Cycling the Tunnel Hill State Trail in Illinois

In the last two days we have cycled 60 miles (96 kms) on the Tunnel Hill State Trail. We are in Marion, Illinois. Tomorrow we move 350 miles north to Ottawa, Illinois. Frankly I'll be glad of the chance to sit in the car for a day and get a rest from being on a bicycle.

The Tunnel Hill Trail is only 45 miles long but as usual we didn't see it all. One day I would love to ride a trail in just one direction. The world is full of tour operators who move bags, provide back-up and transport you from the end of a trail back to where you began but I can't imagine David, who has a passionate loathing of tours of any kind, ever agreeing to such luxury. For my feelings on cycling trails in both directions - see my blog post on The Otago Rail Trail and a Universal Truth.

The Tunnel Hill Trail is made from crushed limestone. Yesterday it rained for several hours before we set out which made for a heavy surface and tough, slow progress. Even with the advantage of a slight downhill gradient on the way home we had to work harder than usual for each kilometre.  Add to that a temperature in the mid-80sF (low 30sC) and we were glad to see the car at the end of the afternoon.

The Trail follows the route of an old railway line winding its way through forest, wetlands and swamps. It crosses trestle bridges, bisects time-forgotten townships and navigates the 543 foot long tunnel from which it takes its name. Fortunately we were fore-warned about the tunnel and packed a torch.  Mist curling around the entrance made for a very creepy experience.

Almost in the middle of the trail is Sandburn. We stopped here for an ice-cream and a rest. The Sandburn general store, seemed to be the only thing left of the town. There was no-one about, just a list of prices and an honesty box. An old drinks fridge partially blocked the store entrance. 

Brian, the storekeeper, came over while we were eating to say hello and apologise for the fact that we had to circumnavigate the fridge to get into his shop. He unloaded it from his truck earlier in the day only to discover that without help it was too heavy to lift up the front steps. Reinforcements in the form of some burly friends were coming over to help in a few hours.

"Australia, now that's a place I've always wanted to visit", he volunteered in a slow, southern drawl.  "Been to Canada and Newfoundland. Australia is the only other country I would feel safe in".

 I wasn't entirely sure whether he realised that Newfoundland is now part of Canada. It was once, for a short time, an independent country. Perhaps he was just a bit behind the times.

I don't mean to make him sound brainless and parochial, the stereotypical American country bumpkin Australians so love to make fun of and which, in my experience, is more myth than reality -  Brian was the complete opposite. His life may have been largely isolated from the world beyond the US but he was intelligent, witty and knowledgeable. We could have stayed for hours listening to his treasure trove of local knowledge. He told us that the name 'Sandburn' came about because the workers who laid the railway tracks and dug the tunnel got abrasive burns on their skin - sandburns.  Originally the town was destined for greater things. The local railroad depot burned down twice during construction before it was moved to the adjacent town of Tunnel Hill. Arson by residents of Tunnel Hill was suspected leading to generations of feuding between the two towns.  Tunnel Hill prospered and without its depot Sandburn all but disappeared. Today most of the surrounding land is CRP land ( Conservation Reserve Program ) where the farmers are paid to leave the land in its natural state. Paying farmers to not grow crops seemed very odd to Brian. David and I were inclined to agree.

Idling away a half hour or so with Brian reinforced our view that sometimes the best things about a holiday are those you just stumble across.

Taking a break on the trail.

The Tunnel Hill Trail

The General Store at Sandburn. You can see the fridge in the middle blocking the entrance.

A high trestle bridge on the trail

Mist swirling around the tunnel entrance.

Coming out the other side.

The Tunnel was once a lot longer before part of the roof caved in.
For the next post in this series click - here

For all my posts on this road trip click - here

27 June 2014


  1. I reckon that s the best thing about travel. To meet the diversity of people and geography. Hope you invited him to visit Lindfield..Only Bears!!:)

  2. Hi Ferdy,
    He seemed blown away by the idea that Australia could have a city with 4 million people. He recognised that it was a stereo-type but he wanted to see the outback. I don't think he had any interest at all in Sydney.

  3. Hmmm I should take him to Chengdu in China...22 mio people in the greater city area..and just before you start think that everyone is poor...there is a Bentley dealership in the city.

  4. I think 22 million people would blow my mind let alone Brian's.