In rural northern Illinois there is a hidden gem of a state park. It’s long and narrow, and follows along the man-made waterway known as the Hennepin Canal.
Narrow to be certain - the park is generally the width of the canal and it’s towpaths, give or take a few expanded recreation and/or information areas. But also long to be sure. The Illinois DNR website indicates that the park occupies 104.5 linear miles, with 155 miles of towpath for riding/walking, etc. The canal runs from from the Illinois River just east of Bureau Junction to the Mississippi River near Rock Island. There is also a feeder canal that runs from Rock Falls southward and meets the main canal near Sheffield. The feeder itself runs nearly 30 miles, and provides water from the Rock River to the canal.
The eastern trail head is located in the tiny town of Bureau Junction, at the site of Lock 2.
There is a Lock 1, apparently a little further to the east, but the towpath was not maintained between Locks 1 and 2, and Lock 1 is underwater during the summer months, making it hard to access and hard to see.
Driving to the trail head brought back a lot of memories. When I was a kid my family spent a lot of time on the Illinois river and its tributaries in this area. This included fishing trips with my father and grandfather, and weekend days at a beach along the river, swimming and waterskiing and watching the barges pass by. We’d marvel at the (relatively) tiny tugboats pushing row after row of shipping barge ahead of them. We’d have to stop and marvel because they also kicked up a significant wake that made you want to clear out of the water until they passed. And each trip we’d have to have at least one discussion about how it was odd that they were called tug boats, when they were actually pushing their cargo...
Driving to the trailhead brought back these memories. The geography of the roads changes as you get into river country - the formal grid of farm country yields to the twisting nature dictated by the rivers and streams - and the smell of the air shifts to reflect the presence of the waterways even when you cannot see them.
The trailhead is set at Lock 2, and it literally begins at the lock.
I decided to ride from the trail head to Lock 13 and back, a round trip a little over 22 miles. The surface of the trail varies considerably over that distance, from what appears to be older asphalt to crushed stone to dirt. One section, maybe 3/4’s of a mile long, is white chip gravel, with all the slow-going that entails for any cycle without wide tires (even a trike - you don’t worry about falling over, but you do still get to experience all of the bone shaking joy). Portions of the trail had late spring grass growing in abundance.
Traveling this direction takes you past the locks in ascending numerical order. As such, Lock 3 is the first you encounter, just a short ways down the trail. While Lock 2 is the beginning of the trail, Lock 3 may be the preferred starting point for the non-completist. This point in the park has a large cement parking lot (compared to the small affair at the trailhead).
A couple of weeks ago I ventured out on the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail, which was part of what made me think of this trail, which is a little further from home. Given that both are trails that run along the towpath of a canal, you’d expect riding them to be similar experiences. This is true, to some degree, but there are important differences between the two, at least for the sections that I’ve ridden.
The I&M Canal runs through multiple towns along its course. The section I rode began in LaSalle, went through Utica, and I stopped just three miles shy of Ottawa. Each of these locations offers opportunities to stop and eat, have a drink, all within a short distance from the path. As a result, you are also riding, albeit briefly, through settled areas.
The Hennepin Canal is decidedly more remote. Though the towpath crosses roads, for the 11 mile stretch that I rode it was mostly just me, the trail, and the canal. People fishing were encountered along the trail, typically within walking distance of the road crossings, but otherwise I was mostly alone.
The Canal itself is still almost entirely open water. This means that riding along it provides a view that includes water throughout, including the requisite wildlife; And the wildlife abound. Fish surface and jump in the canal, frogs wait alongside the trail, and I saw more herons in this single two and a half hour ride than I’ve ever seen on a single day before. I also frequently caught sight of a small dark yellow bird I did not recognize - not bright enough to be a goldfinch, but of similar size. My best guess, based on my Peterson Field Guide, would be a Common Yellowthroat. If so, common or not, it was new to me.
The Canal is almost entirely open water. There were multiple sections with land bridges intersecting the canal. The canal still flows past them, through culverts, but they appear frequently along the way.
If you look at the satellite view from Apple or Google maps you get a sense of how these re-occur along this section of the canal.
