Warning:

Heartland Pathways consist of undeveloped trails. In the years following the purchase of the corridor, it could hiked and biked. Today, the corridors have become overgrown. They are available to biologists and natural history enthusiasts, but the railbeds are not suitable for traditional hiking and biking activities. The corridors are not unused, because the prairie they support continues to grow and that was the prime reason for the acquisition.

One of the major challenges facing the development of HP trails is that HP beds are in three, near but separate, sections, with an active railroad museum in the middle, and short lines on the end of each segment. One day we hope to connect these sites with population bases in Champaign-Urbana, Monticello, Decatur, Clinton, and Danville. But HP has a long ways to go to achieve that goal.

Until then it is hoped that you will enjoy the natural and cultural history of the corridor. But please keep in mind that the corridor is definitely not suitable for hiking and biking in the normal sense.

Give us a few million dollars and we'll do something about it.

Heartland Pathways: Visiting the Trail at White Heath

Return to "Heartland Pathways: Visiting the Path"

You can easily visit a portion of the Heartland Pathways acquisition by traveling west on Route 10 from Champaign. When you reach Seymour, which is about ten miles from Champaign, Route 10 will curve gently to the south and then parallel to the old Illinois Central rail bed west. You will cross a small creek at this point, and that is where the Heartland Pathways acquisition begins. You may wish to park at the next section road and walk west over the Cerro Gordo moraine toward I 72. In so doing, you will sample some of the prairie habitat Heartland Pathways is preserving. Since the road runs parallel to the rail bed, one member of the family may want to drive to a point along the trail and pick others up. There is a convenient parking place on an old concrete road that curves toward White Heath just before you cross over I 72. This stretch of rail trail is about three miles long, and it provides a safe means for sampling the prairie without the fear of traffic accidents. You don't need to walk the whole three miles to get acquainted with the trail. A windshield survey with a stop here and there may be enough. But be careful: this is a heavily-used road, and you should be appropriately parked if you do stop.

A knoll about half a mile short of I 72 provides an excellent opportunity for you to find species such as compass plant, dock, rosin weed, iron weed, bush clover, yellow cone flower, wild rye, spurge, boneset, golden Alexander, tick seed, bergamot, big bluestem, little bluestem, switch grass, Indian grass, and dropseed. You will also find numerous insects and the signs of the small mammals that accompany these plants. There are also the regrowth successional trees such as sassafrass and sumac that inhabit such sites. A few glacial eratics are indicators of the glacial nature of the gently-rolling terrain of the Cerro Gordo moraine.

As you look west to the junction of Route 10 and I 72, you will observe power poles and fiber optic indicators. These are part of the multiple-use aspect of the corridor, and they help to keep the prairie from being destroyed.

Now travel west on Route 10. Just before you reach I 72, notic the old concrete road off to the south which you may want to use for parking sometime in the future. Drive west over I 72 about two-and-a-half miles to Shady Rest Road, which is the first major southbound road past the Sangamon River. Shady Rest is the old road to Monticello. Proceed down this road a half mile until you reach the abandoned bed of the old railroad. Park on the shoulder of the road and walk east across the Sangamon River rail bridge and on up to White Heath. This walk samples the bottomland forest.

The trees include bottomland maple, sycamore, and burr oak on the lowlands, with red and white oak coming in on the east side of the bridge. Other trees include Hackberry, slippery elm, and ash. There are a few understory shrubs, but the woods are mostly open. The understory is rich in native herbs, the most spectacular being phlox, which give an overall blue cast to the floor of the forest in early Spring.

Notice the log jam downstream that can make the river change course. Observe how the trees hang out over the Sangamon, creating a shady place for the organisms underneath. This is where early settlers would gather mussels which would double for food and for the making of buttons.

Stop on the bridge and enjoy the engineering structure. Steam trains used to stop on the east side of the bridge to take on water. You can see some of the concrete footings for the water tank that was filled from the river.

As the ground rises to the east, trees such as red and white oak and hickory appear where there is better drainage. The houses in this vicinity are privately owned. Please do not be tempted to trespass.

