If I was ever to ride a bicycle across the country, it would be about discovery more than speed.  I’d use rail trails and lightly traveled gravel roads as much as possible, even if it meant bringing a heavier bike, going slower and facing detours.  The US Bike Route system being developed by the folks at Adventure Cycling may serve their membership but it doesn’t serve me.  There’s simply too much riding on the shoulder of relatively busy highways for my taste.  That’s not what I’m all about.

Out and back. The westernmost two miles are technically closed but passable on the right tires.

So I’ve spent some time online mapping out alternatives.  That’s what originally led me to the Hennepin Canal Parkway, a 100 mile plus canal towpath that spans most of the western half of northern Illinois and connects to other trails so that it’s possible to ride all the way from  Joliet in the east to the Mississippi River way out west.  I had a chance to ride the westernmost segment this past weekend while traveling back to Iowa from Indiana and I wanted to share my observations and some snapshots.

First things first.  If you read the online reviews at Traillink you’ll find that a lot of people don’t seem to like this trail.   I think that’s because they come here expecting something and then discover something else completely.   Whenever you ride one of these trails, it helps to do a little online recon before heading out.  Bring the right bike and the right gear and that may make all the difference in terms of your experience.

My journey started at a small city park in the town of Colona.  I suspect that Colona is a bedroom community as it sits close to Moline and John Deere headquarters, but it very much feels like a stand alone small town.  There are several places to park here.  I chose the first one I came to, which was Lock 28 Park.  There are no restrooms here, but trail access is easy.  Other trailheads may offer more services…I don’t really know.

So after parking I hopped on the bike and headed east, passing under Interstate 80 via a flooded culvert.  I didn’t spend much time thinking about what was in the water.  If I had, that might have been the end of the trip.   It was dark and spooky…real horror movie stuff.   Shortly after emerging on the other side, I ran over a snake that looked like a twig until it started moving as I came up next to it.  Then I passed under another culvert that required me to duck to avoid decapitation.   Last but not least was the missing bridge.  Fortunately, there was a  crude detour that went down and around before heading back up the other side.

This was all in the first two miles.  On my return, I passed a sign that indicated that this section of trail is officially closed (there was no sign heading east) and it makes sense in hindsight because the rest of the ride was relatively challenge-free by comparison.

So what’s it like?  Well, flat, for starters.  It’s probably the flattest trail I’ve ever ridden.   Pavement is very much a mixed bag.  It was paved at one time but in some places the pavement is crumbling and in others it is gone completely.  There has been some maintenance, as there was fresh base and gravel in some of the spots that appear to regularly get wet, but this is not a smooth, well-maintained suburban kind of trail by any stretch of the imagination.

My starting point. Lock 28 Park in Colona.

Culvert under I80. Fun times!

Typical pavement pattern.

Culvert #2. The sign says to dismount and walk. If you choose to ride (like me) be sure to duck. There’s not a lot of clearance and losing your head would really wreck the day.

This is fairly typical of what you’re going to find and it makes MTB tires the obvious choice.

One of the many locks along the route.

And a relatively shy snapping turtle.

This bridge spans one of the locks between Colona and Geneseo.

Touristas on the trail.

It’s also much more remote than I was expecting.  Over the ten miles from Colona to Geneseo, I only saw a handful of houses.  There are few road crossings.  In addition to the aforementioned canal, the route parallels the adjacent Green River.  Vegetation is dense along the route.  It was as humid as could possibly be.   There are lots of critters including bugs, snakes and snapping turtles. You’re in the bottomlands and it feels more a lot more like Louisiana’s bayou country than Illinois.

If you decide to tackle this (and I really think you should), I’d recommend having some decent rubber under you.  I rode my Salsa Fargo, a 29″ drop bar mountain bike equipped with WTB’s 2.25″ Ranger tires.   It was definitely the right choice.  I think this is the kind of route the Fargo was made for.  I was able to go relatively fast but stability on varying pavement was never a concern.  I would be less inclined to use my touring rig, a Kona Rove with 700c x 35 mm Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires.  It would probably be fine,  though the higher pressure those tires require make pinch flats more of a risk.   Any hybrid, hardtail mountain bike would be a good choice, as would a fat bike.  I would leave the carbon fiber road frame with 23 mm tires at home.  If that’s all you have, there are better nearby trails to choose from.

I’d also pack the Deet as well as a lunch if you’re the type of person who likes to feed along the road.   I didn’t pass any restaurants or vending machines although if I had more time and was willing to detour,  I’m sure I would have found them in Geneseo.

I think the most important thing to pack if you want to ride this is an open mind infused with a sense of adventure.  Most people don’t much care for bugs and snakes, but they’re the tradeoff for getting to experience a slice of raw nature and (mostly) natural wetlands in an area of the country where most people have forgotten what these things are.

Now that I’ve had a taste of this trail, I’d like to come back and ride all the way across the state.   So much of modern life feels choreographed to me.  This isn’t.  This is real…a trail that isn’t all that different than it was 100 years ago.  It hasn’t been over-engineered and prettified to accommodate tender, urban sensibilities.  It reminds me of a time when the world felt simpler and more genuine.  To an old-timer like me, that’s never a bad thing.