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Happy trails — Fall is the perfect time of year to grab your bike and head for the I&M Canal Trail, which is rich with history, beautiful foliage and activity offerings that make for a fun weekend getaway

Updated: June 21, 2013 5:22PM

Editor’s note: Originally published in the Sun-Times Oct. 31, 2007.

A 19th century path used by mules to tow boats along the Illinois and Michigan Canal is now one of the best bike trails in northern Illinois.

And this happens to be the best time of year to ride it, when mosquitoes and high humidity have given way to a riot of fall colors and crisp, autumn air.

With just a little bit of planning and leg power, you can turn the I&M Canal State Trail ride into a quick fall getaway that combines cycling, hiking, cheap slices of pie and lots of interesting history along the way. The best part: minimal time behind the wheel of a car.

The adventure begins just 45 miles southwest of Chicago’s Loop, in the village of Channahon. That’s where my husband and I bid adieu to our Jeep Cherokee last weekend and hit the trail on our bikes . (You’re allowed to park your car overnight at the trailhead in Channahon if you leave contact information and the date of your return on the dashboard.)

The plan was to pedal nearly 50 miles on the crushed limestone trail to Utica, where we’d spend the night. Since Utica is the gateway to Starved Rock State Park, one of the Seven Wonders of Illinois, we’d check out the park’s fall foliage on foot before hopping back on our bikes for the 50-mile trek back to Channahon.

Ambitious? Yes. For Ironman athletes only? Absolutely not. The path is pretty much as flat as they come, so cyclists won’t be stuck grinding it out in granny gear. And canal towns dotting the trail provide plenty of pitstops along the way.

The trail follows the historic I&M Canal , built in the mid-1800s to complete an all-water route between the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. Illinois — especially Chicago — owes much of what it is today to this humble strip of water. It provided a crucial link between the city and the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

I’m no history geek, but I’ll admit it was pretty cool to bike along much of the same path used a century and a half ago by horses and mules towing canal boats packed with goods and passengers. The trail is peppered with relics from a bygone era, like the M . J. Hogan grain elevator in Seneca, a couple of original locktenders’ houses and a big, red mule barn in Dresden.

Our first 15 miles on the sparsely populated path boasted some of the best scenery of the ride: blue river water to our left, muddy canal water to our right and colorful trees lining the banks. Huge herons stood as still as soldiers as we cycled by, while suicidal squirrels darted in front of our tires.

With the noon sun shining bright, our fresh legs were feeling good as we pulled off the trail and into the canal town of Morris, where tiny stereos piped Italian music into the streets. Some local girls steered us to Weits Cafe for lunch. The real name of this 1923 diner is either Weits or Weitz — even the menu couldn’t get it straight. But with nearly a dozen varieties of fresh-baked pies selling for $1.75 a slice, they can call it whatever they want.

Our post-pumpkin pie high was short-lived, however. By the time we got back in the saddle, the sun had gone AWOL. The increasingly dark sky began pelting us with rain. It didn’t let up for the next 32 miles, turning the trail into a soup of wet leaves and muddy sand.

Not only did we have to deal with the current downpour, but we had to pay the price for storms in August, too. A few segments of the I&M Canal trail are still closed as a result of that summer flooding, forcing us to divert to the nearby road for several miles leading up to Seneca and again between Buffalo Rock State Park and Utica.

By the time we pulled up to Landers House B&B in Utica, we looked like we’d been swimming in the canal , not biking next to it. This is when you fall to your knees and praise God for your bike’s waterproof saddlebags.

Landers House is located just off the main strip in Utica, so we didn’t have to get back on our bikes to go to dinner. That’s good because after four hours of cycling in the rain, we weren’t in the mood to ever get back on our bikes again.

It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep and dry bike shorts can do for your psyche. The next morning, we biked the short distance to Starved Rock. The park’s rustic lodge is a good place for trail cyclists to spend the night, but the 94 rooms book up a year in advance during fall colors.

With 13 miles of trails and 18 canyons to explore, you could easily spend a day gawking at Starved Rock’s golden leaves and sandstone bluffs. If I could press the rewind button, I ‘d have done just that to give us some time to relax between 50-mile bike rides.

After a quick peek around the park, we had to get back on the trail for the return trip to Channahon. At least we had 50 more miles of fall foliage to enjoy before reuniting with our Jeep. Better yet, we got to enjoy it under the bright October sun.

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