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The Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail follows the eponymous waterway alongside the Illinois River. It traverses the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor, designated in 1984 and the first National Heritage Area in the U.S. The pathway runs along the old canal towpath from LaSalle to the historical quarry town of Lemont. Nearly every mile, you’ll find educational markers, so you can learn about the history of the canal and the stories of those who built and traveled the waterway.
The trail surface varies, from well-maintained crushed limestone to grass, asphalt and gravel. In some sections, the path exists on both sides of the canal. Bicyclists should use thicker tires (hybrids or larger).
The route begins just south of the town of LaSalle at Huse Lake. The trailhead is located at a historical canal lock. Enjoy a mule-powered ride in a replica canalboat or explore Lock 14 and the steel silhouettes that help tell the stories of Abraham Lincoln and his family, Wild Bill Hickok and other personalities associated with the canal.
From the trailhead, a short segment of trail heads west, while the vast majority of the trail unfurls to the east. You may find that the short jaunt to the west is worth exploring, though, as it offers a nice tree canopy and views. Begin the longer journey by traveling eastward from the trailhead (to the right, as you face the canal).
The towpath surface is primarily compacted gravel and can collect water after heavy showers. Even with some puddles, the trail is widely used on weekends, and many families and groups of riders can be found with smiling faces. The LaSalle County Historical Museum is located in North Utica just across the canal from the trail, and many riders stop for a visit there and at the local cafés.
A small section of trail shares a paved roadway and provides access to private homes as you continue from west to east, but shortly after this section it can get muddy and a water crossing is missing.
As the trail approaches Ottawa, the surface improves and there is a short rail-with-trail section. You will find some options for food or cold beverages in Ottawa. The trail intersects with the short but paved Ottawa Riverwalk—a picturesque connection to the vibrant downtown business district. Then it crosses the historic Fox River Aqueduct, which was constructed to maintain grade on the canal, well above the river below. Leaving Ottawa, the path is mostly packed gravel, but depending on seasonal rains, it can get wet in spots.
The trail passes through Marseilles, a former industrial powerhouse on the Illinois River, which once housed one of the state’s largest industrial buildings—a cardboard box plant for the National Biscuit Company (NaBisCo). On the other side of the Illinois River, you’ll find Illini State Park (take Main Street south to reach it; the park is just past the dam on the far side of the river) with plenty of recreational opportunities, including camping, fishing, and boating. For a closer rest stop, take the bridge between Main Street and Aurora Street to John C. Knudson Park with restrooms, water, and views of the town’s historical railroad depot.
The route continues through shaded forest canopy to the town of Seneca, where you’ll find the M. J. Hogan Grain Elevator (also known as Armour’s Warehouse)—the oldest structure of its kind that still stands along the canalway. This towering structure harkens back to the days when towns like Seneca loaded agricultural goods onto canalboats bound for markets in Chicago and beyond.
As the trail leaves town, it reenters forested canopy on its way to Morris. As you approach the town, you will come across several camping spots right off the trail, offering a great opportunity for a multiday trail excursion. This section of trail travels by Gebhard Woods State Park. With abundant wildlife and amenities, the 30-acre park is one of the most popular state parks in Illinois. Restrooms, water, and parking are right off the trail by way of a bridge over the canal.
The route continues along both banks of the canal, passing over Nettle Creek into the charming town of Morris. Steeped in canal history, the town has a lot to offer to trail visitors, including several small shops. The trail passes right by the Grundy County Historical Museum (on Nettle Street) and over an impressive trestle that crosses Canal Port Park. As you leave Morris, you’ll pass through the William G. Stratton State Park with access to the Illinois River.
The trail continues through Aux Sable and into McKinley Woods Forest Preserve in Channahon—a 473-acre state preserve with plenty of camping, fishing spots, and picnic areas. The trail occasionally opens up with large grassy areas along the river.
The McKinley Woods portion is one of the most beautiful parts of the route. Not only are you surrounded by green space and next to the river, but you’re also across the river from the Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area. Experience great views of the water, large water birds, and small wildlife of all sorts.
Head north briefly out of the woods, then make your way east up the trail; you can feel yourself slowly getting closer to Chicago. Small towns and recreational areas pop up more frequently. The trail connects via hiking pathways to the vast Community Park in Channahon with various sports fields, forests, and open park areas. The trail comes to an end about 5 miles later in Rockdale, just outside of Joliet.
After a gap, the trail picks up again in the northern end of Joliet at the Joliet Iron Works Historic Site. Here, you can explore the remnants of what was once the second-largest steel mill in the country.
As you approach and enter the town of Lockport, the trail assumes a fun and historical flavor. A nicely paved portion runs through the center of town, where there are some interesting historical signs about the canal and a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in a small park. As you make your way out of Lockport, the trail begins to feel industrial.
At the Romeo Road underpass, you can connect to the Centennial Trail on the west side of the canal. To continue on the I&M Canal State Trail, proceed to the left under the Romeo Road overpass. The first 0.5 mile is on a shared roadway that passes a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility, so be aware of heavy equipment and large vehicles. The pathway continues through an industrial area on a gravel roadway, passing a refinery and other processing plants. After crossing Cico Road, the trail returns to a more traillike condition with crushed-stone surface, but beware that this section of trail can be overgrown in the summer months.
About 1.3 miles after passing the I-355 overpass, you’ll leave the industrial refineries behind as you enter the charming town of Lemont, which traces its history to 1833 and is closely tied to the development of the canal. Here, the trail is part of a well-groomed park just off Front Street, with a bridge leading to a parking lot and providing access to restaurants and shops downtown.
The trail ends in the historical limestone quarries that helped place Lemont on the map in the mid-19th century. Stone from the quarry was of the highest quality and used for many of the town’s buildings, as well as the stunning Chicago Water Tower building—one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The quarries were filled with water and now offer fishing and boating access in the nearly 100-acre Heritage Quarries Recreation Area.
To reach the westernmost trailhead in LaSalle: From I-39/US 51, take Exit 57 for US 6 toward LaSalle-Peru. Head southwest on US 6 W. In 1.2 miles, turn left onto Joliet St. Continue over the bridge and take the first right, which will take you to the parking lot.
To reach the easternmost access point at the Heritage Quarries Recreation Area: From I-55, take Exit 271A to Lemont Road. Head south on Lemont Road, and in 2.9 miles, turn left onto E. Illinois St. In 0.6 mile make a sharp left onto Main St., then a right onto Talcott Ave. After crossing the railroad tracks, turn right. After you cross a second set of railroad tracks, the entrance to the recreation area will be on your right. Parking is available just beyond the entrance.
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