Take a trip to Homer Lake to see some of spring’s tiniest flowers
Wildflowers are modest, for the most part. They poke out tentatively from around logs and under last fall’s leaf remnants, little pops of color for the first brave pollinators to find.
After these Illinois natives and harbingers of spring bloom in April and May, they die back to their roots until next year — which makes hunting for them a fun seasonal challenge. Some of them may show up briefly in your yard, like the common wild violet. But to find others, you need to search in places where the earth has remained largely undisturbed by people. And if you time your hunt right, you may hit the wildflower jackpot.
Pretty much any wooded spot in the Champaign-Urbana area is going to reveal a wildflower or two. The best local place to go on a wildflower hunting expedition? Busey Woods for sure, at the north end of Urbana’s Crystal Lake Park. Busey Woods even boasts a 1/3-mile-long boardwalk to make your woodland stroll both accessible and free of mud.
But if your desire to hunt wildflowers coincides with your desire to drive down a country highway with the wind blowing through your hair — loud singing is also encouraged — we recommend the half-hour drive east to Homer Lake Forest Preserve.
The wonderful education staff at Homer Lake have assembled ways for botanists of all ages and attention spans to learn about spring wildflowers. Just outside the Interpretive Center building (located at the main entrance to the Preserve, off South Homer Lake Drive) is a flowerbed into which several of the season’s most common wildflowers have been transplanted. If you like your nature brought to you in a single location and clearly labeled, you are set.
If you are willing and able to walk a little more to find your wildflowers, try out the self-guided Wildflower Walk on Homer Lake’s Flicker Woods Trail. To find the trail from the main entrance to the Preserve, drive past the Interpretive Center and bear left. You will soon pass a turnoff on the left (to the maintenance area) and then you will see a small parking area to your left for the Flicker Woods Trail, clearly marked.
The trail here is relatively flat and mostly grassy, but be aware it is not paved and will likely be muddy after periods of wet weather. Temporary signs guide you toward the Wildflower Walk, which leads to a loop at the far end and then back the way you came.
As different wildflowers come into bloom, they are marked with helpful signs. On the day that we went, the flower at its peak along the trail was the dainty and aptly named Spring Beauty. Remember, these spring wildflowers don’t stick around for long, and neither will the Wildflower Walk — all the signs will come down April 30.
Now that you’ve completed the Wildflower Walk — and if your group still has energy to burn — it’s time to put your wildflower knowledge to the test. Get back in your car and make the quick drive around the outside of the Preserve to the suitably named Hidden Acres Park.
The sign for Hidden Acres comes up pretty quickly on your left after you pass County Rd 1200 N. It’s easy to miss this unassuming driveway entrance, so don’t drive too fast!
As in the rest of Homer Lake Forest Preserve, the trails at Hidden Acres are mostly flat — along the forest floor — but not paved; the usual caveats about mud and rocks apply. There are a few places that open up to the banks of the Salt Fork River, along with a couple of well-placed benches where you can sit and ponder the tranquility. The river banks are not steep, but those are places where you should keep an eye on little ones who are overly attracted to water.
Even though the bluebells were probably a little past peak already along the (unsurprisingly named) Bluebell Trail, there were plenty of amazing bluebell vistas along the .6-mile loop. And by now we were experts at spotting other delicate wildflowers:
- The Interpretive Center at Homer Lake is open but with COVID-reduced hours and capacity limits and mask requirements: Tuesday-Friday 1-5 p.m. The Preserve itself is generally open from dawn until dusk (any changes to these hours will be posted at the gates).
- Restrooms are available in the Interpretive Center; we didn’t search for them elsewhere on this visit (and there are definitely no restrooms at Hidden Acres). Bring your own drinking water.
- This early in the season, bugs are delightfully absent, so you can leave the bug repellant at home. Do bring sunscreen if you plan to spend any time at the lake itself (note that the Natural Playscape water will not be turned on until closer to summer). A camera is a MUST.
And finally, check out CCFPD’s video interview on spring wildflowers with James Ellis of the Illinois Natural History Survey. At the end of the interview he lists all his favorite places in Central Illinois to find wildflowers, in case your visit to Homer Lake leaves you wanting more.