Take I-57 south about half an hour south of Mount Vernon, Illinois, and you’ll come across Rend Lake. In fact, you’ll actually start catching glimpses of the lake itself off to the right earlier than that - it’s pretty big, coming in as the second largest man-made lake in the state. Much of the land around it is protected in one way or another. One of those areas is Wayne Fitzgerell State Park, which I wrote about here a while back.
For this trip I had the opportunity to do some homework ahead of time, and found that Rend Lake has a much longer continuous section of trail system around its southern end, where the dam that formed it falls across the Big Muddy River.
This compares favorably to Wayne Fitzgerell, where the path was shorter, and seemed to lack anything resembling a start or end point.
To get there, you’ll exit I-57 at Benton, and travel back a bit through the countryside. This is all lovely, intensely rural country - trees and water and prairie occasionally punctuated by farms and small towns. If you are from outside of Illinois you may assume that it’s all Chicago, but most of the state is not, of course - most of the state is like this to a greater or lesser degree.
Once you get to the lake, the most challenging part is selecting where to begin. You’ll find, on the map, that you enter on the aptly named Trailhead Lane.
Not far along that path there is a large parking area that clearly abuts the trail. You can see that, because you can see the trail along trailhead lane. What you will also see is that the large parking area is clearly convenient, but it’s not where the trail begins. To be clear, after riding the course, I can say that it would be a fine place to start your ride, but I was looking for the whole trail experience, so I followed the road further in. What you’ll find there is a camping area and spots with smaller parking slots. You have to navigate this while keeping an eye on the trail itself, though, which you gain and lose through the trees as you do it. You’ll have to do that because, as best I can tell, despite the fact that you are driving on Trailhead Lane, there is no place where the actual trail head is marked (although I suppose it’s possible I simply didn’t go far enough in). Doing all of this added about 3/4 of a mile to the ride in each direction. If that extra mile and a half isn’t important to you, I’d suggest starting at the large lot.
Once you get riding you will find a course that offers multiple types of view. Much of it winds through wooded parkland, and for the first section you alternate between that and having the road off to the side. It then opens up into a small open area with the lake in the distance as you approach the side of the dam.
The trail then rises up to the top of the dam, and you cross the Dam Road (the 12-year old boy in me loves that name) and the trail drops into the area below the dam, following along and then crossing the Big Muddy River.
Things change trail-wise here as well. Most of the trail is concrete on either side of the dam, but changes to tar and chip for this section. There are also a couple of sections that are perhaps spillways, where the trail drops down and then up by a couple of feet across a 15-20’ span. I’ve never encountered these anywhere else, but aside from being surprising, they were perfectly navigable.
Views along the Big Muddy are more or less what you would expect. You’ll see woodlands, of course, and you get glimpses of the river along these sections. Part of it is more wetland than river...
And the river itself here, falling just below the dam, is clearly channeled:
As you come out of this loop, the trail takes you out along the dam for approximately a mile:
If you are here looking for wooded lake views, the first two sections of the trail might seem discouraging. Honestly, they were to me, though this was tempered a bit by a desire to get distance under my wheels as well. Press on a bit further, though, and things change. On the other side of the dam things open into the wooded vistas you are seeking.
The trail frequently offers glimpses of the lake, and at times, rides right alongside it. For those inclined to stop and rest along the way, or bring along a picnic lunch, there are many locations, both formal and informal, that allow for this with a lovely lake view.
The park is full of wildlife. As at Wayne Fitzgerell, deer are abundant. I came across small herds multiple times as I was riding, in most cases very close to the trail. On at least two occasions I was riding with deer bounding along the trail just ahead of me. I also came across wild turkeys, and a wide variety of waterfowl, including your usual ducks and geese, of course, but also some types of cranes and/or herons. These last, unfortunately, flew off before I could get a closer look and/or a picture.
This trail is peaceful, but it’s not quiet - or at least it’s not in late summer, when I was riding it. While the visible wildlife aren’t particularly noisy, this is cicada season in southern Illinois. You’ll hear them as an ongoing backdrop, a soundtrack, throughout your ride.
The trail itself is paved throughout. As noted before, below the dam it’s composed of asphalt tar and chip, while on either side above the dam you’ll find concrete. Automatically one might presume to prefer riding on the concrete sections, but there is good and bad there as well. The concrete is laid in large sectional blocks, resembling nothing so much as a very large sidewalk. This means that you hear and, depending on the type of machine you ride, feel the joints in an ongoing rhythmic pattern as you ride them. There is also a tendency, in a few sections, for the concrete segments to undulate, which can be unpleasantly surprising at speed.
And speed is a relevant consideration here. The trails above the dam frequently present as long, sweeping uphill and downhill sections. As uphill goes the grades are relatively gentle, but on the downhill versions of these sections one is rewarded with vigorous pedaling by a high speed twisting, curving ride that feels like you’ve suddenly arrived at Road America.
These sections were a blast on my Catrike Pocket, really bringing out the human-powered gokart feeling that it can offer. I know that it would similarly be a blast on a road bike. But this is also when you discover that some of the sections of concrete undulate like a snake on a Don’t Tread on Me flag...
These winding twisty bits actually presented a bit of a quandary for me, because I wanted to stop and take pictures, but I also didn’t want to because I wanted to crest the next hill to take the next twisting descent...
The trail crosses roadways a few times, but it never joins them. It was busier than I’d found at Wayne Fitzgerell, which is to say that I occasionally came across walkers and a bicycle or two, but much of the time I was blissfully alone. The quality of the trail, and its remove from the roadway was such that darkness falling prior to the end is not a concern if you are comfortable riding with lights. You’ll need them to see, but you won’t particularly need them to be seen, since you are off the roadways.
As with the beginning, there is nothing at the end of it to tell you that you are at the end. You simply empty out into the parking area for a restroom and a bit of looking about finds no additional trail to ride.
Starting at the trailhead suggested by google maps will get you about a 20-mile round trip if you take the whole course. I got a little over 21 miles by going back a little further along the trail.
If you are looking for a place to ride in the region, this trail is absolutely worth checking out. I’d been aware of it before, but didn’t want to drive the few extra miles to get to it, stopping at the state park instead. Next time I’ll do the additional traveling.