If you’re looking to hike with kids near Champaign-Urbana, we have ideas on where and how
Champaign-Urbana is surrounded with picturesque nature getaways. So whether you’re a seasoned hiker or you’ve never done it before; whether you have hiking gear to climb Mt. Everest or a simple pair of old tennis shoes; we have recommendations for you.
Nearly all of these trails are free though you will find some state parks that charge admission to visit during some seasons. Do you have a hiking trail you love to visit with your family? Email us now and tell us about it.
Editor’s note: During COVID-19, some trails, facilities, or entire parks may be closed. Be aware of any safety protocols or group size limitations currently in effect for the area you will be visiting. Before you go, please check the website or social media for the specific park you plan to visit.
Hiking isn’t canceled — Woo hoo!
When you’re looking for things to do in 2020, it may seem like a lot of things are closed and canceled. By and large, hiking is NOT one of those things! Going outside (while maintaining social distance) is perfectly okay per the governor’s order in Illinois. The only exception is that some state parks are closed currently (but you can find out which Illinois state parks are open around Central Illinois by reading this post).
And while we love walking around Champaign-Urbana (and have a post on walking here), this list will focus more on hikes. Hikes will take you away from busy roads, typically into a wooded preserve or park area, for the purposes of this list.
Experiencing time in nature as a family is priceless during any circumstances, but especially now. This “unplugged” time is valuable for deepening connections among parents and children, encouraging creative thinking with unstructured play and improving physical and mental well-being for adults and children alike. Walk, run, jump and stomp your way through your hikes for all kinds of fun.
Tips for hiking
Sure, you may find it helpful to invest in some gear as a family before taking hiking up as a serious hobby. But to spontaneously head out to the woods on a day when everyone just needs to spend a little time among the birds? You really don’t need much “gear” to do it.
- Make sure everyone is wearing clothes and shoes that can get dirty. This is probably the number one piece of advice we can give for any hike. Long pants and long sleeves are recommended for traipsing through the woods, but that’s your call. Along those lines, pack a change of clothes if you’re concerned about mud.
- Have a plan. Sort of. Make sure you know what you’re parking near — is it water you want to see, or bird watching among wildflowers? Do a little bit of research, if not online prior to your visit, then when you pull in and look at a map. Nearly every location has a large mounted map near the entrance or parking area.
- Hand sanitizer. It’s a fact, if you want to leave your house these days (and may need to visit a public restroom of sorts), you’ll want to bring your own hand sanitizer.
- Sunscreen, bug spray, band-aids, tweezers (to remove ticks) and more. You decide what you want to pack in your car or your backpack for your adventure. You won’t need much but you certainly can be prepared by packing some or all of these items.
- Water! Snacks! Picnic lunch! Food and drink are important with kids. These days, you want to make sure you bring a trash bag to pack your own garbage, as some locations have removed trash receptacles to minimize employee contact with garbage. Don’t expect access to drinking water.
List of Hiking Trails In and Around Champaign-Urbana (by driving distance)
Our legend was built with family-friendly hikes in mind. Our definition of “advanced” is relative and those used to hiking mountains and other rugged terrain will expect much more challenging trails than what we describe below. We want to communicate a “start here” to “watch out” scale as part of this post for Central Illinois residents.
👶: navigate this hike with babies and toddlers, or look for this icon if you’re looking for a mobility-friendly trail
🐦: great for bird watching
💦: water to splash in (usually as long as there’s been some rain)
🐟: river or lake nearby (a larger body of water to hike near)
💚: beginner hike (for families with kids)
🔶: intermediate hike (for families with kids)
❗️: more advanced hike (for families with kids)
Within 30-minute drive from Champaign-Urbana
Busey Woods 💚👶🐦
One of the best places you can start your hiking adventures, Busey Woods is located in Urbana. Its elevated boardwalk path is great for winding you on a short walk through the woods with strollers in tow. You’ll see birds and possibly deer and other creatures while you take in the sights and feel like you’ve been whisked away from the busy-ness of the C-U area.
Lake of the Woods is the closest Champaign County Forest Preserve to Champaign-Urbana and thanks to its easy access to I-74, many of us love to take the short ride to spend some time in nature. There are miles and miles of wide, paved bike and walk paths perfect for pushing a stroller, or you can get “off the beaten path” and explore even more. We like to venture off the path near the 2.3-mile marker, the 2.6-mile marker (there’s a gravel paved path you can venture down) and the yellow stairs near the covered bridge. Have a picnic near the lake itself or go wander the botanical gardens on your visit.
Homer Lake 🔶👶💦🐟
Homer Lake gets an “intermediate” rating simply because there are more unpaved than paved trails here. But if you want to stick to the paved trails, you certainly can. The nature playscape is quite the draw here, but Homer Lake is much more than that. Many piers to fish from exist on the other side of the lake from the playscape and there’s all kinds of fun to be found.
