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.
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Escape to nature as a family
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 season of parenting, 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 might 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 No. 1 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. With kids, you’re almost guaranteed to be visiting a restroom of sorts. You’ll want to bring your own hand sanitizer, as some do not have running water to wash hands.
- 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. Don’t expect access to drinking water. So come prepared, just like you would to go anywhere else!
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 ✅ 🐦 👶 🌊 💦
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.
Buffalo Trace Prairie 🟡 💦
Adjacent to Lake of the Woods, Buffalo Trace really has its own unique flavor when you’re looking for an “off the beaten path” hike that is still relatively easy to navigate with strollers and the like. Also a prime place for creek-stomping, if that is something you’d like to get a chance to do!
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.
River Bend Forest Preserve 🟡 🌊
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.
Allerton Park ✅ 👶
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 River Forest Preserve 🟡 🌊 🐦
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.
Kickapoo State Park 🟡 🌊 🐦
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,” at Clinton Lake 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 from which to choose.
Moraine View State Recreation Area ✅ 👶 🌊
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
Walnut Point State Park 🟡 🌊
Our readers recommended Walnut Point to us, especially if you live farther south as this is located near 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. 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.
Matthiessen State Park 🟡 /❗️ 🌊 💦 🐦
This is the “neighbor” to Starved Rock State Park (below) and, in our opinion, the better of the two parks to head to. The waterfalls here are more picturesque than anything you’d expect to find in Illinois and we can’t emphasize enough how much we love climbing down into the dells (yes just like the Wisconsin Dells) to explore. Our tip: use the “back entrance” of Matthiessen, near the “Lake Shelter,”. You wind along a road past a private golf course to reach this parking area, and you will be much closer to seeing some of the dells without actually hiking very far if you park at the back. Be ready to climb stairs!
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!
More on all your favorite outdoor activities:
- Hiking Trails For Families in the Champaign-Urbana Area
- Walking Paths in Champaign-Urbana
- Visiting Champaign-Urbana Area Parks and Playgrounds with your Family
- Fishing Fun for Families in the Champaign-Urbana Area
- Find the Ultimate Outdoor Adventures with Kids in the Champaign-Urbana Area
- Gardens and Flower Farms in Champaign-Urbana and Beyond
- Where to Go Boating with Your Family Near Champaign-Urbana
- Avoid the Mud and Muck with Mulch-Free Playgrounds in Champaign-Urbana
- Family-Friendly Bike Trails in the Champaign-Urbana Area
- Creek Stomping Your Way Around Champaign-Urbana
- Camping with Your Family Near Champaign-Urbana
- Parks Minus Playgrounds We Love Around Champaign-Urbana
- 6 Places to Experience Nature with Kids Near Champaign-Urbana
Top spots for outdoor recreation near Champaign-Urbana:
- Dark Sky and More: Visiting the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve with Your Family
- Everything You Need to Know About Visiting River Bend Forest Preserve in Mahomet
- Cool Off at the Homer Lake Natural Playscape
- Visiting Clinton Lake With Your Family
- Visiting Imagination Grove Near Bloomington-Normal
- Meet Me Halfway: Kankakee River State Park
- Hidden Treasure in Central Illinois: Weldon Springs State Park
- The Perfect Family Hike: Explore the Sangamon River Forest Preserve near Fisher
- Best Kept Secret: Buffalo Trace Prairie in Mahomet
- Getaway for a Day: Matthiessen State Park
- Best Kept Secret: Forest Glen Preserve
- Hiking the Sangamon River Corridor Reserve in Monticello with your Family
- What to Do at Kickapoo State Recreation Area
- What To Do At Turkey Run State Park With Your Family
- Everything You Need To Know about Visiting Homer Lake Forest Preserve with Your Family
- What To Do At Moraine View State Recreation Area With Your Family
- Visiting Lake of the Woods in Mahomet with Children
- 8 Reasons You’ll Love Visiting Allerton Park with Your Family
- Parent’s Guide to Busey Woods in Urbana
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