Comparing the Hennepin Canal Trail / I&M Canal Trail, the Katy Trail, the Great Allegheny Passage / C&O Canal Trail, and the Erie Canal Trail.
UPDATED Saturday, Sep 11
I find it interesting to compare the southern portion of the Grand Illinois Trail (Illinois' canal trails--Hennepin Canal Trail, I&M Canal Trail, together with the Old Plank Rail Trail), Missouri's Katy Trail, the eastern region's Great Allegheny Passage / C&O Canal Trail (GAP / C&O), and New York's Erie Canal Trail. All four trail groups are off-street trails, reasonably flat (particularly the canal trails), are lengthy, and terminate in metro areas. This makes all four ideal for weekend outings of a few hours to a few days for diverse users ranging from families to serious touring cyclists.
It is easy to plan a ride or go on a short day trip on the Katy Trail, the GAP / C&O, or the Erie Canal for a casual user or a person with limited experience in bicycle touring in part due to a well-developed array of for-profit services, many websites, and available guidebooks (that have services advertised or listed and are updated annually or at least every couple of years). In comparison to bicycle touring routes offered by the Adventure Cycling Association, which necessitate self-sufficiency, the Katy, GAP / C&O, and Erie Canalway Trail have a vast array of services including lodging, bicycle outfitters, and shuttle services. In contrast, the Illinois canal trails have relatively fewer (if any, in some categories) for-profit services. There were very limited, if any, bike rental options near either the Hennepin or I&M Canal trails when I last visited. With more services available, there are relatively more websites and guidebooks for the Katy, the GAP / C&O, and the Erie by comparison to the Hennepin / I&M Canal trail. While there are books about the canal trails in Illinois (many of which have a slant more towards maps and route descriptions) and there are cue sheets available listing some services [See the Links sub-page of this website], planning a ride on the other trails is relatively easier given the many websites and guidebooks that give up-to-date details on the array of bicycling services available. For instance, in the lodging category, the GAP / C&O guidebook has over 20 B&Bs / Inns and another 10 or so hotels that have paid listings in the "official" GAP / C&O guidebook. Providing the information in such an easy to use format for a novice touring cyclist has led to success: the GAP portion alone of the GAP / C&O complex was reported to have generated over $40 million in revenue for local businesses in 2008. An estimated 300,000 annual trail users visit Missouri’s Katy Trail. For the Erie, the New York State Canal Corporation estimated total trail users, including “day-use visitors” to the entire trail system, at 2.4 million in 2008, while at one specific location in 2009 Parks & Trails NY estimated 174,000 annual users. For the GAP, Katy, and Erie, note that sections are being completed or have been completed only in the last few years, so these figures will only grow from here.
The popularity isn’t due to the quality of the trail surfaces, I recently heard from a well-traveled touring cyclist who thought the Hennepin Canal trail is perhaps his favorite of the bunch, with good remarks about the trail surface of the Hennepin. By comparison, the GAP trail website warns a C&O rider that the C&O trail "...is overall much less improved than the GAP...Be prepared for ruts, tree roots, mud and mosquitos."
The real key of the Katy and GAP / C&O popularity may be in “ease of use” for the first-timer, especially the services, and the off-street “through connections” of the Katy, GAP / C&O, and the Erie. New touring cyclists love lodging options and guide books, which distill the planning into a manageable set of tasks and don't require touring experience, self-sufficiency, or self-directed research. I recently looked at several of the websites and guidebooks and noticed these resources often touted "inn-to-inn" short biking trips, which helps a first-timer if they don't want to haul camping gear. Another challenge for the Illinois canal trails is the lack of a good connection between the trails. The approximately 4 – 5 mile on-street section in Joliet can’t be avoided, but it’s a manageable connection, in contrast, the 20 or so miles of on-street (really on-highway-with-no-shoulder) connection between the Hennepin and I&M canal trails is very intimidating to all but the most hardy cyclist.
Two things that would greatly augment the popularity of the Illinois canal trails would be more marketing of available services (a website or annually updated guidebook, or both) and most important, improving the connection between the Hennepin and I&M trails--a proposed trail between the two would help, but the Kaskaskia Alliance Trail development appears to be stalled.
Editor - Jim
This blog weighs in on topics such as long-distance skating, the Illinois canals, cycling, and a variety of related (and occasionally not-so-related) topics. I'd like to correspond with others interested in skating the Hennepin and I&M canals.