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The Old Plank Road Trail travels nearly 22 miles between Chicago Heights and Joliet across a densely populated suburban landscape, where you’re never far from a café or espresso stand. Still, you might be surprised at the richness of the natural areas that border this historical pathway.
The trail follows an American Indian track around Lake Michigan that was later used by fur trappers and early settlers. Business interests later acquired the corridor for a plank road. Before they started laying lumber, however, they decided that a railroad was a better idea. The old Michigan Central Railroad (MCRR) line fired up in the mid-1850s and ran through here between East Gary (now known as Lake Station), Indiana, and Joliet, Illinois, until the 1970s. Observers nicknamed it the Joliet Cut-Off because it enabled trains headed west to bypass Chicago. Remaining mileage markers still tell the distance to East Gary.
When the line went out of service, trail supporters realized that the railroad had unintentionally preserved swaths of natural prairie that had never been cultivated. That prairie growth survives along the trail in many places today.
Beginning in Chicago Heights where the Old Plank Road Trail meets the Thorn Creek Trail, you’ll head 2.5 miles west to the village of Park Forest’s Rail Fan Park, a railroad aficionado’s dream. The park features a raised viewing platform, where you can watch north-south and east-west trains on the Canadian National Railway change direction on an elevated interchange that’s described as a giant cloverleaf, while Metra commuter trains whiz past.
Look for wildlife in about 3 miles as you pass through the Dewey Helmick and Old Plank Road Prairie Nature Preserves at the headwaters of Butterfield Creek. More than 200 species of prairie plants thrive here, attracting 170 bird species, such as bald eagles and herons. Mammals include muskrats, coyotes, and beavers.
Frankfort, the trail’s physical and spiritual center, comes into view in about 5 miles. You’re welcomed by an archway overhead that’s emblazoned with the trail’s name. The pathway runs through the community’s historical downtown with many shops and restaurants within easy reach. A bustling Sunday farmers’ 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.
A side trip 2.2 miles past US 45 picks up the Hickory Creek Bikeway (its west branch) that winds through a forest preserve for 3.6 miles. It ends at a trailhead and site of a 1930s-era one-room schoolhouse in New Lenox.
Returning to the Old Plank Road Trail, the terrain slopes slightly downhill for the next 8 miles to the outskirts of Joliet. Though you’re passing through a developing residential and commercial area, a forested buffer screens much of it.
To reach the eastern endpoint on Campbell Ave. in Chicago Heights: From I-57, take Exit 340 for US 30/Lincoln Hwy. Go 4.6 miles east and turn right onto Campbell Ave. Go 0.5 mile to the Old Plank Road Trail crossing and look for parking on side streets.
To reach the western trailhead on E. Washington St. in Joliet: From I-80, take Exit 134 and go north on S. Briggs St. Go 0.6 mile and turn left onto E. Washington St. Go 0.5 mile and look for trailhead parking on the right.
Nice flat trail , easy too access from different areas that’s a plus , only downside is too manny stops in Frankfort cross traffic, otherwise it’s a gem , a shout out too the Madison county trail in western Illinois 123 miles of trails really nice 👍
I rode this trail on 7-14-17 from the small Harlem Avenue parking lot to just east of the Metra Station in Matteson. This is a good, straight, smooth, and level, paved trail. The section I was rode was interesting in that there were ponds, open fields, woods, and wetlands along the way. An added bonus was Rail Fan Park in Matteson, which features nice informational placards about the Railroad industry of the Chicago metro area. Also there's an old caboose and an observation platform high in the air, on which you can ride your bike to the top.
