The Illinois and Michigan Canal—I&M as most people call it—completed the first water route from the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico when it was completed in 1848. The canal connected Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, starting at the south branch of the Chicago River near Bridgeport and continuing 96 miles to the Illinois River near LaSalle, Ill. Mules or horses used the towpath that ran parallel to the canal to pull barges through the canal.
What Makes It Great
In 1933, the canal was replaced by the Illinois Waterway, and is now basically used for recreation. Those towpaths along the canal are the I&M Canal State Trail, which is nearly 70 miles long. The longest section of the trail—61.5 miles—starts in Joliet just south of I-80 and continues all the way to Peru, Ill., just pass I-39.
Going west, you’ll hit several state parks along the trail, including the Channahon State Park in Channahon, Ill.; William G. Stratton State Park in Morris, Ill.; Gebhard Woods State Park in Morris; and the Buffalo Rock State Park, west of Ottawa, Ill.
The trail is flat and for the most part in pretty good shape. As in any trail this long, you’ll certainly find some sections that could use some love, but nothing too distracting for a cyclist. In the summer of 2014, several major sections of the trail were closed because of downed trees from a severe storm, but the majority of the trail appears to be open again.
A second, northern section of the trail is closer to Chicago, and runs from Joliet to Romeoville. Unfortunately the two don’t connect through in Joliet, although you can certainly get from one to the other via surface roads—just don’t expect any signage to guide you. In Romeoville, you can connect to the Centennial Trail, which continues along the DesPlaines River all the way to the Willow Springs Woods Forest Preserve. Note the construction on the Centennial Trail will close sections of it through 2016.
While the trail is relatively flat, you do go through a variety of landscapes, including the sandstone bluffs near Starved Rock State Park. For those interested in finding out more about the history of the I&M Trail, you’ll find several points of interest along the way that highlight how the canal used to work.
See a full map of the trail’s east side here and west side here.
Who is Going to Love It
It’s a good trail for a family ride, as well as anyone looking to put in a lot of miles. History buffs can certainly make a good trip out of it, exploring restored lock-tender houses and other remains from when the canal was in use.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Parking is ample at any of the state parks along the route. At the north section of the trail, you can park at the Joliet Iron Works historic site. At the trailhead to the longer, western section of the trail in Joliet, there’s a parking lot just to the north of the trail.