These boots are made for ... hiking
Hit the trails at area parks for fantastic views of wildflowers, wildlife
Please take your time and read this newspaper thoroughly. Now's also a good time to buy something cool from our advertisers.
When you're done, take a hike.
We're going to concentrate on a state park, a county park and the University of Illinois treasure, Allerton Park.
Allerton Park is in Piatt County south of Monticello, Kickapoo State Park is just east of Danville and Homer Lake is in southern Champaign County.
They're also easy to reach by car, but you might want to consider a bike trip!
Also highly recommended nearby for hiking: Lake of the Woods, for a fantastic running/walking trail; Vermilion County's Heron County Park, with the second-longest boardwalk in the state through wetlands full of life, as well as its Forest Glen Nature Preserve with beautiful trails and a tower that looks out for miles; Urbana's Meadowbrook Park, for its mixture of fine art and fine nature; and Champaign County's Middle Fork, for miles of trails with beavers, otters and bald eagles.
It's one of the best springs in years at Allerton Park for seeing wildflowers, as in right now.
Owned by the University of Illinois, the estate offers two distinct treats for hikers.
The first: trails that offer views of the Sangamon River and wildflowers and wildlife.
The second: formal gardens and a collection of statues.
Associate director Derek Peterson says you should do both. Allow about four hours for a fuller experience of Allerton, he says.
The park, southwest of Monticello, has everything from wild prairie to 14 exquisite formal gardens.
Robert Allerton and John Gregg Allerton donated the 1,500-acre property and mansion to the UI in 1946.
There are 100,000 annual visitors, but Peterson said hikers can find solitude, especially during the work week, on the miles of trails.
"I like the Red Trail to walk because it's an interpretive trail with good view of the river," he said. "If you have kids, it's nice that there's easy access to parking."
The bottomlands are rife with insects around dusk, so Peterson says you're best to avoid them in the upland trails on the south side of park.
With his background in horticulture, Peterson recommends right now as a perfect opportunity to see short-lived beauties like bluebells and trillium.
"They're going crazy right now," he said.
Thank the horrible winter for that.
"After that long winter, all the wildflowers are bunching up and starting at the same time," he says.
Still, remember Allerton next winter, too.
"The most under-appreciated time is winter," he said, when trees are bare.
"I've seen red-headed woodpeckers and pileated woodpeckers; the blue jays are in stark contrast against the snow, so they hide," Peterson says.
There are plenty of small mammals. On his wish list are river otters.
"We know their tracks," he said. "With their reintroduction up north, we hope we'll have some down here."
Kickapoo State Park
In contrast to most of Illinois — where you can have a town named Flatville — a state park just west of Danville offers several hills and beautiful views of a national scenic river.
It's Kickapoo State Park, and people travel to get there.
"I enjoy Turkey Run and some places near Bloomington (Indiana), but there's nothing quite like the ups and downs here," said Trevor Leaton of Indianapolis.
He was on the Out And Back Trail on a recent Sunday, heading toward a hill that defies notions of Illinois flatness.
John Hott, the site superintendent, said Kickapoo has it all: hiking, mountain biking, fishing, canoeing ...
"The terrain is different habitats, such as old forest and river bottom, but also the effects of manmade activity," he said.
From 1850 to about 1940, much of the area was mined for coal. Parts of the park show the effect of the strip coal mining done before it became state land; there's even a small historical exhibit at one mining site.
"Kickapoo shows the power of nature to fix things," Hott says of spoil piles and mine pits.
Two trails are particularly loved at Kickapoo, the Clear Pond Trail and the Out And Back.
The Clear Pond Trail (also called Clear Lake by some state workers, but Hott says it's a big pond) takes about an hour and has a few steep places. You need to be alert, especially on steep slopes toward the pond.
One of the Clear Pond features that kids like most is getting an upgrade.
Spooky Hollow features ghouls and goblins carved in wood. Oddly, some were stolen. The Kickapoo Carvers have volunteered to make some more creepies to keep it at top spookiness.
Nearby Horsefly Hollow is exactly as described.
More challenging is the Out And Back at 7.6 miles, a lot of it flat but with one killer hill.
The park describes the course as "rated difficult and is designed to meet the demands of experienced outdoor hikers or runners, passing through forests, bottomlands and the edge areas of abandoned croplands."
You'll see lots of deer.
Sherry Weaver of Urbana is a young retiree who can take advantage of her leisure to make sure she's not too leisurely.
She's at Homer Lake, one of the Champaign County Forest Preserves, almost daily in fall, winter and spring. (Summer, she said, is for bicycling, horse riding and lawn mowing.)
"I've got to be outdoors," Weaver says.
Her favorite place at Homer Lake: Flicker Woods for "wildlife and a beautiful barn."
Weaver often hikes for several miles at a time, and did three-hour hikes last winter. Right now, she's in it for the Virginia bluebells.
"This time of year is nice because the trees don't have many leaves, and you can spot little animals," she said.
Chris Ward of Champaign was enjoying the big outdoors with dog Lula, looking to get muddy.
Pam Leiter, the Champaign County Forest Preserve's District's assistant director, says you can spot lots of wildflowers near the lake's spillway.
"It's an acre of solid Virginia bluebells,"she said. "This is a fantastic time of year. With redbuds in bloom, everything looks especially alive after this long, long winter."