Take a trip to Champaign County Forest Preserve locations 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. But when they think no one is looking, their simultaneous bloom can suddenly color the entire forest floor — especially when it’s bluebell time.
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 wildflowers 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. What if you want to stay in town for your wildflower hunting expedition? Try 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. (Note that part of the boardwalk was damaged by falling trees in March 2023; repair work may still be ongoing.)
Lake of the Woods
The various properties that make up the Champaign County Forest Preserve District are all excellent wildflower hunting grounds. At Mahomet’s Lake of the Woods, the wonderful education staff at the Champaign County Forest Preserve District recommends a spring wildflower walk along the Rayburn-Purnell Woods Trail. Families can stroll along the .5-mile trail and use the flower key to identify what wildflowers are currently blooming along the way. Visit any time the preserve is open — the closest entrance to the Rayburn-Purnell Woods is off Route 47 near the Museum of the Grand Prairie and the Botanical Garden.
The newest Champaign County Forest Preserve: Heron View
Heron View Forest Preserve is located 5 miles north of Mahomet. Most of its 103 acres of floodplain forest was purchased in 2021 by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District through an Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation grant, and then expanded by donations from Hidden River Development and from Champaign County PACA (Preservation and Conservation Association). The main grant dictates that the land is to remain largely undeveloped.
In 2022, the 1.4-mile loop Sycamore Trail was constructed. Along the trail there are beautiful views of the Sangamon River as well as open forest with a few especially large tree specimens. Based on our first visit ever to Heron View this week, the vistas of bluebells are going to be incredible and practically non-stop very soon (maybe even this weekend?).
The greater length of the loop trail at Heron View, combined with the newness of the site — current amenities total four parking spots, two signs marking the preserve, and what looks to be a Little Free Stick Library for dogs — means that visiting Heron View’s wildflowers will probably appeal more to adults than to kids. Also take note — no pavement, no bathrooms, no water, no trash cans. But the bluebells are going to be extraordinary!
Homer Lake and Hidden Acres
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.
Back again for 2023: you can check the current bloom status of wildflowers at various sites in and around Homer Lake Forest Preserve with this handy dandy Wildflower Map (under the Seasonal Activities tab).
Botanists of all ages and attention spans can learn about spring wildflowers at Homer Lake. Just outside the Interpretive Center building (located at the main entrance to the Preserve, off South Homer Lake Drive) is a flowerbed into which some 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 when they are at their peak.
Of course, armed with your spring wildflower knowledge, you should be able to spot other delicate wildflowers:
Homer Lake/Hidden Acres 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 to 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 in this season (and there are definitely no restrooms at Hidden Acres). Bring your own drinking water.
- This early in the spring, 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). Wear shoes that can get wet or muddy. A camera is a MUST.
- If you bring your dog, be sure you keep it on leash — a rule in place at all Champaign County Forest Preserves.
Online spring wildflower resource
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 visits to Champaign County Forest Preserves leave you wanting more.