as two other parallel waterways: the Sanitary & Ship Canal and Des Plaines River.

Terrain

Wide paved path in good repair over flat terrain.

Access

Take Metra’s aptly named Heritage Corridor line to Willow Springs, which is right next to the trailhead. Cross the tracks and bridge going north and enter forest preserve parking lot on the left.

By car, exit Interstate 55 at La Grange Road (Highways 12, 20 and 45) going south. Turn right at Archer Avenue and drive 1.5 miles to Willow Springs Road. Turn right at the next street, Willow Boulevard, and take the road as it turns right, following signs for train station. Before the station turn left following signs for bike trail. After crossing the bridge, turn left into forest preserve parking.

Food and Drink

Water at the trailhead and several food and drink options near Archer Avenue and Willow Springs Road/104th Avenue.

Side Trip

Bike the equally historic and enjoyable Centennial Trail. The Army Corps of Engineers was erecting an electric barrier in the Des Plaines River to prevent the dreaded Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan.

 

More Details

Before there were railroads or paved highways, people and commerce depended on waterways for transportation. Louis Joliet, who explored the region for France in the 1670s, noticed that Chicago straddled a continental divide from which water flowed east and west. He was the first European to suggest a canal bridging the west-flowing rivers with Lake Michigan, which drains eastward, thereby linking the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, on one hand, with Quebec and the East Coast of America on the other. Joliet wrote in 1673 that “...it should be easy to go as far as Florida in a bark.... A canal would need to be cut across only half a league of prairie in order to enter from the lake into the River St. Louis [Illinois River] which discharges into the Mississippi.”

Alas, the canal Joliet foresaw did not open until 1848, but the 96-mile Illinois & Michigan Canal proved him a sage, and the nearby city of Joliet still bears his name. The canal contributed mightily to Chicago being founded as a transportation hub of the United States. Ever since the canal opened Chicago has maintained that powerful position, whatever the mode of transport: water or air, rail or road. This trail follows the canal’s towpath, where mules once pulled barges full of merchandise and immigrants.

Although nature has reclaimed portions of the canal, the waterway was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964. One result of this protected status is that you can bike along actual remnants of the quaint, original canal. As you do, try to imagine what it would have been like to work and travel along this waterway when it was so crucial to Chicago’s growth and the country’s westward expansion. The canal was subsequently dwarfed by the nearby, parallel Sanitary & Ship Canal, opened in 1900. With plenty of shade along the way, this ride is straight, easy and pleasant, which explains why it’s so popular, especially during weekends in the summer.

This ride is the most convenient to Metra, so give the Heritage Corridor line a try. It will drop you right at the trailhead.

 

Ride Log

  • 0.0 Start at the Red Trail trailhead at the southwest end of parking lot, next to the bathrooms, going southwest.
  • 2.2 Cross the tracks and a quiet road that runs into a factory. (Continue straight on, but note the bike path that loops in from left. You’ll return from that direction.)
  • 3.4 Cross the abandoned tracks.
  • 3.8 Follow the trail to the left as it loops around and under Kingery Highway (Highway 83) and returns northeast.
  • 3.9 Note the connection on the right to the Centennial Trail, which runs southwest between the Sanitary & Ship Canal and the Des Plaines River.
  • 5.6 Turn right to reconnect with the path that you came out on.
  • 7.8 Bike northeast through the parking lot to pick up the Black Trail.
  • 9.4 Follow the paved trail to the left under Interstate 294 and swing around to return to the trailhead. The path will widen and appear to be a service road.
  • 11.0 Turn left under highway.
  • 11.1 End ride back at parking lot.
  • Trail map

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    17.829 km / 11.078 mi

    Total Distance

    87 m / 286 ft

    Total Ascent

    87 m / 287 ft

    Total Descent

    185 m / 608 ft

    Highest Point

    Ride type:
    Sightseeing
    Mountain biking
    Road riding
    Commuter
    Kid friendly
    Rail Trail
    Difficulty: Easy (Blue)
    Ride Duration: 1-2 hrs
    Fitness Level: Low
    Terrain:
    Shared Bike Path - Paved
    Shared Bike Path - Dirt
    On-Road Bike Lane
    On-Road
    Off-Road - Fire Trail
    Off-Road - Rail Trail
    Off-Road - Single Track
    Off-Road - Downhill
    Mobile Coverage: Excellent
    Estimated Distance: 18.0
    Services:
    Water
    Food
    First Aid
    Toilets
    Bike hire facilities
    Carparking
    Bike servicing
    Accessible by bike
    Accessible by car
    Accessible by public transport
    Accessible by shuttle / uber

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