Credit: Thomas’ Photographic Services

The Cal-Sag Trail, @calsagtrail

There’s been a fair amount of gloating lately over the fact that the recently opened Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.7-mile elevated rails-to-trails conversion on the near northwest side, is nearly twice as long as New York’s much-touted High Line. But down in the southwest suburbs, just outside Chicago’s city limits, the longest urban trail project in the midwest is under way. On June 6—the same day the Bloomingdale Trail opened—there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first half of the Cal-Sag Trail, which currently stretches from Lemont to Alsip. By the time it’s completed in 2017, the 26-mile path will extend to the Burnham Greenway, near the Indiana border.

For most of its length, the trail runs alongside the Calumet-Saganashkee Channel, which used to be so polluted that residents were warned not to let the water touch their skin. “Everyone just drives over it, or they dump batteries in there,” says Steve Buchtel, executive director of Trails for Illinois. “It was a corridor of environmental abuse and neglect until about the late 90s.” Since then the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has been cleaning up the river by adding man-made waterfalls that aerate the water, breaking down chemicals that have accumulated from industrial use—and fish have finally returned to the canal.

Construction on the trail began last fall, and Buchtel says that area residents, not content to wait for the official opening, have since been walking and running on it. “There was a guy out mushing his dogs along the trail this winter,” he says. “There’s a rule in trail building that trail users are 20 feet behind the bulldozers.”