Experience I&M Canal in Starved Rock Country

Mule-towed boat tours resume; bike rental a travel option

No trip to Starved Rock Country is complete without spending some time along the Illinois & Michigan Canal. When you travel along it, you’re retracing the footsteps of people who transformed the Illinois prairie into the expansive and diverse region it is today, filled with exciting industries, delicious dining and plenty of boutique shopping opportunities. Walk in the footsteps of the laborers and lock tenders of nearly two centuries ago at these popular canal attractions.

Junior Ranger program

The Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Area has one of the favorite National Park Service programs - Junior Ranger (ages 5 to 95). It is easy to earn your badge by completing the activities in the book. You can always stop at the I&M Canal Visitor Center (754 First St., La Salle) or Isle a la Cache Museum (501 E. Romeo Road, Romeoville) to pick up your Junior Ranger book or return your book for your Junior Ranger badge. In addition, there are days and locations throughout the heritage area to attend a Junior Ranger Day to do both and meet a National Park Service Ranger. Check iandmcanal.org for details.

Ottawa’s Toll House

Ottawa’s Toll House is a remarkable relic of the I&M Canal boom, a surviving original structure filled with recovered items and fascinating displays about the waterway’s storied history in a compact one-room footprint. Located conveniently in the heart of Ottawa’s downtown, right along the I&M towpath, you’ll find the immaculate-looking, 175-year-old museum. A group of dedicated volunteers turned the husk of a building into a painstakingly researched approximation of what the canal collector’s toll house would have looked like back in 1848. For more information, visit pickusottawail.com/attractions/im-canal-toll-house.

I&M Canal Boat

The 76-foot boat is the first on the canal in more than 70 years, but the star of the show for adults and kids alike is Moe the mule, who pulls the boat and passengers down the canal for a brief glimpse of what canal travel was like in 1848, when Chicago was the western frontier. The ride is about an hour long, enough to learn the history from the guide and the recorded history, but not too long for the kids. You are allowed to walk around the boat, sit in the cabin or explore the upper deck. Catch a view of turtles sunning themselves on the rocks, while birds, fish and other animals may make an appearance. Kids can become a junior captain and visit the stern of the boat to see the rudder in action.

The I&M Canal Boat kicks off its 2024 season on Wednesday, May 15, and will run through Oct. 30. The canal boat rides operate most Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with select other days offered each month. Tickets are required; visit iandmcanal.org for more information and to reserve your boat passes.

Rental bikes sit along the canal at Lockport’s Lincoln Landing on Wednesday, April 19, 2023 in Lockport.

Bike the I&M Canal

The I&M Canal National Heritage Area’s bike-rental program removes the biggest challenge to taking a scenic ride along the legendary waterway – transporting your own bikes to the trailhead. You’re often stuck trying to cram your beloved bikes into the backseat of your car, or taking your chances by affixing a bike rack to the back. Thanks to the app-based, bike-sharing system, you can soak in the history and natural splendor of the canal for just $5 an hour using one of several convenient locations – including a new kiosk in Marseilles, located at Main Street and the I&M Canal Trail.

Anyone age 18 or older can rent a bike at self-service locations near canal trail entrances in Lemont, Lockport, Channahon, Morris, Marseilles, Utica and La Salle using a simple smartphone app. Before you head out on your trip, visit iandmcanal.org for a link to download the app, or simply search Movatic in your app store. You’ll then follow a simple registration process that can be completed in a matter of moments. Once you’re in proximity to one of the bike stations, you can use your rental wheels to explore the trail and beautiful canal towns, for just a small hourly fee.

All rental bikes include a basket, bell and headlight for evening travel. You will, however, need to provide your own helmet to use the bikes. Once you have completed your trip, the bicycle can be returned to any of the open stations along the canal, as an added convenience.

For more information on the I&M Canal Bike Share, visit iandmcanal.org/bike.