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.
Wide paved path in good repair over flat terrain.
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.
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.
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.
17.829 km / 11.078 mi
87 m / 286 ft
87 m / 287 ft
185 m / 608 ft