New way to ride the rails

New way to ride the rails

The Kickapoo Rail Trail will be not only a place for cyclists, runners and walkers to exercise. It will also be an avenue to explore the attractions along the way — both natural and commercial.

The developers of the 24.5-mile trail that will connect Urbana and Danville are working not only on the plan to build the trail but also how to direct people to area destinations. That is one of the most important factors in drawing people to use a trail, said Steve Buchtel, executive director of Trails for Illinois, a nonprofit organization that supports building trails in Illinois for recreation and transportation.

The Kickapoo Rail Trail will be built along a former railroad corridor that runs through St. Joseph, Ogden, Fithian and Oakwood, parallel to U.S. 150. It will connect to Kickapoo State Park and pass over a trestle bridge spanning the Middle Fork River.

“That’s going to be the draw. That’s why people are going to come to Champaign-Urbana, to have that experience,” Buchtel said. “They’re going to ride east and see the Vermilion River valley from that trestle. I expect trail use on the Kickapoo Trail to be very high.”

But as the trail is developed, planners also need to identify destinations that are just off the trail and find ways to tell potential trail users about them, Buchtel said.Blog Photo

“We have to help people who come to the community on the trail to find the things we want them to find,” he said. “If you have a beautiful little park or a great brewery or a fun little diner or breakfast place ... you need an invitation to people to come see the things that are important to you.”

Mary Ellen Wuellner, deputy director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District and a member of the trail-development committee, said the committee will be asking people in the communities along the trail what they want to highlight for those using the trail.

“It would be cool to wander through an antique store and get an ice cream and get back on the trail,” she said, also noting the Sleepy Creek Vineyard in Fairmount or the Wildewood Cellars winery in St. Joseph.

“So much of the neat part of it is discovering small towns you might not ever ride through or drive through. It offers an opportunity to explore little towns in the Midwest,” Wuellner said. “I think that’s one of the things that is going to be so appealing about this trail.”

She believes the trail will also appeal to those interested in local history, as it parallels the old interurban rail line between Champaign-Urbana and Danville, and it follows the route Abraham Lincoln rode as he traveled the judicial circuit while practicing law. The trail also passes by wetlands and prairie remnants, she said.

Doug Ireland, manager of Cycles Plus in Danville and a member of the development committee, said he is looking forward to using the trail weekly for group bike rides.

“I can’t wait to enjoy the trail,” Ireland said. “What I’m looking forward to personally is getting on there to ride to Oakwood and back. You don’t have to do the whole trail.

“When you go along the trail, you notice a good portion of it that is shaded,” he added. “For most road cyclists, and even runners, they don’t have a lot of shaded areas to exercise.”

Buchtel’s organization has studied use of seven trails in Illinois in 2012 and 2013: the Tunnel Hill State Trail in southern Illinois; the Goshen Trail in southern Illinois; the Rock Island Trail near Peoria; the Hennepin Canal Trail in northwestern Illinois; the Fox River Trail in the northwestern suburbs; Old Plank Road Trail in the south suburbs; and the Illinois Prairie Path from Maywood branching into the western suburbs.

The organization’s numbers are based on both electronic trail counters and surveys of trail users. The number of people using the trails varies widely, with the trails near large metro areas getting the most use.

Buchtel said the vast majority of trail users are those living close to trails who use them frequently to bike or run or walk.

“There’s a big benefit on quality of life and health,” he said.

But they also attract visitors. Buchtel said his organization’s surveys reported that about one-third of trail users spend money in surrounding towns during their visits, and the average amount they spend is between $30 and $40.

“They’re hungry and they’re thirsty. They spend a lot of money in bars and restaurants and convenience stores,” he said. “They also take advantage of hotels and bike shops.”

The Kickapoo Rail Trail Development Committee is currently trying to raise money for the matching funds needed to begin construction on the first phase of the project. The Illinois Department of Transportation is providing grant money to cover 80 percent of the cost, but $850,000 in matching funds must be raised from local sources. About $135,000 has been raised so far, including more than $12,000 this fall at three events: a fundraiser at Sleepy Creek Vineyards, a used bicycle sale at Champaign Cycle and the River to Rail Ride. The committee is soliciting leadership gifts now.

The first phase of the project would build about 7 miles of trail from Urbana east to St. Joseph and about 3 miles of trail west from Danville that would include the trestle bridge over the Middle Fork River. The timeline calls for going out for bid next spring and starting construction next summer.

Photo: A cyclist enjoys the Old Plank Road Trail in Frankfort. Photo courtesy of Thomas' Photographic Services/Trails for Illinois

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Nancey Aguon wrote on November 05, 2014 at 6:11 pm

 I have been into cycling the past 3 months and I have never felt healthier. Although at first, it was so difficult for someone like me who hardly move from the couch. Articles like this keeps me inspired to be better in this side.

Jodi Heckel wrote on November 06, 2014 at 8:11 am
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Good for you, Nancey! Keep at it. I'm really looking forward to biking on this trail once it's built.