Looking for something outdoorsy to do this holiday weekend? Look no further than these area parks, where the unofficial start to summer is now under way, courtesy staff writer Tracy Moss.
Park & Retreat Center
Open: 8 a.m. to sunset daily
What to do: This is the perfect time to stroll the garden walk to see the park’s 1,658 peonies in bloom, says Derek Peterson, associate director of the 1,500-acre spread of gardens, woodlands, prairie areas and hiking trails. There are 68 different varieties of peonies here, and they’re only in full bloom for 2-3 weeks. Visitors will also find a new walking bridge, spanning a creek on one of the hiking paths. Another improvement this year: eroded areas of the trails have been replaced with gravel.
Clinton Lake State Recreation Area
East of Clinton
Open: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (beach)
What to do: The beach is open. Almost 5,000 acres of this 9,300-acre park is the lake, which offers great fishing, recreational boating and a 1,000-foot white sandy beach that just opened Friday for swimmers, $2 a piece admission. Like other parks, the campground sites were all full as of Friday, but day-trippers can find lots to do, from picnicking to hiking to boating.
Homer Lake Forest Preserve
Open: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
What to do: Take the kids to the natural playscape, a playground made of natural things where children will get wet and dirty, playing in a stream, bounding around a bluebird house, crawling on a spider web, weaving around boulders and climbing over a 40-foot fallen tree. Lisa Sprinkle with the Champaign County Forest Preserve District says Homer Lake is a place where kids can truly get into nature. But bring towels, because your kids won’t end their stay as clean as they start it.
Middle Fork River Forest Preserve
Open: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
What to do: With three ponds, the Middle Fork River and several miles of hiking trails, the 1,700-acre park offers a variety of outdoor opportunities. There’s also a wildly popular 65-site campground, but Sprinkle said that’s already sold out this holiday weekend.
Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve
Open: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
What to do: The 900-acre preserve near the Sangamon River features a paved, 3.3-mile hiking and biking path; the Museum of the Grand Prairie, which highlights 19th and early 20th-century life in Illinois; and, of course, a golf course. This is also the first weekend for boat rentals on the lake (1-7 p.m. today and Monday). For $6, you can take a half-hour ride in a pedal boat, kayak or rowboat.
Kickapoo State Park
Open: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
What to do: Float the Middle Fork River, ride a horse, fish, bike or hike a trail. But no camping this weekend. The 101-site campground is booked solid, says site superintendent John Hott: “This is the big opening weekend.” Hott says the river is currently at the perfect level for a float trip, and the park’s ponds and lakes are ready for fishermen this holiday weekend. Kickapoo Landing, the park’s river outfitter, gets into full swing this weekend with daily river trips on the Middle Fork. And Thunder Wolf Trail Rides offers horse and pony rides for people of all ages, whether beginners or advanced riders.
Vermilion County Conservation District
Includes Kennekuk County Park, a hiking hot spot northwest of Danville; Lake Mingo for fishing; and Bunker Hill Historic Area for a trip back in time.
Parks open: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
What to do: District director Ken Konsis says this is the busiest holiday weekend of the year. The historic buildings at Bunker Hill and the new education center, both at Kennekuk, will be open from 1-4 p.m. daily now. Forest Glen Preserve, east of Westville, has hiking trails, a lookout tower and a campground, but Konsis said the Memorial weekend campsites fill up quickly. Herron County Park (West Newell Road on Danville’s northwest side) is a floating boardwalk trail through wetlands on the north end of Lake Vermilion. Konsis says local Boy Scouts recently built an elevated platform with a bench along the nature trail, giving visitors a better vantage point for wildlife viewing.