Spring Valley to Annawan on the Hennepin Canal Trail – 40 Miles
My day started at 4:20 AM when my husband texted to say Hello. Arrggh! I didn’t reply, but saw a news article pop up….. “Men rape women at Spring Valley motel.” There is only one motel in Spring Valley, and we were in it. I didn’t share that bit of information with the girls until later.
Breakfast consisted of leftover pizza and a granola bar. We got on the road about 7:30 and had to pedal like mad back two miles south on Rt. 29, fighting with semi-trucks, school buses, and dump trucks in a hurry. Rt. 29 turned west, but the traffic let up only slightly. Near DePue, the road became dangerous as it got hilly and twisted through wooded areas, in and out of sunlight. We frequently stopped or rode in the gravel. A truck passed Nancy S. and me, leaving us little room, as we wobbled up a long hill. He gunned his engine and apparently didn’t see other Nancy and Dot ahead in the shadows. With a school bus in the opposite lane, he slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting them. His truck shuddered and his tires smoked. We took a long break.
After about thirteen miles, Rt. 29 became more rural as it turned southwest through Bureau County. We spotted a rustic lodge, Jonesy’s Ranch House Lounge and Motel, and stopped in hopes of having a real breakfast. Two men were working on building repairs and informed us that the restaurant part was not in business. At first they seemed leery of us, but then invited us in to fill our water bottles. Nice guys. Their location had a beautiful view of Lake Rawson. It may or may not be open the next time one looks for a place to stay in Bureau County. I wish I had known it was there.
The Hennepin Canal trailhead was a short distance away. There is a well-kept parking lot and good bathrooms on site. Postings on the bulletin board listed the closed portions of the trail. I had been warned on FB by a Friend of the Hennepin Canal (Bruce Perry) that law enforcement sometimes issued tickets to bikers who ignored the closed trail signs. We all voted that we’d handle the ticket rather than change our route.
The first lock is well kept with a good bridge over the canal. We rode around the Trail Closed sign onto the gravel trail. The fishing must be good in along this stretch. Fishermen stationed themselves at almost every lock and a bald eagle kept watch for his chance at a fish from the top of a tree across the canal.
When we came to the first serious wash out, Dot slowed down in front of me on what was left of the trail. I had the choice of hitting the hole and concrete slab, tipping into the canal on the right, or heading for the ditch on the left. I chose to glide gracefully into the ditch and rolled through the waist high weeds for ten feet before stepping off my bike. Nancy was kind enough to take my pictures as I hauled my bike back onto the trail.
The Hennepin locks, canal, and the water flow are in better shape than the I&M Canal. I suppose because the canal was built late and used less commercially. It has been maintained as a recreational asset for almost all of its existence….and it’s beautiful. I understand why Friends of the Hennepin work so hard to campaign to have it maintained and funded. I very much enjoyed the profusion of wild flowers along most of the route. Spring cress, spiderwort, cow parsnip…..interspersed with poison ivy and nettles.
Riding was fairly easy, though I believe for several miles it was a slight incline as the water flowed from west to east. I had hoped that the water flowed west to the Mississippi. At each of the 29 locks and at some road crossings, the trail went up steeply. Each of those inclines were made difficult by the addition of deep sand and/or gravel to the surface.
My favorite site, about four miles west of Tiskila, is Lock 16, which has been restored and is made of huge wooden beams. Other wooden locks have rotted out and allow water to gush through gaping holes.
The eastern part of the Hennepin has few towns and fewer amenities. I had assumed water would be more available. Wrong. The day was hot, and we ran short on water too soon. A passing cyclist told us we had already passed several restaurants in Tiskilwa, but we hadn’t seen any indication that the town was there. We continued on to Wyanet and the promised BBQ shop. A friendly jogger pointed us into the town about a mile north of the trail, but said the BBQ place was gone. The Disaster Shack and their handmade burgers and chocolate milk shakes made a great substitute. We loved the place and the owner, Donna.
Donna saved us a mile or two by directing us west on Rt.6/34 about two miles to catch the trail, rather than backtracking. Seven miles later and again looking for water, we stopped at the Hennepin Visitors Center in Sheffield, but was disappointed to find it closed. Their hours vary, so call ahead. (815-454-2328) I scouted around the building and filled our water bottles from a garden hose spigot.
Tunnels were another interesting aspect of the trail. Large metal culverts brought the trail under many roads. They provided relief from the sun, but the difference between sunshine outside and shadows inside the tunnel made it impossible to see what the trail surface looked like. In one such tunnel the surface was corrugated mud ruts. Just in front of me, Dot lost control of her bike and, to warn me, yelled quite calmly, “I’m going down!” Her bike hit the side wall, but she hopped from her bike without falling.
The Grand Illinois Trail website gives good maps and cue sheets for the route, including bridge numbers and streets that cross the trail. That would have been useful to know beforehand. The bridges have green signs on them stating their number, but not all streets have signs. Instead, I kept track of mileage to get our location. We stumbled upon the correct road and climbed out of the trail to Rt. 78 into Annawan to find our hotel for the night.
The Best Western Annawan is terrific. The host greeted us nicely, gave us two great rooms, each with two queen beds. He also opened the food area to give us water, juice, and fruit. Much appreciated.
After a hot, eight-hour, forty-mile day, we didn’t feel like getting on our bikes again, so for dinner, we walked a half mile to Mick’s Place (connected to Z Best restaurant). Friendly waitress, great margaritas, and tasty fish and fries. Later, we played cards in the hotel lobby, but called it a night at 9:00.