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The Grand Illinois Trail: A Large-Scale Partnership at Work

With suggestions for making a trail development partnership work better

By Dick Westfall, Supervisor, Greenways & Trails Section,

Map of IllinoisOverview

The Grand Illinois Trail (GIT) is a 475-mile loop hiking-biking trail through northern Illinois. It connects Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, following Chicago's magnificent lakefront, Illinois' historic 19th century canals-- the I&M and Hennepin Canals, the mighty Mississippi, the unglaciated hills of northwest Illinois, the scenic Rock and Fox Rivers, and the first rail-trail in the U.S.-- the Illinois Prairie Path. The GIT connects Chicago, Rockford, the Quad Cities, small towns and villages. It connects state parks, federal areas and local parks. The GIT is becoming a new attraction and mode of travel for northern Illinois' tourism industry. And perhaps most important, the GIT connects people to people.

Riders on the Grand Illinois Trail and Parks ride in 2003
Riders on the Grand Illinois Trail and Parks ride in 2003


All big projects start with a plan and all (good) plans start with a vision. The idea of a "Grand Illinois Trail" through northern Illinois surfaced during development of the Illinois State Trails Plan in the early 1990's. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) realized the network of existing and planned trails in northern Illinois could be connected into a continuous trail, linking Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. In 1995, IDNR held the Grand Illinois Trail Forum. The idea was presented to potential partners-- local agencies and organizations, and they showed strong and widespread support.


The GIT concept is simple-- link existing trails with new off-road trails and on-road bike routes. Four major, existing trails form the foundation of the GIT: the 60-mile I&M Canal State Trail, the 70-mile Hennepin Canal State Trail, the 65-mile Great River Trail and the 30-mile Fox River Trail. These four major trails and numerous other existing trails are being linked together. During development, interim on-road routes have been designated for off-road segments under construction or not yet funded.

Why is the GIT special?

The GIT will be the longest trail in Illinois. It will be one of the longest bike trails in the U.S. It may be the longest bike trail entirely within a state. However, unlike a number of other long-distance trails (bike or otherwise), nationally and within states, the GIT is a loop trail--wherever one starts, they can travel the entire trail without backtracking. The GIT also offers the user a wide diversity of landscapes and experiences, from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, from Chicago's skyline and busy neighborhoods to quiet rural towns, from built environments to natural landscapes.


The GIT is the product of partners working together to achieve a shared vision. Partners include: IDNR, League of Illinois Bicyclists, Great River Trail Council, Openlands Project, Illinois Trails Conservancy and hundreds of communities, park, forest preserve and conservation districts, other local jurisdictions and non-profit organizations.

Current Status

Grand Illinois Trail logo

Today, about 200 miles of the GIT are open and another 100 miles are under construction. Partners are seeking funding for another 50 miles. About 125 miles will be on-road, signed bike routes.

Recent Initiatives

IDNR has a GIT Website ( which provides information and links to partners. IDNR published the first GIT Brochure in May, 2000. IDNR launched the GIT Trailblazer program to recognize users who complete the entire 475-mile trail within one year.

2000 Opening

After five years of effort, while much still remains to be done, the GIT was opened on June 3, 2000-- National Trails Day. Events in Chicago and Moline celebrated progress to date, identified challenges ahead, launched the Trailblazer program and unveiled the brochure and website.

The Future

The biggest obstacle to completing the GIT is the 1997 Boub v. Wayne Illinois Supreme Court decision. The decision effectively removed bicyclists as "intended users" of roads in Illinois and is affecting the willingness of local jurisdictions, esp. road districts, to sign on-road segments as bike trail. The League of Illinois Bicyclists and the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation are working to resolve this issue through legislation.

GIT partners continue to seek funding to complete remaining off-road segments (a ballpark estimate is $50 million). Now that the trail is open, partners are working to expand promotion of the trail and build a database of food, lodging and attraction opportunities.

Some Suggestions for Making a Large-Scale Trail Development Partnership Work Better

1. Build a Relationship First

It's hard to form any type of partnership if you do not know each other. Start working with potential partners on trails planning, partners' trail projects, your trail projects or joint trail projects. A relationship is the first step towards trust, which is essential for a successful partnership.

2. Make Compromises

A successful large-scale trail development partnership project requires true compromise, not just lip service. Early on, IDNR understood that the GIT would not be a typical IDNR state trail. It required IDNR to relax some of its standards (design, signage, management, etc.).

"Partnerships" that consist of an agency/organization soliciting "partners" for the sole purpose of helping that agency/organization achieve its vision or complete its project do not work well. All partners must feel that the project, at least to some extent, meets their goals and objectives. The first step is to develop a shared vision.

3. Provide Some Structure

Large-scale trail development partnership projects work better with some type of organizational structure. For the GIT, IDNR formed the GIT Executive Council with representatives of three geographic regions &endash; northeastern Illinois, northwestern Illinois and "canal country"-- as well as key organizations such as the League of Illinois Bicyclists and key agencies such as the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The Council meets every two to three months to review progress, identify and resolve issues, pursue new initiatives, identify follow-up activities, etc. Each meeting has an agenda and minutes are taken. Meeting regularly and putting everything in writing helps to ensure progress and coordination.

4. Make it a Priority

Of course the easiest way to complete a large-scale trail development project is to secure all the funding necessary to complete the project up front. This is seldom possible. However, if the project becomes a priority, then available funding can be directed towards it.

The GIT is a priority for several funding sources in Illinois, including IDNR's Bike Path Program, the Illinois Department of Transportation's Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program and IDNR's Recreational Trails Program. All state and locally-sponsored projects that are segments of the GIT receive preference under these programs. Since 1995, about $40 million has been directed to GIT-related projects.

5. Dedicate Staff to the Project

Trying to do a large-scale trail development partnership project on top of existing work or "during coffee breaks" does not work well. Ideally, at least one of the partners should dedicate at least one staff person to the project. IDNR has a full-time GIT Coordinator-- George Bellovics, stationed in northern Illinois.

6. Set Ambitious Deadlines, but Be Flexible, and Most of All, Be Patient

By definition, a large-scale trail development partnership project takes time to complete. Deadlines (interim and final) help maintain momentum. At the 1995 GIT Forum, June 3, 2000 (National Trails Day) was established as the target date to open the trail for hiking and biking (it was understood some segments would be suitable only for mountain biking). At this time (see Current Status), the trail is not fully completed, but it is open. The five-year deadline significantly helped in maintaining momentum.

Setting deadlines is important, but they may need to be adjusted as new circumstances, opportunities or challenges surface. The 1997 Boub v. Wayne Illinois Supreme Court decision was an unforseen obstacle that will clearly delay opening some on-road segments of the GIT. However, the momentum of and interest in the GIT has alerted the Governor and Illinois General Assembly of the need to resolve this issue.

Finally, it is essential to be patient. Most long-distance trails take years or decades to complete. Most remain a "work-in-progress" with on-going refinements and improvements. Without this long view, it is easy to get discouraged and lose momentum.

7. Make it Personal

Agencies and organizations are made up of people. While a large-scale trail development partnership project may be a job to some, to others it is personal. Appreciate the personal investment partners make in a project. It is easy to turn them off and lose their enthusiasm and trust.

Do not take all the credit-- give it to your partners. Usually, they, in turn, will give you credit.

Be inclusive rather than exclusive. Accomplishing objectives through a committee is always more challenging, but, in the end, always more successful.

For more information: Dick Westfall, Supervisor, Greenways & Trails Section, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 524 S. 2nd St., Springfield, IL 62701-1787 -- Phone (217) 782-3715;

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