Much of the forest on the east side of the bridge is regrowth in nature, with small trees such as locust and crab apple dominating. Imagine that you are a forester trying to determine the history of the area. You will note that in some places, there are big trees and shrubbery, but few trees in between. That may mean that the area was once cleared of all but a few large trees. This is the case, for this area has been utilized for the harvest of wood and for small crop and livestock activities in the past. The site adjacent to the river especially was used as picnic grounds. The train used to stop and let off picnic goers here. More recently, there have been cabins at this location, a few of which remain. The two out houses you can see near the bridge were a part of the cabin area. Present day use is more oriented toward preservation, and that is why the trees are coming back.

The area near the bridge is known locally as Shady Rest, and the road that leads to it from Route 10 is called Shady Rest Road.

As you walk up the gentle grade to White Heath, remember that it was common for a railroad to cross a major stream like the Sangamon by following a tributary down to a major bridge. The train then climbed out of the flood plain using a tributary on the other side of the river. This saved a great deal of excavating and provided a gentle approach and exit. This is exactly what happened with this railroad. Traveling east from Lodge, the train ran down the drainage basin of Madden Creek, then across the Sangamon and up to White Heath over another stream. You will cross that stream as you head to White Heath from Shady Rest. In contrast, motor vehicles tend to move across streams by dropping down into them very quickly, then up the other side they go and away. A train with a hundred cars cannot do that, and that is what makes rail trails interesting. The stream being used by the train often runs adjacent to the track, and that makes the trail rather special.

While you are thinking about the way the train moved, consider how you would make the bridges and trestles passable and safe. You might like to help us make those changes and develop the trail as a pleasant pathway for all.

Continuing north and east, the trail passes under I 72. You will be using an underpass that cost many thousands of dollars to create. You are making use of a valuable structure which would otherwise be wasted. The fact that the rail trail goes under the expressway makes your passage safe, and that is another special feature of rail trails. They are safe. These corridors are also quite interesting because all the scenery is close. You can not only stop at will, but you can also reach out and touch the vegetation to the side, and this is not usually the case with roads.

The Heartland Pathways acquisition ends where the Monticello Railroad Museum tracks begin. You are now about one mile from your starting point. You can turn around and walk back, or you can have your driver pick you up at White Heath. For your driver to do this, he or she must leave you at Shady Rest and then drive south a mile to the first road on the left. This road will take you over I 72 at Interchange 66, and you will meet up with your crew about half a mile along to White Heath.

If you want, you can start your tour from the southwest corner of White Heath. The advantage is that parking is easier at the White Heath end of the trail. Exit east off I 72 at Interchange 66, take the first village road to the right, and park. This is Meridian Street. Park near where Meridian Street crosses the museum tracks, and walk west along the rails until you cross the road, the rails stop, and the trail begins.

Bicyclists can do all of the above and similarly sample the prairie and the bottomlands. You can, if you want, ride from the starting point at Seymour all the way into White Heath. Then take the streets to the south side of White Heath where the Heartland Pathways trail begins again. Follow the rail bed west and drop off at Shady Rest. Be warned that the bed is relatively rough, and you will need an all-terrain bicycle.

For people visiting from Clinton, Monticello, and Decatur, the approach will be different, but the specifics are the same. Shady Rest Road and exit 66 at White Heath are the key roads.

The objectives for this trail are multiple. They include:

  • Habitat preservation (especially prairie),
  • Education,
  • Recreation and tourism, and
  • Rail banking for the possible extension of recreational steam and for possible inter-urban or industrial use in the future, should the occasion arise.

We are anxious to give you the opportunity to understand what Heartland Pathways is about, and the best way of doing this is to have you visit the site. Even if you only drive by on Route 10 and walk 50 yards in to the Shady Rest Bridge, you will be better informed. A short visit like this can be achieved with a trip of one or two hours from almost anywhere in the area. You may want to take more time, and certainly we would like to encourage you to make a better inspection of the rail trail.

Remember that the trail is only one aspect of a retinue of regional attractions. Take advantage of adjacent parks and facilities, such as Buck's Pond, Allerton Park, and the Monticello Railroad Museum. Also visit the pre-railroad trading post, now the City of Monticello, and the post-railroad towns like Deland and Weldon and discover their elegance and history.

Give yourself and your children a gift by taking a short trip to the rail trail so that you can place it in context of the rather unique contributions this area has to offer.

Enjoy yourself. Thank you for your involvement.

Send any questions to dmonk@prairienet.org.