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Friday, April 7, 2017 03:23 pm

The outdoors

Washington Park and other great parks, nature spots and gardens

Washington Park is Springfield’s largest and most active park.
Photo by David Hine


Washington Park

Washington Park is a popular spot for locals. Located just a couple miles from downtown Springfield, it is also a great place to go for a break from being a tourist. Designed by Ossian Simonds, noted for his naturalistic style of landscape design, Washington Park is on the National Register of Historic Places. With its wide array of amenities from gardens to fishing ponds to jogging trails, tennis courts, playgrounds and more, Washington Park offers something for everyone. It is one of the best places in the city to enjoy the splendor of the changing seasons. Springfield’s largest and most active park is home of the Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon, the sixth largest in the world.

The Washington Park Botanical Garden, at the far west side of the park, features a glass-domed conservatory, gallery and greenhouses. A variety of gardens surround the conservatory, including a 3,500-plant rose garden, the largest of its kind in central Illinois, an iris garden, a perennial border, the Betty Mood Smith Rockery, and an Angel of Hope statue. The Roman Cultural Garden adjacent to the conservatory features the original columns salvaged from Springfield’s original Lincoln Library building, which was razed in 1974. Special displays of orchids and other flowering plants are scheduled throughout the year. Events include an Art Spectacular the second weekend in September and the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular the third weekend in October. The conservatory is open Monday-Friday noon-4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday noon-5 p.m. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and all state holidays. Entry to the Botanical Garden (1740 W. Fayette) is off of Fayette just east of Chatham Road. 217-546-4116,

Washington Park is also home to ponds, picnic shelters, playgrounds, public tennis courts, nature trails and bike and jogging paths. The 350-foot boardwalk overlooking the lower lagoon is a popular gathering place for joggers, walkers and feeders of the park’s many ducks. Playmates of all ages will enjoy the extensively modernized playground, next to the tennis courts. The Velasco Tennis Center at the park features six unlighted courts and an equal number of lighted courts for night play as well as paddle tennis courts. It opens the first weekend in May. Check out the two fishing ponds stocked with catfish and trout. From early in the morning to well into the evening, runners, walkers and bikers use the roads and trails to exercise in a beautiful environment.

Washington Park, South Grand Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, 217-544-1751, Enter by South Grand Avenue on the south, Fayette Avenue on the north near Chatham Road, or Williams Boulevard on the east.

The Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon

The Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon is an icon in Washington Park. It was a gift of Senator Thomas Rees, publisher of the Illinois State Register from 1881 until his death in 1933. Rees attributed his great interest in bells to visiting carillons in Belgium and The Netherlands. He left specific instructions in his will regarding the number of bells and the location of the carillon. While the Rees Carillon is one of the world’s largest carillons with 67 bells, more importantly, the quality of the bells coupled with the tower’s location in Washington Park distinguish the Rees Carillon as one of the world’s finest instruments. The largest bell weighs 7½ tons.

A carillonneur plays the bells manually using a keyboard. To more fully appreciate the carillon, take in a carillon concert. From May 1 through Sept. 30 concerts are on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. From October through April, the concerts are on Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 and 4 p.m. The world-renowned International Carillon Festival is held annually in June.

Carlo van Ulft was appointed director/carillonist of the Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon in July 2015. A native of The Netherlands, he has performed at all major carillon festivals and carillon summer series in North America and Europe. Take a carillon tour to see the bells up close, learn how the carillon is played, and enjoy a spectacular view from above of Washington Park and surrounding landmarks. Tours are offered May 1-Sept. 30 on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays noon to 6 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults and $3 for children ages 5-15. Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon, 1740 W. Fayette Ave., 217-546-3853;,

Besides Washington Park, Springfield offers other great parks, nature spots, gardens and prairie wilderness. All Springfield parks are open dawn to dusk. For more information about Springfield’s city operated parks and golf courses, visit

Adams Wildlife Sanctuary

This is the perfect place for a quick nature walk without driving out of town. Just off one of Springfield’s busiest streets, Clear Lake Avenue, the sanctuary is a hidden jewel that’s accessible in minutes. Once a mid-19th-century farm, it’s now a wooded haven for birds and birdwatchers and is owned by the Illinois Audubon Society. One trail takes 15 minutes to complete; a longer trail takes 45 minutes. The visitor center offers information about the trees, plants and birds commonly encountered.

Visitors can also tour the restored 1850s Margery Adams farmhouse. Its award-winning, eco-friendly design features the use of geothermal heat.

Adams Wildlife Sanctuary, 2315 E. Clear Lake Ave., 217-544-2473. Go east of downtown on Madison Avenue, which turns into Clear Lake.

Carpenter Park Nature Preserve

This 434-acre park and 341-acre nature preserve hugs the Sangamon River just north of town along Peoria Road/Business I-55, south of the Rail Golf Course. The park includes 10 trails, a large historic stone shelter with a fireplace, and several picnic tables. It’s a short jaunt from the Illinois State Fairgrounds and is adjacent to Gurgens and Riverside parks.

The site includes high quality upland and floodplain forest communities, intermittent streams, small seeps and sandstone bedrock outcrops. In recognition of its significance as a high quality natural area, it has been dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. The canopy trees are nearly 100 years old. The preserve provides important habitat for many wildlife species, and at least 82 species of birds nest here.

