When the weather turns cold and snow begins to fall, winter sports enthusiasts, as well as the person seeking just a casual stroll in nature, can bundle up in warm clothes and head outdoors to the Hennepin Canal.
Winding through southern and western Bureau County as well as sections of Henry, Lee, Whiteside and Rock Island counties, the Hennepin Canal offers miles and miles of cross country skiing trails along the canal's walking path. Some people even choose to strike away from the beaten path and venture out onto the canal itself for their cross country skiing adventure.
For the snowmobile enthusiast, the Hennepin Canal boasts the longest snowmobile trail in the state, 91 miles on the tow path. Snowmobilers can also use the canal itself, but at their own risk. Anyone using the canal should take notice of the locks, bridges and culverts, where the ice is likely to be thinner than on the rest of the canal.
For people who long for a quieter experience on the canal, and on those winter days when the ice is rock solid, families and friends can meet for an afternoon of ice skating on the canal.
Of course, no motorized vehicles, other than snowmobiles, are allowed on the paths or canal.
The Hennepin Canal Parkway basically parallels Interstate 80 in Bureau and Henry counties in west central Illinois. The parkway's visitors center is located one mile south of Interstate 80, just west of Route 40, or about three miles northeast of Sheffield.
Before exploring the park, guests are encouraged to stop at the visitor center, where they will find displays illustrating the canal's history, including tools used to build and operate the canal, a model of a lock with a boat going through it, and a model of an aqueduct. There are also displays of the abundant plant and animal life which thrive within the park. A marsh observation area and duck blind is located near the visitor center.
To assist guests at the canal, the visitor center is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday throughout the year.
Tish Swinehart, office coordinator for the visitor center, said in addition to the cross country skiing, snowmobiling and ice skating opportunities along the Hennepin Canal, there's also a lot of people who come to the canal each winter to do their ice fishing. There are also winter trapping and hunting programs. Others brave the winter cold for a unique camping experience, she said.
On the occasional outing, visitors may see a Bureau County woman who runs her dog sled team along the canal, and there is also a man from outside the immediate area who comes to the canal to practice his speed skating, Swinehart said.
Whether looking for a physical challenge or simply an afternoon of fresh air and nature, the winter months are a beautiful time to visit the Hennepin Canal, Swinehart said.
"I remember my first year here and driving into the park after a snowstorm," Swinehart said. "It was absolutely breathtaking."
Site manager Dave Hahne agreed, saying the Hennepin Canal has something for everyone. In addition to the more active winter sports, there are also people who come to the canal each winter to do a little hiking or bird watching, maybe even catching glimpses of an American eagle or two.
The Friends of the Hennepin Canal sponsors monthly hikes throughout the year, except for December, and people can hike the entire 104-mile length of the canal in two years if they take advantage of all the monthly hikes, Hahne said.
On a personal note, Hahne said he has developed a deep appreciation for the Hennepin Canal, for its uniqueness in the construction aspect of the canal itself and for the magnitude of its beauty.
Regardless of the season, whether winter, spring, summer or fall, the Hennepin Canal offers endless opportunities for the sports enthusiasts, as well as offering a quiet oasis, a scenic retreat for anyone who wants to just step back for a few moments and enjoy the beauty of nature, Hahne said.
"Serene and peaceful, that's how I would describe the feeling out here," Hahne said. "There is something very special here for everyone who comes to visit."
For those who aren't cold weather enthusiasts, the Hennepin Canal boasts a variety of opportunities through every season. Bicyclists can be seen using the path that runs along the canal, as well as horseback riders, who also enjoy the serenity found there. Canoes, boats and fishermen can be seen year 'round, and photographers find the Hennepin Canal to be picture perfect, regardless of what time of year it is. There are also plenty of picnic areas and camping spots, where visitors can relax and get an up-close look at nature at its best.