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The Virgil L. Gilman Trail travels from quiet forest and prairie lands to bustling neighborhoods in just 11 miles, linking a woodsy community college campus with the eastern Chicago suburb of Montgomery. The trail’s namesake, Virgil Gilman, served as administrator of the Fox Valley Park District for 30 years and successfully championed public access to Fox River, as the public shoreline grew from 66 feet in 1946 to 20 miles during his tenure.
The rail-trail is built along the routes of two former railroads. In the west, the corridor of the Chicago, Aurora & DeKalb Railroad was utilized; it ran as an interurban route 1906–1923, though it never reached Chicago. East of Copley Park, trail builders used the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway’s Aurora Branch, which survived as a railroad until the late 1970s.
Beginning at Waubonsee Community College, you’ll head across native prairie for the first mile on asphalt, then travel on a short section of crushed stone (for 0.3 mile) before returning to a paved surface for the remainder of the trail. Back on pavement, you’ll head into the Bliss Woods Forest Preserve, where you’ll find large white and black oaks, as well as sycamore, white poplar, and cottonwood. Birders enjoy spotting downy woodpeckers, cardinals, and blue jays along the path.
Leaving Bliss Woods, the route follows Blackberry Creek and crosses IL 56 on a pedestrian bridge 3.2 miles past the college. In 0.2 mile, a trail heads north into the 715-acre Aurora West Forest Preserve, an old farming area that’s being restored to its natural state.
In another 1.3 miles, look for a path on the left that heads into Blackberry Farm. This living history replica of 19th-century pioneer life was created by Virgil Gilman as Pioneer Park and continues to be popular today.
Past the park, the trail rolls in between housing subdivisions and alongside an active railroad corridor, though thick vegetation screens both from your sight. Arriving at Terry Avenue, the trail continues 0.5 mile on quiet side streets that are very easy to navigate. Take a left onto Terry Avenue, followed quickly by a right onto Rathbone Avenue. Follow Rathbone, and turn left immediately after an at-grade railroad crossing to regain the trail as you enter Copley Park.
Leaving the park, you pass beneath two railroad overpasses in quick succession and arrive at a circa 1897 railroad trestle across the Fox River in 0.4 mile. This is also a junction for the north-south Fox River Trail that runs 44 miles from Algonquin to Oswego.
After crossing the bridge and the riverside commercial district, the trail ends with a 2.7-mile run through established Aurora neighborhoods with frequent street crossings. There’s a little bit of wildness in the remaining 0.3 mile before the trail ends, however, as the trail crosses Waubonsie Creek, whose wetlands host migratory birds in season.
To reach the western trailhead at Waubonsee Community College: From I-88 W, take Exit 113 for IL 56 W. Continue south on IL 56 for 2.3 miles and turn right onto E. Galena Blvd. In 1.3 miles, turn right onto IL 47, and in 1.5 miles, turn right onto Waubonsee Dr. at the entrance of Waubonsee Community College. Go 0.4 mile, turn right onto Circle Dr., and look for parking. From I-88 E, take Exit 109 for IL 47. Head south on IL 47 for 2.1 miles, and turn left onto Waubonsee Dr. at the entrance of Waubonsee Community College. Go 0.4 mile, turn right onto Circle Dr., and look for parking.
To reach the eastern trailhead on Hill Ave.: From I-88, take the exit for N. Farnsworth Ave. near mile marker 119. Head south on N. Farnsworth Ave. 4.5 miles, and turn right onto Montgomery Road. In 0.3 mile, turn left onto Hill Ave. The trailhead parking lot is 0.6 mile ahead on the left.
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