If you’ve never been to the Sugar Grove Nature Center, it’s worth the trip from Champaign-Urbana. Imagination Grove, a nature play area, is the clear highlight, but there are plenty of other reasons.
Sugar Grove Nature Center is located in picturesque Funks Grove, Illinois, a 1,000-acre prairie grove site that was home to pioneers who settled there in the 1820s. Now protected, there are many sites to see in Funks Grove including the Nature Center; the Maple Sirup (spelling theirs) Camp; a mineral and gem museum; and the Funks Grove Church, a popular wedding location. We had wanted to go to the Maple Sirup Camp — where they tap real maple “sirup” — but that will have to wait for our return visit, as we simply ran out of time.
The Nature Center’s main building reminded me of Urbana’s Anita Purves Nature Center, with its focus on environmental education and a room dedicated to watching birds and listening to their songs. The Center has an interesting assortment of turtles, snakes, snails and toads, and our children loved to see the live animals. They also enjoyed playing “camping out” in the play tent.
We went outside to the old corn crib, where you can sit in a rocking chair and look out on restored prairie. Of course the kids were running circles around it. When we were first arrived there was a school field trip in progress and the schoolchildren were eating lunch in the picnic shelter, but they left and we had the place virtually to ourselves.
We took the woodchip path out into the woods and crossed over a covered bridge. That’s where we found the kids’ favorite feature, the appropriately named Imagination Grove. A natural alternative to today’s plastic and metal playgrounds, Imagination Grove has a real treehouse; a place to climb a tree; a place where kids can “dig to China” (a glorified mud pit); a zip line; a wooden monkey bars; a playhouse; a sand box and more. They also could cross the creek either by bridge or by rock; climb on a wooden obstacle course and dig for fossils.
Our kids made a mess of themselves in the mud pit and the sand pit. They climbed the tree and ran up and down the paths. They played “picnic” in the playhouse. What kept them the most enthralled was the zip line, which they shared beautifully, taking turns without prodding.
My daughter would love to plan another trip to Sugar Grove Nature Center. It has plenty more to offer, including special events such as a blacksmith forge; an observatory where they hold nighttime events; and a number of programs for all ages and some just for kids (including an annual overnight campout in June).
Sugar Grove Nature Center (the actual building) is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (April – October); Hours in November to March are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. The grounds, trails, and Imagination Grove are open year-round, dawn until dusk.
Directions courtesy of the nature center: Take I-74 West toward Bloomington/Peoria. Take I-55 South (toward St. Louis) as you enter the Bloomington area. Take the Shirley exit (the first exit) #154. Turn right at the top of the off-ramp, on County Road 34.
Turn left at the T-intersection onto Old Route 66. Proceed approximately 4.5 miles to Funks Grove Road. Turn right.
Proceed over railroad tracks, and take the first left. At this point, there will be signs for Sugar Grove Nature Center. Follow this road.