Making Trails Count for Illinois

Uses studied: ,
Place: Statewide


This study found that Illinois’ regional trails receive very high use, mainly cycling and walking, particularly in metropolitan areas. Trails mostly generate benefits in terms of health impacts for local residents, one-third of whom used trails at least 21 times in the previous year and exercised for at least 150 minutes during each trail visit.


Although the use numbers are specific to the trails surveyed, results from the range of trails assessed demonstrate the range of users between urban, suburban, and rural areas. Additionally, the findings demonstrate the value of asking respondents questions about physical activity during use surveys, a topic that is often overlooked in trail use surveys.


The study covers six regional trails in Illinois.

Trail Type

The study includes use estimates for the following six non-motorized trails in Illinois:

  • Fox River Trail (Chicago’s western suburbs);
  • MCT Goshen Trail (St. Louis, Missouri metro area);
  • Hennepin Canal State Trail (north central);
  • Old Plank Road Trail (Chicago’s south suburbs);
  • Rock Island State Trail (central); and
  • Tunnel Hill State Trail (south).

On all trails, bicycling and walking were the most popular activities. All trails have paved or crushed gravel surfaces. These trails were included because they had a regional draw, connected at least two communities, and had active local volunteer groups that could assist with gathering data.


The purpose of this study is to provide estimates of trail use, user attitudes about the trail, and trail-related expenditures for a range of trails across the state. The study sponsors–Trails for Illinois and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy–intend for these results to inform elected officials, managing agencies, private foundations and businesses, and the general public as they consider investing in maintaining and developing trails in the state.


Trail Distance (miles) Annual users Annual users per mile
Fox River Trail 30 86,561 2,885
MCT Goshen Trail 9 67,651 7,517
Hennepin Canal State Trail 65 9,126 140
Old Plank Road Trail 19 127,637 6,718
Rock Island State Trail 30 16,838 561
Tunnel Hill State Trail 47 16,717 356


  • The trails surveyed attract mostly local users, with 68 percent of respondents living within five miles of the trail on which they were surveyed. Roughly one-third of trail users reported using the trail at least 21 times during the previous year.
  • Because the trails attract mostly local users, nearly all reported no spending during their trail use (97%). Those trail users who did report expenses spent an average of $30 per trip on restaurants, gas, gear, and groceries.
  • Fourteen percent of trail users were visiting from outside the local area and 4 percent reported they stayed at least one night near the trail.
  • One-third of respondents expected to spend at least 150 minutes on the trail that day, the length of time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for weekly physical activity.
  • The trail attributes most commonly listed as “poor” or “very poor” were trail markings for trailside amenities or destinations (15%), the availability of drinking fountains (27%), and the availability of bathrooms (14%).


The authors used electronic trail counters and intercept surveys to obtain data from July through October, 2012. They installed 18 trail counters on six non-motorized trails. Volunteers collected 800 surveys from trail users over a 13-week period. Sampling days were scheduled such that they covered weekdays and weekends and different times of the day. Volunteers asked every third trail user to complete the survey on-site, online, or via mail.


Buchtel, S., J. Robinett, J. Scheunemann, and E. Oberg. 2013. Making Trails Count for Illinois. Trails for Illinois, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Office of Recreation and Park Resources, and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.