I&M Canal Trail - LaSalle to Buffalo Rock State Park / by Erin Wade

Last weekend offered up an unexpected opportunity. It took a while to get the requisite everything else done ahead of my Sunday ride, so it was afternoon before I got my trike out to hit the road. Unfortunately, while the rest of the trike was game, the presta valve in my right front tire saw its opportunity to escape, and shot out across the driveway as soon as I popped the cap off. This was, of course, followed by the disheartening sound of all of the air in the tube rushing away, never to return.

Given my own previous experience with my tube changing skills, I quickly looked up the Sunday hours for Bike Works in Peru. It was about 2:00, and they were open till 3:00, which gave enough time to get there with room for a tube change before closing. The folks there were, as always, gracious and quick, and my trike was soon back in working order.

I had originally planned to head back home and ride one of my country road routes, but as I walked around the shop and waited, it occurred to me that I was only a mile or two from the Illinois and Michigan Canal trail along the Illinois River. Despite the fact that it’s less than a half-hour from home, I’d never ridden it. So, in the spirit of lemonade from lemons, I figured I ought to take the opportunity.

I entered the trail off of Joliet Street in downtown LaSalle. The trailhead is a little bit further to the west, in Peru, but I found this entrance first, and I didn’t want to waste daylight looking for the other entrance, so I went with it. This site also retains one of the original locks from the canal itself.

Lock High Side

Lock Low Side

You can get a feel for the change in elevation that the lock system facilitated by looking at the difference in levels on either side of the lock. Unfortunately, the lock doors do tend to gather gunk, but that doesn’t take away from the historical presence of the location. And, one assumes that, when the locks were in operation, that gunk would routinely be washed away.

The site is marked with information signs as well to let you know a thing or two about what you are looking at.

North Meets South

Rough and Ready

The trail itself runs along the canal, mostly on the original towpath (in fact, part of the trail turns out to be a side street called Towpath Road). This spot in LaSalle appears to be a popular one, with plenty of people walking the path and fishing at the side of the canal. One quickly finds that, in the LaSalle area section at least, the path is in need of some attention from a maintenance crew. Potholes abound, and avoiding them required focus on the trail ahead. This is (fortunately) not the case throughout. This first part of the trail was failing asphalt, but the surfaces varied throughout, including crushed stone, dirt, and grass.

Since it’s on the towpath, you are generally in view of the canal. However, this doesn’t always mean what you might think it means. The canal has been out of service for about 85 years. This means that, while sometimes it’s open water...

Open Water

...other sections are essentially completely filled in.

Grass where water used to be... .jpg

There are portions of the trail where, if one did not know there had been a canal along the way, one would not guess that it had been there. This is spoken to by handy mile markers along the way that tell you which mile of the trail you’ve hit, how far you are from the next major point in the trail, and facts about the trail itself.

Mile Marker

The trail travels through the town of Utica, a charming little town that offers up a potential resting point along the way.

Utica downtown from the trail

Info Marker at Utica

The town itself has a tavern or two, a winery, and styles itself as the gateway to Starved Rock State Park, which is on the other side of the river from the canal. And being in the region of the park means that there are scenic bluffs on view during the ride. Sometimes these are glimpsed through the vegetation...

Bluff thru the cattails

...and other times they are right there in front of you.

Split Rock

While there are sections of the trail that run adjacent to, or directly through towns, other sections feel much more remote and rustic. As I moved into the remote and rustic portions foot traffic - and bike traffic for that matter - dropped off considerably. It was possible through some of these sections, overgrown and covered with trees, to feel completely alone.

Alone Time

And speaking of rustic, I came across this set of signs on the section of the trail about halfway between Utica and Buffalo Rock State Park:

Caution Signs

As one proceeds (cautiously) past the signs, this is what one finds:

Foot Bridge

Fortunately the trike only comes in around 35 pounds (33 without accessories) so it was easy enough to carry across the footbridge. That bridge is just laid in place, and some thoughtful soul has tied it off to a tree so it doesn’t wash away. While this was fun to come across, presents in stark contrast to other sections of the trail, where the bridge construction is at a somewhat higher level.

Bridge across the canal in Utica

As it says in the title, I followed the trail to Buffalo Rock State Park. As you start to enter park area you begin to come across picnic spots that range from basic...

Trailside picnic spot

...to advanced.

Picnic shelter

At Buffalo Rock itself there is a parking area for entering the trail. This sits just outside the entrance to the park itself, so if one wanted to ride into the park that option is available.

Arrived at Buffalo Rock

The park is about three miles from Ottawa, so one has the option of riding further and heading in to Tangled Roots for a draft and to fill a growler, or maybe swinging by BASH for a bit of sushi. For my part, I rode just a bit past the park entrance to round out the ride to 10 miles (I like round numbers where I can get them) and then turned around.

The rough condition of the trail around LaSalle aside, most of it is in good shape. Being along a canal there are very few sudden changes in elevation, so it’s the distance rather than any hill climbing that one has to take as the challenge. I could absolutely see taking the opportunity to bring along a picnic lunch, or maybe stopping along the way in Utica for a drink and a snack. The quiet moments along the trail give a feel for what it must have been like, 85 years ago and more, working the mules to pull the barges along the canal. I don’t know why I waited so long to go out and ride this trail, and I’m certainly glad that I took this opportunity.