Illinois Bike Trails: The Ultimate Guide to the State’s Best Rides

Two people riding Illinois bike trails

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Are you looking for bike trails in the Land of Lincoln? Our ultimate guide to Illinois bike trails covers the best rides in the state, including an interactive bike map and loads of links.

This piece will introduce you to over 350 miles of multi-use trails in three sections: The Great American Rail-Trail, Aurora / West Chicago Trail System, and other significant bike trails in Illinois.

Illinois bike trails
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Illinois Biking Map

This interactive Illinois biking map contains all the bike trails mentioned in this article—at least the Illinois bike trails. The points of interest are constructed with native Google pins, so please click in for descriptions, pictures, ratings, and reviews. It’s like a virtual bike tour of Illinois!

Great American Rail-Trail (193.5 mi identified/ 168.3 mi completed)

The Great American Rail-Trail is the most ambitious U.S. bike project ever, stretching more than 3,700 miles across a dozen states and Washington, D.C.. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy says it “promises an all-new American experience, creating new access to the outdoors and America’s heritage, people, and places for the millions of trail users who will visit,” and we agree! To date, there are more than 2,057 miles of trail in the Great American Rail-Trail, making it 55% complete.

Illinois is the Buckle of the Great American, with 193.5 identified trail miles and 168.3 miles of completed trail. From east to west, the trail segments in Illinois are:

  • Pennsy Greenway (.5 mi)
  • Trail Gap 27 – Lansing Greenway (2.4 mi)
  • Thorn Creek Trail (10.3 mi)
  • Old Plank Rd Trail (21.6 mi)
  • Trail Gap 28 – Joliet (3.5 mi)
  • Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail (60.4 mi)
  • Trail Gap 29 – LaSalle to Bureau Junction (14.6 mi)
  • Hennepin Canal State Trail (63.2 mi)
  • Trail Gap 30 – Colona to Silvis (4.7 mi)
  • Grand Illinois Trail (East Moline) (2.9 mi)
  • Beacon Harbor Parkway Trail (1.1 mi)
  • Great River Trail (7.7 mi)
  • Mississippi River Crossing (.6 mi)

The trail is tantalizingly close to being 100% complete in Illinois, and just imagine the possibilities when it is. Brandi Horton, Vice President of Communications at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, said at a community dinner event in Peru, Illinois, “You realize now what could happen if we just closed that 15-mile gap, and I can tell you from what we see across the country what can happen? It is incredible when you connect trails. Trail use can go up by as much as 80% because what people want is safe and convenient ways to bike, to walk, and to be active outside.”

This trail is much more than just recreation. According to research from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the Great American Trail in Illinois will generate:

  • $2.3M in tax revenue
  • $15.3M GDP contributions
  • 2,100,000 trips
  • $18.8M in visitor spending
  • 200 new jobs
  • $9.6M in labor income

We’ll cover the bike trails on the Great American Rail-Trail through Illinois next and hope the trail builders and local organizations continue to work together to close the gaps.

Biking over Mississippi River Illinois

Thorn Creek Trail (14.5 mi, asphalt)

Thorn Creek is a forest preserve in the southern outskirts of Chicago. According to the Forest Preserves of Cook County, “The Thorn Creek Trail System is nearly 23 miles of asphalt and unpaved trails connecting multiple forest preserves, winding past lakes, wetlands, and woodlands.”

Thorn Creek is a scenic, paved trail with easy access for Chicago’s 2.6 million residents. From end to end, the asphalt trail is 14.5 miles, with an optional loop around Sauk Trail Lake near the southern end and a direct connection to Old Plank Rd Trail 11.2 miles from the northern terminus at Lansing Woods.

See also
Kayaking Silver Springs - Monkeys, Manatees and Gators...Oh My!

Old Plank Rd Trail (21.6 mi, asphalt)

Old Plank Road Trail follows a path used by Native Americans and fur trappers before turning into a stagecoach route. As the name implies, there were plans to lay down a wooden road. Instead, the Michigan Central Railroad put in a route nicknamed the “Joliet Cut-Off.” The railroad preserved swaths of uncultivated natural prairie, which was one of the deciding factors to build the trail.

Old Plank Rd Trail is paved and runs 21.6 miles from the Thorn Creek Trail System in the east to the outskirts of Joliet in the west. Joliet has the potential to be an essential trail town, as it sits at the intersection of Old Plank Road Trail, Wauponsee Glacial Trail, Centennial Trail, and Illinois and Michigan State Canal Trail. However, none of these trails connect directly. Notably, the Great American Rail-Trail has a 4-mile gap in Joliet.

Old Plank Rd Trail

Wauponsee Glacial Trail (22.3 mi asphalt & crushed stone)

Per RTC’s trail finder app, Trailink —”In just a few short miles, the Wauponsee Glacial Trail leaves the urban confines of Joliet to bask in open farmland and reclaimed tallgrass prairie where the bison roam again. Named for a glacial lake that covered the area 13,000 years ago, the Wauponsee Glacial Trail sports a mastodon logo on its trail signs. The surface is asphalt through Joliet but is crushed stone the rest of the way. The route passes through areas where towns are few and far between, and shade is a rare commodity.”

