HOMER — Homer Lake is the centerpiece of Homer Lake Forest Preserve in Champaign County, but there’s a lot more than the lake to explore.
The 764-acre park, part of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, includes about 10 miles of hiking trails that go through woodlands, restored prairies and along the Salt Fork River; picnic areas and shelters; playgrounds and a nature center.
The nature center should be your first stop, especially if you have children with you.
There are informative displays; live turtles and snakes; interactive exhibits; a “touch me” area where you can handle and examine shells, animal bones and other nature items; a library; and a bird feeder viewing area.
The nature center is also the place where you can check out activity backpacks to aid in your exploration.
Jeremy Cagle grew up near Homer Lake. Now he is an office specialist at the nature center.
“My brother and I used to bike here,” he said. “It’s a real fun place to just explore and be with nature. Very relaxing. Very peaceful here.”
After visiting the nature center, I crossed the road and took the Sand Beach Cove Trail. Birds were singing and it was easy to imagine what it must be like when spring wildflowers are blooming.
The trail leads to the natural playscape, a nature playground where children can crawl around on logs, climb a rope net that resembles a spider web or take off their shoes and wade in a water feature.
The playscape is designed for children ages 5 to 12 but all ages are welcome — even the young at heart wishing to cool off on a hot day.
From there, I drove to the end of the road to reach the trailhead for the 4.5-mile West Lake Trail. Part of this trail goes along the west side of Homer Lake and the return loop takes you through restored prairie.
Purple coneflowers, wild white indigo and beardstongue pentstemon were among the plants blooming in the prairie. Blue flag iris bloomed near the water.
House wrens, indigo buntings, dickcissels and field sparrows sang in the woods and prairies as dragonflies and damselflies flitted around me. White-tailed deer bounded away as I approached, one brave one stopping to glance back.
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On my next trip, I’d like to explore the Flicker Woods and Oak Ridge Trails, which follow the Salt Fork River.
After a picnic lunch under a shady tree, watching people fish and boat and children play, I launched my kayak on Homer Lake.
There are several boat launches at the lake. Only paddlecraft and boats with electric motors may be operated on the lake, making it a peaceful place to paddle and/or fish.
Kayak rentals are available through Lunatic Kayak Rentals but must be reserved and paid for in advance online. See lunatickayakrental.com for more information.
I chose the boat launch on the southeast corner of the lake, near the natural playscape, because it had a nice gravel launch area next to the parking area, meaning I didn’t have to carry my kayak far or get muddy while launching.
It’s fun to explore the shoreline, trying to spot the croaking bullfrogs before they hop away or hoping a dragonfly or damselfly will pause long enough for a photo. Great blue herons were also a treat to see, flying overhead or fishing along the shore. You might even see an eagle or osprey.
The park is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. It is at 2573 S. Homer Lake Road, Homer.
The nature center is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from June through August and weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April through October. Weekday hours from September through May are 1 to 5 p.m.
See the district’s website, ccfpd.org, for more details and a schedule of programs and events.
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