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Trail of untapped potential along Rock River

Volunteers, cities see opportunities along local river

When taking inventory of the Sauk Valley’s assets, many trails lead back to the river.

The Rock River is at the center of conversations about economic development, recreation, and overall quality of life.

The full breadth of the river starts at Horicon Marsh in Dodge and Fond du Lac counties in Wisconsin. The marsh, a national wildlife refuge encompassing 33,000 acres, is the crown jewel along the Rock River Trail. The trail continues for 320 miles through 11 counties in Wisconsin and Illinois to its confluence with the Mississippi River near the Quad Cities.

The Rock River Trail Initiative is the result of a group of volunteers’ desire to protect the historic areas along the Rock, while still maximizing the river’s vast potential for jump-starting economic development, recreation and tourism.

Frank Schier, The Rock River Times editor and publisher, spearheaded the launch of the Rock River Trail Initiative in 2010, and it quickly gained steam with city and county officials, park district and conservation entities, and politicians.

The group of volunteers’ first order of business was to achieve designation for the route as a multi-use state and national trail.

Wisconsin coordinator Greg Farnham clearly recalls his introduction to Schier and the initiative at a legislative briefing session.

“It was February 2011, and I went to the Clock Tower in Rockford, where Frank was giving a presentation,” Farnham said. “Afterward, I talked to Frank and offered my help on the Wisconsin side.”

Farnham, of Hustisford, Wis., and Schier quickly developed a good working relationship, and Farnham was named Wisconsin coordinator. The ideas have kept coming ever since.

A management council was set up with representatives of all 11 counties. Debbie Thompson of Dixon represents Lee County, while Sterling’s Loren Swartley was named from Whiteside County.

Three major phases

The council got to work on a comprehensive trail plan that would be divided into three focal points: the state and national designation of the Rock River Water Trail; the Rock River Trail Scenic and Historic Route for motorists; and the Rock River Trail Bike Route with on- and off-road recreational opportunities.

In April 2013, the council learned it had received National Water Trails System status, opening the door to more possibilities.

“The primary benefit is the increased visibility we get from the national promotional resources,” Farnham said. “We’re linked to the National Parks Services website, and the exposure through them is so much more than what we can do on our own.”

Inquiries about the trail are even coming in from Europe, Farnham said. The trail council can also use the National Water Trails System logo.

The designation also brings additional funding and technical assistance opportunities when working on new projects.

In 2013, the road route was established through each state’s legislatures, and the council worked with both Departments of Transportation to develop signage to be posted on public highways.

“The road route is Route 2 largely in Illinois into Rock Falls and on Route 30 across the river to Moline Road and on to the Quad Cities,” Farnham said.

Signage and safety

The council has shifted into the last stage of its work, which is signage and safety. Locally, it is an even more pressing concern near the dams.

There are 155 river access sites along the trail, and 55 are handicap-accessible. Three-fourths of the sites already have signage. The Arduini ramp and Martin’s Landing need some attention, Farnham said.

“There is no sign visible from the water at the ramp,” Farnham said. “They also need a sign facing upstream at Martin’s Landing across from the dam telling you which way to portage.”

Farnham says the lower dam at Sterling and Rock Falls is a dangerous area to access the boat ramp. Swartley says there are extended areas where portage is difficult and signage is vital.

“From Moonlight Bay and the Oppold Marina to the railroad crossing on the Sterling side – not until Martin’s Landing is there a place to get out of the river,” Swartley said. “Then you have to kayak to the other side, too, which is the most dangerous.”

The lower dam is particularly worrisome to Swartley. There are buoys near the upper dam, but not the lower. It is even more difficult to navigate for those who are unfamiliar with it.

There is new signage for takeout points near Como, Lyndon, Erie and along Route 2 near Moline Road, but the council is still trying to figure out how to best handle the lower dam.

“The council is adamant about sufficient signage for all the dams,” Swartley said. “I just don’t know if we have a solution yet for the lower dam.”

“Our number one concern is for the safety and well being of the people using the trail,” Thompson said. “In addition to safety, the signage also makes things more convenient.”

Signage for the bike path isn’t ready yet, Swartley said. Some areas will be off-road routes where bikers have no traffic around them, while other areas require sharing the road with vehicles.

Engaging municipalities

The mayors and other officials in Dixon, Sterling and Rock Falls have shown an active interest in the development of the project and its connection with the Hennepin Canal, Swartley and Thompson say.

“I think people realize that the river’s role in economic development is huge,” Swartley said. “It’s rather unfortunate that the river is less utilized now than it was 10 years ago.”

Economics are largely to blame, Swartley says. The Oppold Marina has fewer boat slips leased than it did a decade ago, and fuel costs are a bigger concern when money is tight.

Another step the council must take also involves money. In order to maintain the trail areas and continue with new project development, they must find ways to generate revenue.

“We have a lot of ideas, but it comes down to paying for it,” Swartley said. “We’re working on grants, but we need some kind of revenue generation.”

In Lee County, kiosks are needed at several spots, and other tourist-friendly projects are high priorities.

“We’d like to get the docks in at Heritage Crossing, but we need money for this project,” Thompson said. “Everything must be handicap-accessible, which can add to the expense. The kiosks will help the tourists; when we get them in Dixon, we want to keep them there.”

Park districts and tourism organizations are key to keeping the momentum going. In Winnebago County, a three-family lodge made with elm bark, surrounded by wigwams and a Native American garden will be put in a park.

“There is an effort there to engage the Native American population with primitive campground themes,” Thompson said.

The trail also should bring more people to the Hennepin Canal areas. Officials in Rock Falls recently combined the city’s trail and canal committees to better coordinate the projects.

“There are all kinds of synergies with the canal and trail,” Farnham said. “There is tremendous potential to integrate some of the efforts to maximize the benefits.”

Marketing efforts have found a common thread with the tagline “River of the Heartland.” All 37 cities and villages along the trail will feature it prominently it their promotional efforts.

For more information

For more information about the Rock River Trail, including maps, or to make a donation, go to

Local trail milestones

- The Rock Falls section of the Rock River Trail was opened and dedicated Sept. 13, 2012, at the Arduini Boat Launch next to the upper dam and Hennepin Feeder Canal.

- The Dixon portion of the Rock River Trail was opened and dedicated Oct. 12, 2012, at President's Park.

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