Whenever the flat farmland of Champaign County has me longing for a visual respite, I head east. Not to the well-used Kickapoo State Park but to less traveled places that are rich in natural habitats.
Those destinations, Kennekuk Cove County Park and Forest Glen Nature Preserve, are part of the Vermilion River system in the easternmost part of the state, on the edge of what was once the Grand Prairie to the west.
Forest Glen is especially sublime. My favorite outdoors destination, the Glen bumps up against Indiana and overlaps with the Eastern woodland forest, providing an abundance of naturally growing beech, sugar maple and tulip trees, and a deep, moist wooded ravine system for heart-pumping walks.
In recent months my mother, Eleanor, my dog Scoop, and I have enthusiastically treaded trails there, particularly Deer Meadow, which my octogenarian mom finds manageable.
In addition to those two parks, Scoop and I investigated trails in other counties, at the Salt Fork River Preserve, better known as Homer Lake, in Champaign County, and Walnut Point State Park in Douglas County.
Spring and its wildflowers are fleeting, but a few varieties such as purple phlox, waterleaf and spiderwort were in bloom in all of the parks in recent days, and the air seemed sweet with a floral scent. And the rich, varied greens of spring, the cool temperatures and the as-yet bug-free environment made the walks a refreshing release from the mundane.
Seemingly far from the sounds of "civilization," Forest Glen offers 25 miles of trails including an 11-mile backpack trail – and a short, asphalt-covered one for people with handicaps. Last year 418 people, mostly from the Chicago area, registered to hike the river-bluff backpack trail.
My current favorite, Deer Meadow, begins near the Pioneer Homestead, passes by a coppice of trees and a meadow and follows winding Willow Creek through the woods. The more arduous Big Woods takes in American Indian trails, descends and ascends the ravine system, and ends at the 72-foot high observation tower which offers a spectacular view of the river bottoms.
A somewhat less rich biome, the 30,000-acre Kennekuk, just west of Danville, offers a forest heavily populated by hickories and oaks and a ravine system that's part of the Middle Fork, a nationally designated scenic river.
This past Tuesday, an old friend, Dan Olmsted, and I hiked Lookout Point Trail, which passes by a prairie meadow to the "point." It overlooks a huge valley. Most of the impressive view is now obscured by trees.
From there the path leads through an oak-hickory forest, where boardwalks cover wetter ground and little bridges cross creeks. A loop takes you up a hill back to Lookout Point.
Before our walk we encountered the unexpected: Sue Rupp of Hoopeston arrived by car at the trail head. A ranger had told her she could release there a young possum she had cared for over the past five or six months after it had appeared in her garage. We were touched.
Warning: Ticks. Dan and I each brushed off a few after this short expedition.
Though not as impressive as Forest Glen, this park offers its own charms, mainly the 59-acre, multi-fingered Walnut Point Lake. After sauntering 50 minutes along the lakeside path, I realized evening was approaching and that I probably should not try to complete the entire loop around the lake.
Along the way, I was delighted by a moss-covered path and a colony of what appeared to be wild irises. This well-used park is a real oasis.
On Mother's Day, Scoop and I walked the Flicker Woods Trail along the Salt Fork, a tributary of the Vermilion, and a few days earlier, after heavy rains, a sponge-like trail through a prairie restoration area.
Compared to the Vermilion and Middle Fork, the Salt Fork is not as scenic, yet of the four parks, Homer Lake is the closest to Champaign-Urbana. As I sauntered the paths there, I constantly heard the intrusive sound of motor vehicles; roads seem never far away. However, many wild phlox and a few other wildflowers were still in bloom. In Flicker Woods on Mother's Day, two deer, a basketball-court length away, stopped and stared, posing long enough for me to snap their picture.
Directions to four area hiking trails
To Homer Lake
Easier route: Take U.S. 150 east out of Urbana to St. Joseph. Turn south (right) at the four-way stop and continue south through town until the road T's. Turn right (west) on Evergreen Street and continue until you come to the next T, which is called the St.Joe-Sidney Slab. Turn left and go south about 2.5 miles to Homer Lake Road. Turn left (east) and follow signs to Homer Lake. It's about 3.5 miles.
To Walnut Point State Park
Take Illinois 130 south out of Urbana to Illinois 133. Turn left and go east to Oakland. Follow signs north through town to Walnut Point, about 3 miles. Shorter route: Take Illinois 130, turn left (east) on U.S. 36. After several miles, turn south on County Road 2630E.
To Kennekuk Cove County Park
Scenic route: From C-U take Interstate 74 to the Oakwood exit. Travel north to sign for Kickapoo State Park. Travel the winding road east and eventually through the state park. Go out main entrance on the east to Henning Road. Turn left or north and follow Henning Road a few miles to the entrance to Kennekuk. Less scenic: Take I-74 to the Danville/Martin Luther King Jr. exit. Turn left or north on Henning Road and follow it to Kennekuk.
To Forest Glen Preserve
From Champaign-Urbana, take Interstate 74 to the Westville exit. Travel south on Illinois 1 to the second stoplight in Westville, at State and Main streets. Turn left, or east, and follow signs.