The 20-mile Old Plank Road Trail travels over the original Michigan Central Rail Road (MCRR) line, a railroad started about 1850 that ran from Lake Station in East Gary to Joliet. The rail was nicknamed the “Joliet Cut-Off” because it enabled trains to skip Chicago.
Originally a Native American transportation corridor, the route was used occasionally by traders, trappers and missionaries. Later, European settlers used the pathway to find their own homesteads. Today, the oncoming traffic is more likely to be a pack of retired cyclists zipping by, or parents with strollers.
The east end of the trail is in Chicago Heights, where it intersects the Thorn Creek Trail, a scenic 17-mile route through several parks and forest preserves.
From there, the Old Plank Road Trail heads west into Park Forest, where you’ll find Rail Fan Park, a two-acre site with interpretive signage on the railroad industry and history in the area, a bright red 60-year-old caboose, and native vegetation that railroad travelers would have seen from their windows in the late 1800s. The park’s centerpiece is a raised observation platform from which visitors can see something quite extraordinary: a rare cloverleaf interchange for trains that was created at the intersection of two major rail routes, one going east-west and the other north-south.
Continuing west, the trail alternates between secluded, quiet sections and suburbs. It connects Richton Park, Frankfort, and New Lenox, and ends on the eastern edge of Joliet.
Frankfort is the trail’s physical, and spiritual, center. As one enters town, a beautiful archway emblazoned with the trail’s name curves overhead, a welcoming sight. The pathway runs through the community’s historic downtown with many charming shops and restaurants within easy reach. A bustling Sunday farmer’s market offers locally grown produce and homemade baked goods May through October. On the western side of town, the trail reaches an award-winning arrowhead-shaped suspension bridge, which takes you over US 45.
To reach the Western Avenue trailhead in Park Forest, take US 30 to the Western Avenue Exit and follow Western Avenue south for about 0.5 mile. The trailhead is on the right.
To reach the Joliet trailhead, take Interstate 80 to the east side of Joliet and exit at S. Briggs Street. Follow S. Briggs north to E. Washington Street and travel west. Just over 1.5 miles, the trailhead is on the right.