Heading west from Ohio, William Carpenter came upon what is now the park with his family in the fall of 1820. Native Americans from the Kickapoo and Tamaroa tribes were residents at the time. The Native Americans left the area, but the land remained fairly undeveloped through the years – you won’t find the park’s natural undulations and rock formations anywhere else.

The trails are a perfect place for a nature hike. Look for hundreds of bird, plant and animal species, some unique to the area. Across the river, near the softball diamonds at Riverside Park, pet owners can let their pooches explore and exercise at one of the area’s only dog runs.

Carpenter Park Nature Preserve, IL 124 and Loop I-55, 217-544-1751. Drive north from Springfield on Peoria Road/Business I-55.

Centennial Park

Calling all skateboarders! In addition to its wide-open spaces and opportunity for a great picnic away from Springfield, Centennial Park is home to a skateboarders’ run, dedicated in 2003. The smooth surface covers 10,000 square feet and is packed with the curves, dips and banks that will make your day. And for those not into skating, there are bocce ball courts, picnic areas, a playground and a 100-foot-high sledding hill. Centennial Park was named for the Springfield Park District’s 100th anniversary. Centennial Park, Bunker Hill Road and Lenhart Road, 217-544-1751. Take MacArthur onto Wabash and continue west past White Oaks Mall, then start looking for Bunker Hill on your right. Take a right onto Bunker Hill and keep going until you see the parking lot.

Lincoln Memorial Garden

Six miles of trails take you through 100 acres of native woodland on Lake Springfield’s northwest shore at Lincoln Memorial Garden, designed in 1936 by the great American landscape architect Jens Jensen. The garden is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Each trail is dotted with benches etched with Lincoln quotes. All plants derive from the three states in which Lincoln lived – Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana. The grove of sugar maples is always popular with visitors, especially when warm weather approaches. Nearby are the garden’s Walnut Grove and Ostermeier Prairie Center, a former farm where once-cultivated fields were restored to native grasses and forbs. The garden is open daily, sunrise to sunset.

Lincoln Memorial Garden, 2301 E. Lake Shore Drive, 217-529-1111. Take I-55 south to the Chatham/East Lake Shore Drive interchange (exit 88), then head east (left) for two miles on East Lake Shore Drive.

Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park on the north side of Springfield is an 88-acre site added to the park district in 1905. This is one of the historic parks developed as a terminus of the urban trolley line in use at the time. There is something for kids, mom and dad, even grandpa here, with two 18-hole disc-golf courses, tennis courts and a horseshoe park. Lincoln Park contains the greatest variety of sports-oriented facilities of any park in the Springfield Park District. The roads, trails and open space are used for walking, running and bicycling. The northern half of the park contains a soccer field, six ball diamonds with one lighted, three tennis courts, three shuffleboard courts and at least 21 horseshoe pits. Also in the park, the Nelson Recreation Center contains an outdoor swimming pool and two indoor ice rinks.

The historic lagoon just off the south entrance of Fifth Street has been extensively renovated. Lincoln Park also has a cross-country running course and the historic Lincoln Park Pavilion, built in the early 1900s, offers scenic views. The Fun Shop, an early childhood development center, is also located within the park.

Lincoln Park, Fifth Street and Sangamon Avenue, 217-544-1751. Take Sixth Street north from downtown or Fifth Street south from the Illinois State Fairgrounds. For information on Nelson Center events, call 217-753-2800.

Southwind Park

Southwind Park is the newest addition to the Springfield Park District. Opened in May 2010 and located at South Second Street and South Wind Road, Southwind Park is completely accessible for all ages and abilities with special emphasis and attention given to those with physical and cognitive disabilities.

This 80-acre park has two bocce ball courts, a fishing pond filled with catfish, bluegill and bass, four horseshoe pits, four shuffleboard courts, five small picnic shelters and the Hope Picnic shelter, open for rentals and family picnics. The park has a fully accessible playground and two and a half miles of concrete walking paths. Also, check out the Treeless Treehouse, a fully accessible lookout point that gives an elevated view of the park. For a bit of nostalgia, check out the Selvaggio Historic Arches, a sculpture modeled after arches erected for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892. On hot summer days, head over to the splash fountain where kids can run through an interactive circular patio that shoots streams of water out of the ground.

The park has five sensory gardens. The Enabling Garden has raised planters for seated gardening. The Tranquility Garden, for persons with Alzheimer’s or dementia, has seating areas and a grove of white birches. The Fragrant Garden features a waterfall and sensory plants in easy reach. The Children’s Garden includes a vegetable garden, native plant area, bird attracting garden and many different paths and whimsical items. The Butterfly Garden has interpretive signage, seating and a water feature.

In 2013 in honor of 100 years of Rotary in central Illinois, Springfield’s Rotary Clubs provided a gift of a Sundial Garden located between Erin’s Pavilion and the Great Lawn. The park is also home to Erin’s Pavilion, a 15,000-square-foot center available for weddings, banquets and business meetings.

Southwind Park is at 4965 S. Second St., Springfield, 217-585-2941. From Interstate 55 take the Toronto Road exit south of Springfield and right onto Toronto Road. Turn right onto South Second Street. Erin’s Pavilion will be on your left.


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