The folks at Duffy's Tavern in Utica, Ill. (technically North Utica), predict an uptick in business this fall. The summer's brutal heat kept many cyclists off the Illinois & Michigan Canal path, but Duffy's, a popular watering hole within sight of the route, expects the return of more thirsty, spandex-clad customers as the weather mellows.
In fact, this summer's record-breaking temperatures persuaded many riders in the Midwest to stay inside, but now, as autumn descends, is the time to get those bikes back out, check the tire pressure and recover some lost miles. The fall is always a good time to bike in Illinois.
The I&M route is an excellent choice to do this, especially for casual bikers seeking a spin with enjoyable pit stops and sightseeing. The tow path trail is flat, mostly crushed rock, parallels the canal waters, and you soon will be guaranteed brilliant fall foliage pedaling through historic Illinois towns such as Ottawa, Utica and LaSalle.
But if you are a hard-core biker who likes to record new benchmarks, the I&M can be coupled with the lesser-known but equally expedient Hennepin Canal path to get across Illinois parallel to Interstate Highway 80 much of the way. Together, these dedicated trails cover nearly 60 percent of the miles it takes to make the trip on two wheels, no more than two days in good weather.
"We're fortunate to have these two links," said Steve Buchtel, executive director of Trails for Illinois, a bicycle-advocacy group. "Active vacations are a rising trend. More people are getting out and doing these sorts of things like biking, and this can really help the economy."
The good news for bikers going the distance is this: Whether you are self-contained rider or have support, there are numerous options between Joliet and the Quad Cities for overnight stays on the nearly 140-mile route. You will pass through Morris (Quality Inn, Holiday Inn Express), Ottawa (Super 8, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, Econolodge), Peru (Super 8, Quality Inn) and Geneseo (American Best Value), where national motels are available without adding much distance to your day.
If you're hardier and camping, there are the Illini State Park Campground at Marseilles and Starved Rock State Park Campground at Utica on the I&M. On the Hennepin, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has nine designated sites that can be learned by calling 815-454-2328 or going to the DNR website link at dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/programs/camping.
I've biked both Illinois canals, plus parts in between, and the experience is not unlike biking the more famous Erie Canal, which I also have ridden the full distance. The Erie is a popular upstate New York ride, done either in part or full, and has grown into a powerful economic tool for the Empire State.
In Illinois, the official, full I&M canal biking trail goes 60 miles, from Joliet to LaSalle, touching some of the state's most important historic sites, including the canal itself. After 12 years of digging, a painstakingly primitive process costing many lives, the canal opened in 1848 and became a vital commercial connection between Chicago and the Mississippi River until rail travel exploded later in the 1800s.
There are locks, tollhouses and restored buildings along the way to remind bikers that this route once thrived as a commercial thoroughfare before becoming the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor it is today. In LaSalle, there is a mule-powered canal passenger boat offering rides to visitors at Lock 14.
A good entry point easy for Chicago bikers is nine miles beyond Joliet in Channahon, which offers a large, shady parking lot typically populated with bikers. There are great views headed westward from there, with the canal on the right side and Illinois River on the left in one stretch.
Morris is a 14-mile ride, and there bikers can detour into the William G. Stratton State Park. In Utica, they can peel off and visit Starved Rock State Park.
Ottawa is loaded with reasons to stop, not the least being restrooms and restaurants. Downtown Washington Square was the site of the first of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas. In the immediate vicinity are pre-Civil War mansions and churches tracing roots to the years when the city was a remote outpost for missionaries and pioneers.
In LaSalle, in addition to boat rides, the Lock 16 Visitor Center, across the canal bridge from Lock 14, is headquarters for the Canal Corridor Association, featuring a gift shop, restaurant and restrooms. The restored Hegeler Carus Mansion, home of a prosperous 19th-century zinc magnate, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and only a few blocks from the center.
The string of towns on the I&M also gives casual riders options for short, family-friendly loops. Example: The distance between Utica and LaSalle is about five miles, meaning a 10-mile round trip. Or, if the starting point is Utica or Ottawa, a ride between those two spots is about nine miles for an 18-mile round trip. Morris to Ottawa is 23 miles, or a 46-mile round trip.
Hard-core bikers have no problem knocking off the I&M's entire 60 miles in a day, with the route ending in LaSalle. To get to the Hennepin path, they must negotiate a 19-mile stretch to Bureau Junction. From there it is another 58 miles to the western end in Colona, Ill. Then, the remaining nine miles to the Mississippi River take riders through much of East Moline on city streets.
The route is part of the larger Grand Illinois Trail, which offers riders a way to do a complete loop from Chicago to the Mississippi without covering the same ground twice. Everything is carefully laid out and described in maps available to the public on the Illinois Department of Natural Resources website.
The actual canal paths total 118 miles and are clear sailing, except for debris after a storm, gaggles of geese waddling down the path or an occasional deer refusing to budge. The gap between them is a different story.
The 19-mile gap between the I&M and Hennepin made me feel more like Magellan than Lance Armstrong. To make the connection following my Grand Illinois Trail directions, I spent more time than I cared on gravel roads, got lost in De Pue (population 1,842) and felt a little uneasy on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 6 heading up hills into Spring Valley as traffic whizzed by.
There are local efforts to connect the I&M and Hennepin with a dedicated path. That's all that is missing to make this trip even more inviting — and quicker.
If you're interested
One good way to have a bicycle experience on the Illinois & Michigan Canal path is to participate in the 23rd annual Pumpkin Pie Ride, expected to draw close to 400 riders, according to Dixie DeVry, an event organizer for the sponsoring Starved Rock Cycling Club. "The Burgoo Festival is also going on over in Utica, so we've got that going for us too," DeVry said.
The event is Oct. 7, starting at the YMCA in Ottawa. Participants can pick one of four loops that will be marked, including some on the I&M trail. Info: 815-830-4291, starvedrockcycling.com/pprpage.htm
The Apple Cider Century, in Three Oaks, Mich., is an extremely popular ride with Chicagoans, who have only to go to the far southwestern tip of Michigan to participate. It is Sept. 30.
Info: 888-877-2068, applecidercentury.com
Closer to home, this will be the 10th anniversary for the Blood, Sweat & Tears ride in Highland Park, a Sept. 30 benefit event for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Info: 312-568-7717, il.bike.llsevent.org
Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail: dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/i&m/main.htm
Trails for Illinois: trailsforillinois.tumblr.com
Grand Illinois Trail maps: http://www.dnr.illinois.gov/recreation/greenwaysandtrails/Documents/gitusersguide.pdf
League of Illinois Bicyclists: bikelib.org