Take a trip to Champaign County’s Forest Preserves 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.
Then head over to Mahomet’s Lake of the Woods, where the wonderful education staff at the Champaign County Forest Preserve District has set up a self-guided wildflower walk along the Rayburn-Purnell Woods Trail. Families can stroll along the .5-mile trail and read the signs to identify what wildflowers are currently blooming along the way — visit any time during preserve open hours, from April 11 through May 1, 2022. (Use the preserve entrance off Route 47 near the Museum of the Grand Prairie.)
If your desire to hunt wildflowers coincides with your desire to spend even more time driving 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.
New in 2022: check the current bloom status of wildflowers at various sites in and around Homer Lake with this handy dandy Wildflower Map.
Botanists of all ages and attention spans can learn about spring wildflowers here. 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 wildflowers, try out the easy Flicker Woods 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. The one-mile loop trail is relatively flat and mostly grassy, but be aware it is not paved and will likely be muddy after periods of wet weather.
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 Road 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.
The .6-mile loop Bluebell Trail provides plenty of amazing bluebell vistas.
Of course, armed with your spring wildflower knowledge, you should be able to spot other delicate wildflowers:
Homer Lake visit logistics
- The Interpretive Center at Homer Lake is currently open Tuesday-Friday 1-5 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10 a.m.-4 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.