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Hike the three longest trails in Will County to earn your Triple Crown

This stretch over the Kankakee River along the Wauponsee Glacial Trail is one of the places participants will be hiking. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Up your game and your mileage this year by hiking the three longest trails in Will County as part of the Forest Preserve District’s new Will County Triple Crown Hiking Challenge

The challenge kicked off March 1 and runs through June 30. This program is patterned off the national triple crown challenge which involves hiking the three longest U.S. trails: Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest. 

“We are taking a fun twist on this idea to encourage people to hike the three longest trails in Will County,” said Jen Guest, the Forest Preserve’s recreation coordinator. “This program is targeting local outdoor enthusiasts and encouraging everyone else to give extended hiking routes a try.”

The challenge requires hikers to walk:

Hiking is an excellent way to stay in shape and spending extended time outdoors can boost your mental health, Guest added. 

“We hope participants will feel a great sense of accomplishment after completing the challenge," she said. 

Hiking strategy

Participants can walk the routes in their entirety or do them in sections. And hikers can arrange to be picked up or can leave a car ahead on the trail so they don't have to duplicate mileage. 

“We encourage you to pack a lunch, bring your binoculars or camera and really get out on the trails,” Guest said. “If you are new to hiking, take it slow. It doesn’t matter how you hike it as long as you complete the three longest trails.”

For more strategy tips, Guest will host a Zoom webinar titled, How to Complete the Will County Triple Crown Hiking Challenge, that will air at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 9. Register online for the Zoom link. 

Trail routes, including recommended segments, can be mapped using the All Trails app. More information about the selected trails and a challenge submission form link can be found on the Triple Crown Challenge webpage. Submission requirements include a selfie or landscape photo on each of the three trails. 

Hikers who complete the Triple Crown Challenge will receive an adjustable bottle sling cooler with a zipper pouch. The free hiking challenge is for ages 10 or older. The program is sponsored by The Nature Foundation of Will County.

Will County gems

The three challenge trails are all Will County “gems" that are part of former transportation routes, Guest said.

The 13-mile I&M Canal State Trail hike is being offered in partnership with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which owns the 62.5-mile path that stretches from Rockdale west to LaSalle. The path follows the route of the I&M Canal, which opened in 1848 for barges pulled by mules or horses. The canal opened a route from Lake Michigan to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. 

“This year will mark the start of the 175th anniversary of the I&M Canal,” Guest said. “So, not only is it one of the longest trails in Will County, but it is also one of the oldest. It is a great place to see wildlife and a few historic structures as you hike.” 

The original I&M Canal mule path was established as an official trail in 1974 through efforts by Openlands. And the I&M Canal corridor became America’s first National Heritage Area in 1984.

Construction of the Old Plank Road Trail started in the mid-1990s along the old Penn-Central railroad line. While Triple Crown Challenge hikers only have to hike the 14 miles of the OPRT in Will County, the path stretches another 8 miles east to Chicago Heights. The trail took many individuals and organizations working together to make it a reality and it was the first rails-to-trails conversion in Will County. 

The Wauponsee Glacial Trail also was built on an old rail line, and the path's southern terminus features a steel bridge over the Kankakee River that was built in 1902. After the Forest Preserve acquired the rail line from the Norfolk Southern in the 1990s, the trail was built in stages from 1999 to 2007 and the path's creation is another good example of the rails-to-trails movement in the United States. 


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