Editor’s Note: The Madison County Transit (MCT) Trails were voted the “Favorite Bicycling Route” by readers of Terrain Magazine in our 2018 Readers’ Choice Awards. The system was born in the early 1990s to preserve rail corridors for future light rail possibilities and interim trail use. Since then, more than $25 million in federal and state grants has been secured by MCT to develop this interconnected system of trails. With the addition of bike racks on MCT buses, and bus routes that connect to trails, this is the only transit system in the country with an integrated bus and bikeway system.
A pink-hued lizard skitters across the path as I pedal through a forest dripping with morning rain and smelling of freshly turned soil. I stop briefly to look at a rocky stream, a thin sliver of silver framed by a green shroud of leaves.
This is a return trip to the Madison County Transit (MCT) Trails, former railroad rights of way that have been transformed into mostly paved surface for walking, biking and other non-motorized travel. In all, this system in Madison County, Illinois, consists of more than 130 miles of Class One bikeways made up of nine trails, 25 tunnels, 1,500 acres of green space, seven interconnecting loops and 46 bridges.
I park at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Ralph Korte Stadium and start my ride southbound on the Bluff Trail. From there, I gear down for the Nature Trail, heading uphill toward downtown. Rain from last night and this morning has swollen small creeks visible from wooden bridges spanning ravines. Trees flank both sides of the trail, forming a shady canopy for travelers.
As I approach Edwardsville’s urban center, underpasses traverse streets so trail users don’t have to slow down or risk getting hit by a car. The trail also has frequent signs and pavement markers, so it’s hard to get lost.
Unless you’re me, that is. Despite being a borderline map obsessive, I miss my Goshen Trail turnoff. I suspect something’s wrong when suburban homes give way to farm fields. Sure enough, at the next parking lot I learn I’m on another route, but instead of turning around I decide to make it a longer trip and turn west on the Schoolhouse Trail.
This is one of the more scenic sections of the trip, passing steep hillsides, mature forests and a stream, muddy and burbling with runoff. I stop for the restroom at Drost Park in Maryville. As I pedal away, a water snake swims from shore in an s-shaped back-and-forth motion.
He’s not the only wildlife. I encounter a turtle near Horseshoe Lake, maybe 8 inches in diameter; rabbits scurrying into tall weeds at trail’s edge; a groundhog nonchalantly going about his business; colorful cardinals.
The rarest sighting happens when I’m back on the Nature Trail, knees creaking as I approach the end of my 28-mile ride. A movement overhead catches my attention as a large bird flies farther down the trail. He’s hidden by trees, so I can’t tell what he is, but a few minutes later I see him again — an owl, taking off from his perch on a branch about 15 feet up.
That’s all the inspiration I need to push my middle-aged frame through the last couple of miles, back on the Nature Trail. Just as I’m about to make the turnoff to return to my vehicle, I notice an old log cabin I’ve never seen before and a path behind it, heading into the woods. But they’ll have to wait until next time.
Hours: Opens from sunrise to sunset
Length: 130+ miles of multi-use trails
Surface: Mostly asphalt, some limestone
Permitted Uses: Walking, running, rollerblading, skating, skateboarding and bicycling, including electric bicycles and bicycle trailers
Parking: Lots available along most trails at various points
Amenities: Water, restrooms and connections to parks, towns, schools and historic sites
Author: Jason White. This article was reprinted with permission from AdVantage in Godfrey, Illinois.
Photo: Courtesy of Metro East Park & Recreation District