In some cases roads run across them, but in others they are simply grass covered. One assumes these were filled in to allow easy passage perhaps to farmers and others attempting to cross from one side of the canal to the other. This has little impact on biking other than to provide a short variation to the scenery. However, if one were canoeing or kayaking along this section of the canal, between the land bridges and the locks one would have to expect to portage frequently. Looking at the map the feeder canal appears to be free of either land bridges or locks, so that section might be the better choice for paddler.
In fact, at one point I did have to do my own, cycling version of a portage...
One might expect a canal towpath to be mostly level. However, on this section there are elevation changes, some of them abrupt, particularly as one goes under bridges.
It is also the case that, from Lock 2 to the point where the feeder canal joins near Sheffield, the canal is rising. This isn’t easy to see, but one can feel it when riding. I was definitely faster on the way back.
In most cases the trail rises up to cross roads, but in one case it has a tunnel that runs under the roadway.
One wants to take care entering the tunnel. It’s not long, but the trail surface inside is dirt, and considerably less dry than the surface outside. I had to pick my way along it carefully to not end up with a back full of muddy water.
The other distinction of this canal is the locks themselves. Perhaps because it is younger and was in service later than the I&M Canal (still an active waterway until the early 1950’s) the locks are present and visible along the way. Their presence gives a feel for something very different than just riding along a river, and they provide more interesting markers of distance than a simple mile sign. Each of them has been set up now with a cement wall in place of the old lock hardware, causing a waterfall at each transition.
And the locks are each marked with depth measurements, likely to guide the lock tenders as they filled the lock in.
When you reach Lock 11, you’ll find a picnic area, as well as some weathered information signs to give you some of the history of the canal:
While I rode out to Lock 13, my actual goal was to reach Lock 12. This is due to a personal connection there - as I understand it, my Great-Grandfather Percy worked as a lock tender for this particular lock. I’d heard this before, and always pictured him coming from his home to work at the lock, one of probably multiple shift workers tending to it to facilitate barge traffic. It turns out this was a much bigger job than I’d imagined - the lockmen lived on the canal, provided with houses and outbuildings to support their work there. It was a year-round job, and in the winter they would cut ice from the canal and sell it to help fund its operation.
Lock 12 was also the site of one of the canal’s aqueducts - essentially a huge cement water bridge that carried the canal over existing natural waterways. In the case of Lock 12, it carried the canal over Big Bureau Creek. According to Wikipedia, of the nine original aqueducts, six remain while the other three were removed with piping put in to carry the flow of the canal water under the waterway it crossed. Lock 12 is one of the three that were removed.
On the western side of the bridge you can see the water reach its end...
...and there is a large drain gate for the water to descend.
Looking closely at the eastern side you can see the water burbling up inside the lock.
Bureau Creek is far below, with some of what must the the original pilings to support the aqueduct still present.
Bureau Creek is actually a recurring companion along the trip, often visible on the trail opposite the canal. It is visually distinct, being a winding, twisting affair as it works its own path down to the Illinois River. This periodically gives one the sensation of riding along a causeway just above the water, which is a pleasant experience.
There are campgrounds along the trail. They must be well-hidden, as it appears that I passed two of them, at Lock 6 and Lock 11, and did not see them. In both cases it appears they are on the opposite side of the canal from the cycling trail. If one wanted to do a multiple day trip along the canal, it appears it would be friendly for bikepacking.
If you go, you’ll want to bring along your own supplies. I’ve already mentioned that it’s remote, and the DNR website notes that the only drinking water available on the route is located at the visitor center. I actually wished I had brought along a second bottle of water for myself on this go-round. If you look at the canal along the map, it’s rare that it travels through settled areas of any size. You are on your own for drinks and snacks.
However, if you are looking for an opportunity to ride out alone in the wilderness - something that can be challenging in our well-settled times - this trail definitely offers the opportunity. You’ll come across the occasional fishing folks, and the sighting of them generally signals that you are close to a crossroads or trail entry point. Otherwise, if my trip was any gauge, you can expect long stretches of solitude in company of nature.