I have ridden dozens of rail trails, but this is my home trail and also one of my favorites. The trail rises slightly uphill from the start at Washington Street on the east side of Joliet, and I recommend that as the start. The trail head in Joliet--although not in the best of neighborhoods--has been safe to park in during the day and is maintained by the Will County Forest Preserve as well as policed by them. You will ride under the graffiti riddled Briggs Street overpass and then into wooded areas that take you through Joliet, Cherry Hill and New Lenox. One of the longest sections without crossings is between Schoolhouse Road and 116th in New Lenox--and at the halfway point in this section there is a spur over to Hickory Creek where you can ride lots of hills and fast passes. Frankfort is a great stop and was the halfway point before the trail was extended on the east end. Frankfort is a good place to stop and use the bathroom or drinking fountain or have a snack & water up. After Frankfort you ride through a forested area with a decline and incline. Richton Park takes you over a causeway through a nature preserve and soon thereafter you pass under Interstate 57. There is a gazebo near Cicero Avenue that is a good place to take a break, and the crossing at Cicero winds around in front of a Menards where there is a traffic signal. Next you ride through Park Forest and cross under the Metra (the old Illinois Central) on you way to the previous end point at Western Avenue. There are some cool old train displays in Park Forest. The new section of the trail past Western Avenue takes you about another mile and a half and links up with the Thorn Creek Trail. I am told if you go north you can eventually link up with the Burnham Greenway which takes you to the Lake Front Path, but I have only gone south toward Sauk Woods where there are some great trails to ride through the preserve. On the east end of the trail you can navigate the city streets of Joliet a little more than a mile to the Wauponsee Glacial Trail which takes you all the way south to the Kankakee River. The OPT is a great long ride that has many options on each end.
This is a nice easy-going trail that is very enjoyable to ride. I love that it crosses through the quaint town of Frankfort where you can stop, rest and have a bite.
I have to agree about the increasing amount of cross streets and traffic that you have to put up with. This trail needs overpasses or bridges over the more congested sections that can put your ride to a halt.
I've been riding the Old Plank a few times a year, for the last few years, and while the trail is in great shape, the number of cars and busy street crossings have increased exponentially. What used to be undeveloped lands are now shopping centers and housing tracts, and the last time I was out I had to wait over 5 minutes to cross one of the streets (a car stopped allowing a group of us to cross) and over 3 minutes at another. That adds up when all you want to do is go for a nice long ride.
Excellent bike path.
I rode the Old Plank Road Trail on a late-spring Saturday in perfect weather- sunny, 70 degrees, little wind. Despite all of this and being close to Chicago the trail was not overcrowded. There were families, pets, roller-bladers, etc., but nobody was slowing anyone else down. It's wide, paved (and in good condition), and long enough to make for a serious ride. Being in a populated area there have to be street crossings, but even those were spaced well enough not to become annoying.
The scenery was nice; mostly through wooded areas with frequent views of the adjacent neighborhoods and retail districts at the busier crossroads. There are parks along the way which provided several options for lunch and rest breaks. I parked at the Hickory Creek Junction access point. There are connected trails through the Forest Preserve here and a map with a loop route posted. For some reason the permanent restroom building was locked, and a porta-potty in need of service has been placed next to it.
I started at the end point on E Washington St in Joliet and rode it to the other end at Western Ave. It was 41 miles round trip. The path is mostly shaded though in the middle there are some wetlands and prairie. The ride takes you thru charming Frankfort Il and their historical district. There is a gelato place there right next to the path, but alas they only take cash. The path is all asphalt and very well maintained. There are a lot of chipmunks, and rabbits with the chipmunks often scurrying with inches of the bike tire. The only downgrade for this path is that there are more scenic paths, and it crosses many roads, but this is still a great path.
This is an Awesome Trail for an easy, non-stressful ride.
It is consistently flat and not technically difficult to find or ride. The distance is what gives you the workout.
My only suggestion would be to not park your car at the Trailhead on North Street in Park Forest (We're new to the area so if this information is well known to the 'locals' then disregard this portion of the review). It's a Sketchy neighborhood and I wondered if my car would still be there when we got back. I would suggest going father west to park. Plus, and I hate to say this, but if you're a lone female I would definitely pick up the trail farther West where the trail is busier (I know that is what I will be doing the next time I go).
The trail is a great way to spend an afternoon. We were there on a Saturday afternoon in May. It was the perfect weather for biking and the trail was not too packed. There is an awesome place you bike through in FrankFort that has oddles of places for you to stop, relax and have a bite to eat. We may do that next time.
