Cyclists Pedal Towards the Vision of Completing Illinois Cross State Trail

Two people riding Illinois bike trails

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Illinois is tantalizingly close to closing its gaps on the Great American Rail-Trail, an ambitious project spearheaded by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to create a 3,700-mile contiguous trail between Washington, D.C., and Washington State. 

When the Illinois section is completed, it will be a nearly 200-mile continuous ride from the Indiana State Line to the Mississippi River. It’s the type of trail that tests the mettle of your pedal and will transform the rider as much as the towns it passes through. Completing the trail could be the perfect New Year’s resolution.

Great River Trail Illinois
Photo Credit: Flickr.

Achieving the Goal

Jason Chaney wrote in his essay The Manifestation Equation, “Definitive goals serve as lighthouses guiding our efforts, enabling us to navigate the seas of life with clarity and purpose. Unlike the elusive concept of ‘eventually,’ specific deadlines propel us into action. They convert dreams into tangible targets and transform aspirations into achievable milestones. It’s the difference between wandering aimlessly and embarking on a purposeful journey.” This kind of purposeful journey could be the physical act of riding a long distance trail or a metaphor for setting a challenging and definite goal.

Dave Simmons, Executive Director of Ride Illinois, wants to complete the trail from a building perspective. “Efforts to close the gap have been ongoing for 30+ years. With local, state, and national interest, this time feels different. Ride Illinois’ 2024 wish is that the feasibility study includes few hurdles and that planning for a few trail segments in the gap begins next year.

“Ride Illinois is excited about the efforts that are currently underway to close three of the four gaps along the Great American Rail-Trail route in Illinois. The feasibility study for the gap between LaSalle and Bureau Junction is a critical step and we’re anxious for the study to wrap up in spring 2024.”

The 15-mile gap Simmons speaks of is the largest on the Illinois route. It separates two magnificent Illinois bike trails. The 61-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail, designated as America’s first National Heritage Area, would be connected to the 105-mile Hennepin Canal State Trail — and would put the “buckle on the belt” of the Great American Rail-Trail in the state, as local organizers like to say. Visitors would have over 180 miles of trails to explore, with camping and trail towns throughout the trail network.

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“The population of Illinois and all adjacent states is about 45 million. The positive economic impact for the State of Illinois and communities along the route cannot be overlooked. When the trail is complete, people will visit in droves,” says Simmons. 

Illinois bike trails

Boosting Business and Tourism

According to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 50 million people live within 50 miles of the route of the Great American Rail-Trail. The entire trail could deliver $230 million in visitor spending annually as it’s completed. That could translate to $18.8 million each year for Illinois businesses. 

Brandi Horton, Vice President of Communications at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, agrees. “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.”

Proof of this concept is the 240-mile Katy Trail, America’s longest rail-trail across the Mississippi River in Missouri. What started in the 1980s as a vision and a spur trail in Columbia has become a bonafide tourist attraction. Wineries, restaurants, and bed and breakfast accommodations serve the trail’s half-million annual visitors and contribute to a $29.2 million yearly economic impact.

Completing the Katy Trail was the collective work of many advocates, none bigger than Edward D. “Ted” Jones Jr. Ted and his wife, Pat. They donated $2.2 million to acquire 200 miles of abandoned Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad tracks for the Katy Trail State Park. The KT was completed in 1990, six months before Ted’s death. In many ways, it’s the wheel of life turning full circle since Ted first met Pat on a cycling trip from St. Louis to the Ozarks in 1940.

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A Bike Culture

It’s widely believed that Ted Jones’ inspiration for the Katy Trail came from riding a rail trail in Wisconsin in the late 1980s. Wisconsin is a premiere biking state. The Elroy-Sparta Trail is often considered the first rail trail in the United States, and Madison (WI) is consistently ranked as one of the country’s top cycling cities. Madison has more than 200 miles of bike trails and the nation’s highest number of parks per capita. It is, maybe not coincidentally, the second-fittest city in the country, according to the 2022 American Fitness Index.

Rob Gard, Director of Communications & Public Affairs at Destination Madison, explains, “Madison has a long and strong bike culture. We’re one of the top-ranked bike cities in the country, commended for how our bike trails and paths connect neighborhoods, parks, businesses and culture. There are nearly 4,000 bike trips taken on our bike paths every day, and that doesn’t include many streets and other parts of the county. In fact, we plow our bike paths before many of our streets in the winter because so many people rely upon those paths to get to work and school all year round. Whether you’re a daily commuter or a weekend visitor, Madison by bike is a great way to experience the city.”

Renee Callaway, City of Madison Pedestrian Bicycle Administrator, says, “As soon as you set foot in Madison it is hard not to notice all the people cycling. You will see people biking on errands, to work and to school as well as people enjoying a leisurely ride around one of our lakes, heading out on long road rides into the surrounding countryside, heading to a mountain bike trail or even enjoying a ride across one of our City’s lakes once they have frozen. On some days it will feel like everyone is out for a ride and on the coldest and snowiest winter days you are never the only one out on your bike.”

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Recreation and Health

Cassie Mordini, Community Development and Communications Specialist at the Wisconsin Office of Outdoor Recreation, believes that biking is more than just commuting.“Bicycling is so much more than a way to get from A to B in Wisconsin. It’s a massive mover of our outdoor recreation economy. Iconic brands like Trek and Schwinn call the Madison area home. Our first-class competitions bring in cyclists from across the country. And Wisconsin’s bicycling infrastructure — both urban and rural — draws communities closer.”

Consumers spend well over $1 billion annually in Wisconsin on bicycle-related expenses, according to a 2019 study from the Outdoor Industry Association, but health experts might call that a bargain. According to a 2021 University of Wisconsin study: “Approximately 20,000 deaths due to chronic disease could be averted if U.S. metropolitan areas increased their cycling percentage to 6 percent of trips, the rate seen in Madison, Wisconsin.”

According to a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy impact study, the Great American Rail-Trail in Illinois will generate 2.1 million trips yearly. Perhaps more important is the inspiration for millions of people to challenge themselves on a multi-day bike ride and the direct benefit that will bring to their health and dozens of small towns. Who knows? They might find their true love on two wheels. Ted and Pat certainly did.

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