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Running between the suburbs of Chicago Heights and Joliet, the Old Plank Road Trail offers views of oak trees and sugar maples, prairie grasses, and wildflowers that peek up through the underbrush.
The trail follows a Native American 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.
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