A hiker’s paradise
Enjoy varied hiking terrain close to home in the Sangamon River Valley
You don’t have to leave central Illinois to have an enjoyable, authentic hiking experience. This summer, get close to nature and have fun with friends and family by hiking these and other parks and preserves in the Sangamon River Valley. Hiking is a fun way to introduce children to nature, unplug from technology, connect with loved ones and explore the natural world around us.
Carpenter Park, located on the north bank of the Sangamon River, accessible by vehicle via Business I-55 Loop and IL-24 in Springfield, is a 434-acre designated nature preserve for Illinois native species. Acquired by the Springfield Park District in 1921, the old-growth woodland forest belonged to the estate of William Carpenter, whose Sangamon River settlement included a sawmill and ferry operation during the mid-to-late 1800s. Today, the park is primarily used for nature observation and hiking along short, interconnected trails that traverse a variety of habitats such as upland and floodplain forests, hilltop and bottomland hardwoods, river bottoms and sandstone outcrops. The trail systems leading through the wetlands and upland forest on the north side of the park offer flat terrain while the trails leading through the floodplain forests to the west and south offer more challenging terrain such as sloping ravines, steep ridgelines and sandstone bluffs. Most trails are clearly marked and interconnected, making it easy to piece together hikes of various lengths. This makes Carpenter Park a versatile option for novice to advanced hikers of all ages. For the novice to intermediate hiker, the 2.1-mile outer loop hike takes about an hour to complete.
About 20 minutes northwest of Springfield is Lincoln’s New Salem State Park, adjacent to Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, the reconstructed living history village where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1831-1837. At 3.3 miles and approximately 2-2.5 hours, the New Salem Loop is a hike of moderate difficulty due to hills and a steep ridgeline. This double-loop hike begins at the visitors center parking lot with the Mentor Graham’s Footsteps trail and takes visitors up, down and around the hilly woodland surrounding the clear, crisp Rocky Branch tributary of the Sangamon River, past an 1800s graveyard and across IL-97. Once across the highway, skirt alongside a grassy meadow, up the steep Cardinal Ridge and follow a winding dirt foot-and-bike path through the upland forest. Continue through the forest and down towards the banks of the Sangamon River. Meander through river bottomlands and alongside a stretch of river lined by silver maples as you head back towards IL-97, back around Rocky Branch and back to the trailhead.
Located alongside the Sangamon River on the southwestern edge of Decatur is Rock Springs Conservation Area, a 1,300-acre park operated by the Macon County Conservation District. The park offers nine different hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulties, totaling six miles in all. The 2/3-mile Woodland Trail is a moderate-level hike that brings hikers close to Illinois wildlife such as white-tailed deer, owls and woodpeckers. For a more difficult hike, try the 2.25-mile River Trail. The dirt footpath begins at the entrance to a hilly, deciduous forest, meanders up and down the Rock Spring river bluffs lined with oak and hickory trees, past the sites of the former Rock Springs Water Bottling Plant and Miller’s Mill gristmill, both active in the 19th century and commemorated today with scenic overlooks and historic markers. Continue on through winding river bottomlands and floodplains brimming with maples and willows. Pass the Turtle Pond wetlands, travel alongside grasslands and briefly meet up with the Rock Springs-Fairview Bike Trail before cutting back to the trailhead via forest.
Several tips before you go: Wear sturdy shoes with toe coverings to protect against rocks, stumbles and slips. Observe all posted rules and signs. Pack out everything you pack in. Leave no trace of your presence. Hike with a partner if possible, but if not, let a trusted family member or friend know where you are going. Don’t forget the sunscreen and bug spray. You’ll need it – even if you don’t think you will. Many Sangamon River Valley hiking trails are canine compatible. If you do choose to bring a furry friend, keep your dog on a leash and don’t forget the waste bags. Most importantly, have fun.
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