Sunday, August 23, 2015

Biking the Illinois and Michigan State Canal Trail

The I&M Canal State Trail was established in 1974 and completed and dedicated in 1999, 150 years after the canal had opened. The canal ran between Lake Michigan on the east and the Illinois River on the west, thus connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River via the Illinois River.

It is now a linear national park (the Illinois and Michigan National Heritage Corridor) administered under the auspices of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and is part of the 450-mile Grand Illinois Trail and also the American Discovery Trail which will eventually traverse from ocean to ocean. It is not to be confused with the much shorter Cook County Forest Preserve Trail also called the I&M Canal Bike Trail.

The trail is well maintained crushed limestone, well marked, and since it was the towpath alongside the canal, has little elevation change. It runs for 61.5 miles.

In four places the canal passes over another waterway by means of aqueducts, an engineering marvel at the time. Below the canal passes over the Green River via this aqueduct. Notice the metal sides. 

The support structure beneath the aqueduct consists of these massive concrete "cradles"
to support the weight of the aqueduct and the water it holds.

Mile marker signs denote the mileage from Chicago to the terminus in LaSalle, Illinois, 96 miles west. The trail runs from mile marker 41 to 96. Historical information is also placed on each sign as well as on larger signs along the trail and at many of the locks and remaining structures. Stopping for these signs imparts a real sense of the immensity of this construction project (built by hand by immigrants from 1936 to 1948) as well as the impact it provided during its life as a working canal before being replaced by railroads and the taming of the adjacent Illinois River with locks and dams.

A few campsites are located along the trail and are available to long distance bikers. Signs indicate a permit is required, so look into that. Water did not appear to be available at most camp sites, and canal water, where existing, was not necessarily the most appealing looking water, so carry plenty with you.

Much of the trail traverses beautiful forest, and the western segment often has a mere depression where the canal had once been, its bed having long ago filled in and become home to dense tree cover. The eastern portion had water and in two sections can be paddled (15 miles from Channahon to Gebhard Woods and five miles from Utica to LaSalle), though a few places had unappealing, stagnant water. The scenic section pictured here has the Illinois River on the left and the canal on the right, with trees and bushes framing each, and runs like this for several miles.

15 locks along the 96 mile waterway allowed boats to negotiate the 140 foot elevation difference from Chicago to LaSalle. The locks are in various states of repair, though one lock, number 14 at the LaSalle Trail Access lot, has been restored and shows how the lock workers opened and shut the gates to let water in and out. Since mules and horses provided the propulsion for the boats, many of the signs gave information on that process. All in all, a ride on this trail provides great exercise, beautiful scenery, and a real sense of history.

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