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Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 12:01 am

Miles of nature, wild, scenic and close to home

Visit the Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area

Nine cabins at the Prairie Lake Campground have electricity but no plumbing. Each cabin sleeps six and is within walking distance of the campground’s shower house. Go to www.reserveamerica.com to make reservations for the cabins or camping sites.


A long name but a short hop from Springfield, the Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area is an easy way to get your fall fix of nature before snow and ice cover central Illinois.

You can hike around a scenic lake, gaze on fields of prairie grass, paddle your canoe, cast a fishing line, hunt for wildlife, ride your horse, pedal your mountain or road bike, try a hand at archery, spot dozens of bird species or unload the family and picnic basket at stone-and-wood shelters. If driving over for the day isn’t enough, you can pitch a tent, hook up a camper or rent a cabin overnight.

Even though JEPC is only 25 miles northwest of Springfield, you may feel a thousand miles from the busy world. Situated between Ashland and Chandlerville, the 26-square-mile site has no lodge, no restaurant, no store, no marina, no bait shop and barely any cell service. What it offers is the chance to unplug, unwind and uncomplicate, something 700,000 to 800,000 visitors per year discover.

JEPC is certainly more peaceful than it would have been had Commonwealth Edison proceeded with plans to build a coal-fired power plant at what was then called Site M. The utility abandoned the idea in the 1980s and offered the land for sale. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources acquired the site, emphasizing conservation and outdoor recreation.

While the site is open for free all year and the fall colors may not be as intense as those in the Illinois River valley, the plant life still merits an October visit, site superintendent Mike Wickens says. “The wildflowers here are spectacular, from the Fourth of July until frost, and we probably have more prairie grass in one area than any place in Illinois.”

The Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area is 25 miles northwest of Springfield off State Route 125 just west of Ashland. Follow signs to turn north on Newmansville Road and then west at Cass County Highway 11.

Those wildflowers and prairie grasses join with timber and cornfields to blanket one of DNR’s largest public access areas. Tucked among the trees and fields are Prairie Lake (210 acres), Drake Lake (35 acres) and Gridley Lake (25 acres), all with boat launches but some power restrictions. Muskie, catfish, bass and sunfish draw fishing enthusiasts. The biggest muskie caught measured more than 50 inches, according to Wickens.

Hunters from 25 states come for bowhunting deer season, and other seasons feature wild turkey, pheasants and mourning doves. The site is adding two days of waterfowl hunting this year and has a growing field trial program for pointing dogs and their horseback-mounted owners.

The JEPC’s northwest corner is especially popular with horseback riders with its 24 miles of trails and the Questing Hills equestrian campground, Wickens says. From Oct. 24-28, riders from across the United States will gather for a timed national endurance ride of 100 miles, the first national one hosted by JEPC.

Visitors who prefer bicycles can choose off-road trails or a hard surface route that includes portions through the woods and on the site’s roads. An archery range near Prairie Lake and a nearby shotgun range offer other outdoor options.

The area has not drawn large numbers of bird-watchers, but those who do come have the chance to see some prairie species not viewable in too many other sites, according to Wickens. Harriers and short-eared owls often are around, as is an occasional eagle in the winter. If you want to spot deer, wild turkeys and pheasants, go in non-hunting season near evening after a rain as the animals emerge from wet grass.

Jake’s Point in the western part of the site affords a sweeping view over the original Panther Creek valley and plaques to explain the area’s history. Other good stopping spots are the solidly built picnic shelters sprinkled throughout the site. Shelter 16 overlooking Prairie Lake features a massive stone fireplace, a large grill and wheelchair accessibility. A flat path leads from the shelter to a nearby accessible fishing dock.

Also wheelchair-accessible is one of nine camping cabins at the Prairie Lake Campground. The two-room cabins sleep six and have electricity but no plumbing. Cabin renters must cook outside and bring their own bedding.

The campground has 84 sites, with 19 full- hookup sites. All sites have electricity, and a shower building features indoor toilets and hot water. Seven Appalachian Trail-type shelters are available at the primitive campground, which requires a quarter-mile hike from the nearest parking lot. You may reserve cabins, campsites and picnic shelters at www.reserveamerica.com.

While most visitors to JEPC prefer enjoying the site before the snow flies, some make the trek in winter, Wickens says. Ice fishing and snowmobiling are popular, deer stand out in the snow and cross-country skiers will find smooth trails around the lakes.

More information about Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area is available at http://tinyurl.com/k9yeku6.

The picnic shelter at Prairie Lake in the Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area features wheelchair accessibility, a massive stone fireplace, a large grill, pleasant views and easy access to fishing.

Mary Bohlen is a freelance writer and editor in Springfield and emeritus faculty member at the University of Illinois Springfield, where she taught journalism and served as chair of the Communication Department. She also covered Illinois government and politics for United Press International. She enjoys traveling and writing about it.

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