There are 2.7 miles of asphalt on the northern end of the Wauponsee Glacial Trail, which are nice bonus miles for the narrow tire crew finishing the Old Plank Road Trail, as the Illinois and Michigan State Canal Trail is primarily crushed stone. At the south end of the trail is the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, with a herd of reintroduced bison. An out-and-back ride to see the bison is a great day trip, and why through-riders might want to spend two nights in Joliet.

Buffalo along the Wauponsee Glacial Trail Illinois

Illinois And Michigan Canal State Trail (61.5 mi, primarily crushed stone)

The I&M Canal State Trail follows the old towpath at Rockdale to LaSalle, offering 61.5 miles of scenic views of the Des Plaines and Illinois rivers. It became the first National Heritage Area in the U.S. when it was designated as such in 1984.

The canal provided the first complete water route from the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico by connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River by way of the Illinois River. You’ll find many educational markers to learn about the history of the canal and the stories of those who built and traveled the waterway. There are also steel silhouettes that convey the stories of Abraham Lincoln, Wild Bill Hickok, and other personalities associated with the canal.

There are ample services in LaSalle and Joliet, as well as trail towns of Channahon, Morris, Seneca, Marseilles, and Ottawa. Between this history and amenities, the I&M Canal State Trail is a biking destination on its own, as well as an important link in the Great American Rail-Trail.

I&M Canal State Trail Illinois

Hennepin Canal State Trail (89.4 mi, asphalt, grass, gravel)

Like the I&M, the Hennepin Canal State Trail runs on a historic canal dating back to 1907. With its length and history, it’s a destination ride unto itself and a vital link in the GART. Unlike the I&M, you don’t pass through many trail towns, so it’s important to stop for water at Lock 21, Lock 22, or the Visitor Center.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources describes the Hennepin Canal State Trail as being shaped like an upside-down “T”. The “mainline canal” is the base of the upside-down T, and the “feeder canal” is the stem that flows down from Rock Falls, IL. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy says there is an east-west corridor and a feeder canal. The Friends of Hennepin Canal and this guide divides the trail into three segments: East (28 mi), West (33 mi), and North (30.5 mi), with a trail junction at Lock 22. The Great American Rail-Trail trail runs along the main corridor, with plenty of campsites for through riders, the Hennepin Canal State Trail and the I&M Canal State Trail will be premier biking destinations once the trail gap is closed.

Pro-Tip – The locks are numbered, heading west from the Illinois River at Bureau Junction.

Hennepin Canal State Trail Illinois

Great River Trail (62 mi, many on-road sections)

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy describes the Great River Trail as “a breathtaking journey along more than 60 miles of the Mississippi River in northern Illinois. In places, the paved trail follows the former spur route of the Chicago, St. Paul, Milwaukee, and Pacific Railroad. Elsewhere, it’s a mix of low-traffic rural roads, dedicated bike lanes, and riverfront trails running atop flood levees.” You can easily bag a century ride on the Illinois side of the Mississippi going all the way up to Havencrest Castle, which should be on the list of American Castles.

See also
The Ultimate Chief Ladiga Trail Guide - Alabama's Premiere Rails-to-Trails Project

Another option is to cross the Mississippi into Iowa and enjoy both sides of the river. For me, I rode this trail as a 5.6-mile connector on the Great American, where I crossed into Iowa on the I-74 bridge and enjoyed their Riverfront Trail. This bridge was an incredible example of how to successfully integrate walking/biking infrastructure with the development of major transportation infrastructure. 

You could also use the Government Bridge as part of the Great American route (the official Mississippi River crossing of the American Discovery Trail) to form loop rides along the Mississippi, explore the chain of parks along the Duck Creek Greenway, or take the Mark N Morris Bridge in Fulton to the short but scenic Clinton Discovery Trail.

Great River Trail Illinois

Aurora / West Chicago Trail System (170+ mi)

Enrico Fermi created Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first nuclear reactor, just outside Chicago. Nuclear fission occurs when enriched uranium reaches critical mass and the resulting chain reaction produces more energy than was put into the system. They named the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), just outside Batavia, in his honor.

The 62-mile-long Illinois Prairie Path was one of the nation’s first rail-trail conversions. Its popularity led to its induction into Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame and inspired a wave of trail building. The Aurora / West Chicago region has reached the critical mass of interconnected bike trails- the tipping point Brandi Horton spoke about when trail usage increases dramatically. The system stretches from Sycamore to Oak Park and Oswego to the Wisconsin border.

There are more than 170 miles of connected trails in the Aurora / West Chicago trail system, including:

Illinois Prairie Path

Other Significant Bike Trails in Illinois

Illinois has other incredible bike trails besides the Great American Rail-Trail and the Aurora / West Chicago trail system. We’ll have some fun with some song pairings in this section while introducing these significant bike Trails in Illinois and what makes them special.