Drive out to River Bend just to sit on the “Possibility Pier” for a little while and watch what is happening on the lake. If you’re feeling up for a hike, get ready to hit the grassy trails at River Bend. Leave bikes and scooters at home for this one and venture into the woods. Not too far off I-72 so still a very quick drive from C-U.
We love Allerton for about 100 reasons and hiking is one of them. You can stick to the paved or beaten down trails pretty easily and take in all the glorious sights of the gardens. Our readers say, “Make sure to check out the ‘wild side’ trails on the other side of the river.”
Sangamon River Forest Preserve (Fisher) 🔶🐦🐟
Located between Mahomet and Fisher, this is a good spot to visit if you want to hike along the Sangamon River and even bring your fishing gear, if you’d like. It’s mostly grassy trails so another challenging spot to push a stroller but we usually see a parent wearing a baby out there so it’s certainly possible with littles. The main trail loop is fairly easy to navigate but your kids will probably want to venture off, especially to get closer to the river (which is quite large here, so use caution).
Sangamon River Corridor Reserve (Monticello)❗️🐦🐟
In a completely different county than the hiking location mentioned above, this reserve (not preserve) is one of the more challenging hikes you can find this close to Champaign-Urbana. In most places, the trail is narrow and sloped on either side. We recommend this hike for school age kids and up.
Within 45-minute drive from Champaign-Urbana
Middle Fork is known for being the state of Illinois’ only official “dark sky” park, but visiting during the daytime is a treat, too. People enjoy fishing at Middle Fork and the small splashy “beach” but there are also miles and miles of grassy trails that weave through the campground and into the woods.
Forest Glen Preserve ❗️🐦💦
A hidden gem in Vermilion County, Forest Glen is another “well worth the drive” location. You can certainly stick to the handicap-accessible Beech Grove trail but navigating deeper into the woods to have some old-fashioned, creek-stomping, log-climbing fun with your kids is where it’s at. The Big Woods trail was pretty adventurous. Be prepared for even steeper drop-offs on the sides of this trail so prepare your kids ahead of time appropriately.
A popular location for tubing, canoeing and mountain biking, Kickapoo is a hiking destination, too. The 7.6-mile running “out and back” trail makes for a LONG hike with kids but you can still check it out. Kickapoo, in Vermilion County, has many other trails as well. If you like to camp, you can get all your outdoorsy activities in right there over the course of a weekend.
Clinton Lake 💚👶💦🐟
A popular boating and fishing spot, in addition to one of Central Illinois’ only “beaches”, you can skip the water activities all together and stick to hiking. Some of the paths wind along the water and make for good photo spots. We give this a friendly “beginner” rating because these trails are pretty easy to navigate and there are so many to choose from.
Another state recreation spot that gets a friendly “beginner” rating. Start at the paved Timber Point trail, as an example, for a nice, easy hike with your kids. There’s lots of space to walk along the lake so pick a sunny day to enjoy those glistening waters while you walk. Located in LeRoy.
Within one-hour drive of Champaign-Urbana
Our readers recommended Walnut Point to us, especially if you live farther south as this is located toward Charleston. A popular spot for geocaching and mushroom hunting, you can complete a 3-mile loop on these trails while exploring. The lake is described as having “fingerlike coves,” which sound like water areas that demand to be explored.
Further than one hour (and worth the drive)
Turkey Run State Park 🔶/❗️🐦💦🐟
Our readers agree, “Turkey Run is the BEST” when you’re looking for a wide variety of true hikes near Champaign-Urbana. Trail 4 and its ladders are quite popular, but there are more than a dozen others you can choose from, too. Located in Parke County, Ind., this falls into our “day trip” category since it’s more than an hour away, but just barely. You can have a vastly different hiking experience at Turkey Run based on which trail you choose, so do that research ahead of time or upon arrival.
Starved Rock State Park 🔶/❗️🐦💦🐟
Starved Rock, near Utica, is popular with hikers from all over Illinois. (Or if Starved Rock is too crowded, check out its less populated neighbor, Matthiessen State Park.) Many families venture there each year to tackle its trails, bask in the scenery of waterfalls, creeks and rivers and more. We’ve known Starved Rock to draw back families with varying levels of love for nature over and over again. Bonus: watch barges going through canal locks, see amazing Illinois River views, and if the season is right — spy bald eagles!
Family-Friendly Bike Trails in the Champaign-Urbana Area | Walk Your Way Through Champaign-Urbana | Parks Minus Playgrounds We Love Around Champaign-Urbana | Kicking Off the Fishing Season | Creek Stomping Your Way Through Champaign-Urbana | 6 Places to Explore Nature with Children Near Champaign-Urbana | Camping With Your Family Near Champaign-Urbana | Where to Rent Canoes, Kayaks and Boats Near Champaign-Urbana | Moraine View State Park | Clinton Lake | Kickapoo State Park | Turkey Run State Park