An excellent stretch of mostly straight trail. Incredible scenery, and one of the few patches of natural land that can be found in this area.
I've gone on mostly off times and had no issues with crowding. There are some fast cyclists who frequent this trail, but I never saw it as a problem.
A fun stretch, definitely a must ride in the Chicago Area.
I started going there a few weeks ago with a friend early in the morning on Sunday. We were yelled at twice by people taking it Way Too Seriously for a "family friendly" local trail! If you want to hardcore train...then do it somewhere where they don't have children and dogs out to enjoy it! Anyway, it is overall a very nice trail! There are benches if you want to stop and rest, which we didn't. The streets were well marked and not too busy for crossing. I went then by myself all the way to the end, which once I went under 2 bridges that were covered in graffitti, I became a little nervous and knew that I had now entered Joliet! It was fine...shortly thereafter the trail ended and I turned and went back. From Frankfort it was a 23.1 miles round trip. Very nice, but I was on a mountain bike and thought I would never return to my car! I immediately after went to the bike shop and changed the tires on my bike to a less knobby tire! Does get a little too crowded on the weekends if your looking for a real good workout, but so nice to be outside!
I grew up in Joliet but haven't biked there since I was a teen in the early 1980s. I happened to have a new road bike with me when I visited my family on Christmas weekend, and since there was no snow and the temps were in the low 40s I decided to give the Old Plank Road Trail a try. Because of the condition of roads in the area, I didn't expect to have such a great time biking. I rode from Ingalls Park in Joliet to Cicero Ave. (near Richmond Park) and back on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The scenery was very nice and the trail surface was in great shape. The signage at intersections was clear and helpful. There were plenty of other users on the trail that day, and with just a few exceptions, everyone stayed to the right and both foot and bike traffic flowed smoothly. The trail is a great asset to the area and I look forward to biking it again.
I ride this trail 3 or 4 times a week.(Yellow jersey, blue bike ,smiling all the time, answers to Jimbo). Frankfort is midpoint.Highpoint is Frankfort.Lowpoint is west end of trail (Joliet).Fast riders are usually on in the morning.Trail does have a cross street every mile or two.The trail gets a little crowded Sunday afternoons.Nice people and some nice scenery.
Summertime they have classic car show on Thursday evenings. http://www.frankfortcarclub.org/cruisin_frankfort_2010
Sundays (10-2PM) farmers market. http://www.frankfortcountrymarket.org/home.html
Bike shop is on the trail at Frankfort. Opens at noon if you need parts or help. http://plankroadcyclery.com/
If you like ice cream check out http://www.kernelsweetooth.com/ or http://www.mycreamery.com/frankfort.html
Always help fellow riders in need.
The Frankfort Country Market (April - October) sets up a nice farmers market. There are vendors selling pizza, sandwiches, and other snack-type as well as lunch-type fare. Plus, nice place to pickup fresh eggs, meats, etc. if you have adequate storage.
Bathroom at the intersection of White Street by the Breidert Green town square is very nice.
"While this is one of the nicest trails in the South Suburbs, it is also one of the most dangerous rail trails I have ever ridden. On the weekends it is very heavily used. The joggers, walkers and dog people were for the most part courteous, I can't say the same for the cyclist. From the group that thought they were in the Tour de France racing along at speeds way out of proportion to the rest of the users, to the herds of Senior Citizens( and I am one also) who don't know what single file means, the collisions I witnessed recently make this a must avoid trail on the weekend. I have enjoyed riding it the past two years, but I can't recommend it on the weekend to anyone. "
This trail still has plenty of rural scenery with a mix of woods and prairie as of November 2005. The pavement provide a smooth ride. The road crossings are far enough apart that you can ride for a mile or two at times without having to stop. It is one of the best trails I have done in the Chicagoland area.
"The Old Plank Trail is wonderful for cycling. Not only does our biking club use this trail, my husband and I both commute by bike to work and the Metra train station on the trail. What an incredible way to start a day -- cycling past herons and egrets, and maybe even spotting a beaver! The trail also connects with several other biking trails for added variety."
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