Chicago Lakefront Trail (18.0 mi, asphalt)

Lakeside Park, willows in the breeze
Lakeside Park, so many memories
Laughing rides, midway lights
Shining stars on summer nights – Rush

I don’t care if “that” Lakeside Park is in Canada. I refuse to let facts derail a good segue, lol! Being almost mentioned in a Rush song means you’re doing something right. The fact that on a busy summer day, more than 70,000 people use this trail is another.

Chicago’s Lakefront Trail is an integral part of the city experience, connecting Chicago’s four major lakefront parks along with various beaches, cultural institutions, and recreational amenities, including:

  • South Shore Beach
  • Jackson Park and Garden of the Phoenix
  • Promontory Point
  • 31st Street Harbor
  • Northerly Island
  • Grant Park
  • Maggie Daley Park
  • Ohio Street Beach
  • Oak Street Beach
  • North Avenue Beach
  • Lincoln Park Zoo
  • Belmont Harbor
  • Montrose Beach
  • Foster Beach
Early morning view of the Michigan Lakefront Trail in Chicago city, Illinois, USA.

Rock Island Trail (37.1 mi, mostly crushed gravel)

Down the Rock Island Line, she’s a mighty good road
Rock Island Line, it’s the road to ride
Rock Island Line, it’s a mighty good road – Johnny Cash

The Rock Island Trail is a classic Illinois bike ride. Peoria’s Forest Park Foundation acquired the abandoned railway corridor in 1965, and in 1989, the Rock Island Trail was the first railway conversion completed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

See also
6 Bike Trails in Columbia Missouri That Inspire a Weekend Getaway

If your trail gets paired with a Johnny Cash song, you might have to ask yourself a few hard questions. Despite all of its history and accolades, the Rock Island Trail is an isolated trail. It doesn’t connect to a trail network, like the planned Great American Rail-Trail, nor does it have abundant stops and three million neighbors, like Chicago’s Lakefront Trail. It is what it is, a nice ride that hopefully, someday in the future, will link into a larger trail network.

Rock Island Trail Illinois

MCT Confluence Trail (21.8 mi, asphalt & gravel)

Is there any other St. Louis? – Homer Simpson

At first, I was going to leave the MCT Confluence Trail off this list. RTC’s description calls it “a photographic patchwork of rivers, bridges, waterfront wildlife, and industrial cityscape.” However, the rider reviews questioned the trail condition and said they expected more.

Instead, I quoted Homer Simpson and will spend some time talking about the other St. Louis. Over in Missouri, excellent trails run along the riverfront and under the Arch. They’re working on the Brickline Greenway that will link the Arch to Forest Park, not to mention the Katy Trail that stretches 240 miles across the state. The KT has over 500,000 annual visitors and has a $29.2 million economic impact. Maybe Illinois should build one of those cross-state trails…

St Louis Arch - MCT Confluence Trail Illinois

Jane Addams Trail (18.2 mi, asphalt & gravel)

On, Wisconsin! – Judge Charles D. Rosa and J. S. Hubbard

The Jane Addams Trail is lovely, with 22 bridges and 4.1 miles of asphalt trail, but more is needed to get it on the list of the best bike trails in Illinois. The “more” is that it directly connects to 200 miles of Madison (WI) bike trails via the Badger State Trail. Madison is a Platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community surrounded by lakes and is often considered the premier bike city east of California. The trails connect the downtown to the university and all the lakes. Plus, there’s only a 6-mile gap on the Glacial Drumlin Trail that’s under construction and will connect Madison to Milwaukee.

Not to badger you, but connected trails are fantastic. The Jane Addams Trail is a segment of the Grand Illinois Trail that will traverse northern Illinois from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi (and connect Chicago to Madison and Milwaukee)!

Badger State Trail Wisconsin

Final Thoughts on Illinois Bike Trails

Illinois is so close to becoming a cycling destination. A few gap closures on the Great American Rail-Trail can make it competitive with the neighboring Katy trail across Missouri and bring in millions of dollars in revenue. Perhaps more importantly, hundreds of thousands of cyclists will enjoy that bike ride annually. Other projects, like the Grand Illinois Trail, Mississippi River Trail, and American Discovery Trail, will only make biking vacations more popular.

They say a rising tide lifts all boats. Bicycle riding will only get more popular as more trails get completed, and gaps are closed. It’s easy to imagine a rider who completes the Illinois section of the Great American Rail-Trail one year would likely want to ride that Katy or take a bike vacation to Madison the next year. One thing is certain: Illinois deserves credit for having the Great American 87% complete! That’s significantly more than the 55% completion rate of neighboring Iowa and Indiana.

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Cyclist riding along a canal on the Great American Rail Trail
Cyclist standing under bridge awning on Great American Rail Trail
Bike trail Bridge
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