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What’s next for Rock River Trail?

Signs on their way; How to market trail?

A map of the Rock River Trial through Illinois and Wisconsin.
A map of the Rock River Trial through Illinois and Wisconsin.

DIXON – Drive it. Hike it. Bike it. Kayak it. And canoe it.

That’s the now nationally-designated slogan for the Rock River Trail. It lets visitors know that “it’s a river of opportunities for all interests.”

Two of the activities mentioned in the slogan – kayaking and canoeing – can be done with ease. A little more work is needed to complete the other three.

The 300-mile route runs through 11 counties from the Rock River’s source in Fond du Lac, Wis., to the Mississippi River in Rock Island, and includes Sterling, Rock Falls, Dixon and other Sauk Valley communities.

It was designated part of the National Water Trail System in April. The designation means sites along the trail are eligible for federal grants to make improvements, and also creates a partnership with the National Park Service, said Greg Farnham, Rock River Trail coordinator.

“This is one of only 10 in the United States,” Farnham said. “It’s quite an achievement.”

Bright blue and yellow signs against a white backdrop will be posted in about a month to roadways along the river in the Sauk Valley area, Farnham said.

These signs have been going up in Wisconsin, and several are ordered for Illinois.

This summer, another important step was taken for the trail’s mission.

The Illinois General Assembly and the Wisconsin Legislature in May and July voted to designate and mark the Rock River Trail Scenic and Historic Route on highways parallel with and in proximity to the river.

The route passes through 37 communities, including trips on state Route 2 from Rockford to Sterling and portions of U.S. Route 30 through Rock Falls and state Route 78 through Prophetstown.

The final initiative to provide biking and hiking trails along the river is the most difficult, Farnham said.

When this is complete, the goal is to have a continuous on- and off-road trail mapped out.

Trail coordinators are working with state bicycle organizatons in Illinois and Wisconsin to help them with this task.

“Surprisingly, when we first started I thought this part would be the piece of cake,” Farnham said. “Not exactly.”

Organizers want to select roads and trails that showcase the river and also run through communities. With bikers and pedestrians, safety becomes more of an issue and creativity is needed to find solutions.

“There are many more hazards we have to work with the clubs to avoid,” Farnham said. “The communities in those areas have worked closely with us to provide and obtain safe paths, which ones are safe, which ones are not.”

Also, tying the Rock River Trail into others and creating a network throughout the state is a goal, Farnham said.

The trail connects with the Hennepin Feeder Canal in Rock Falls, and there is a hope to link into the Grand Illinois Trail, which includes several trails and spans more than 500 miles across Northern Illinois.,

It remains to be seen how the area will promote and market the riverway.

A workshop with tourism and economic development officials from Rock River communities is scheduled for Nov. 22 in Beloit.

The designation will only go so far; it’s up to individual communities to run with it, said Diane Bausman, executive director of Blackhawk Waterways, which promotes tourism in Lee, Whiteside, Carroll and Ogle counties.

“We need to put our money where our mouth is,” Bausman said. “This is a good step. They did all the preliminary stuff. This workshop will answer a lot of questions and help communities put together a strategy plan.”

Coming up with many attractions and connections is a key, Bausman said.

For example, Dixon resident and trail board member Debbie Thompson is mapping all the sculptures and statues along the trail route. There are 13 in Illinois.

Putting a number on river visitors is difficult to do, Bausman said.

The region continues to see tourism growth, and a state study shows tourism brought in $151 million to the area last year.

“There’s no doubt the Rock is one of our biggest draws, especially right now for the fall season,” Bausman said. “We need people to not only come for the beautiful drive, but to stop in our communities, shop in our beautiful stores and stay overnight.

“That’s the challenge now.”

Want more info?

For more information on the Rock River Trail, go to or call 815-964-9767.

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