Whether its your first summer here or you’re a seasoned townie, this list is sure to give you some new ideas for how to spend your time! We’ve updated our guide for 2016, to help you make the best of your summer in Champaign-Urbana!
I’m strange. I collect places. I’m always anxious with the need to adjust the circumstances under which I’m experiencing existence and see something new. During the (almost a) decade that I’ve spent here in Champaign-Urbana, I’ve constantly been searching for new places and obsessively organizing what time of year or day each of these places is at its peak.
The list below is ordered (best to slightly less best) and is comprised of our top 5 locations that (a) are within bike-able distance of C-U’s center and (b) offer something that makes them particularly suited to being experienced during summer.
1. Roby Recreation Trail (and connected trails)
Situated in southwest Champaign and winding from Robeson Park all the way to Mattis Avenue, Roby Recreation Trail (map) is not only one of the best ways to see wildlife in C-U, it’s also one of the best ways to see and experience the community. You’ll encounter fellow walkers/bikers, children playing games, and families readying their grill for an evening barbecue. Running along Phinney Creek, behind backyards, and among parks, this trail offers the slightly-voyeuristic charm of an alley with the natural beauty of a nature preserve.
The trail includes different types of habitat—still water, moving water, open fields, dense foliage, and tall grass—making it the best place to see a wide variety of wild animal life in C-U. Off the top of my head, the animals I’ve seen include squirrels, ducks and ducklings, geese and goslings, rabbits, fish, finches, blue jays, cardinals, butterflies, many other types of insects, and lots of dogs (safely enclosed in backyards).
For children, it’s wonderful. There are parks with equipment for them to play on, areas for them to safely look in the water in search of acquatic life, green space to run without fear of cars, and even a giant pile of mulch—kids love giant piles on which they can climb.
If you want the full experience, begin on Robeson Meadows West trail (2 mi., map) and continue to Robeson Meadows trail (2 mi., map) (You get to cross an island!!). Moving northeast, you’ll eventually reach Robeson Park. Cross Phinney Creek on the north side of the park and you’ll have started on Roby Recreation trail (1.43 mi). Moving along the river and across streets, you’ll first come upon a long field covered in grass. As you move further east, slightly off the trail you’ll find Greenway 2, a nice park with some bridges and a perfect climbing tree. Continue back on the path. Once you reach Mattis, Roby Recreation Trail has finished, but it attaches to Simon Trail (0.53 mi., map), another similar, though not-quite-as-spectacular trail. This continues past Carrie Busey Elementary School and Wisegarver Park to a large pond north of Devonshire, where geese can often be found soiling the sidewalk and aggressively defending their goslings. Together, these four trails comprise almost 6 miles of eminently bike-able and walkable paths within Champaign.
2. Perfect Picnic Parks
If there’s one thing that C-U has a lot of, it’s parks. There are little parks and big parks, high-traffic parks and quiet, tucked-away parks. Since it’s summer, every park should be considered the possible venue for a picnic. Here are my picnic park picks.
Southridge Park – Urbana
I hadn’t heard of this park until I stumbled upon it a year ago. It’s tucked away among houses and yards in southeast Urbana, far from where students and most of my (generally carless) friends roam. Not only do they have a nice open space, good shade, and playground equipment, Southridge Park also boasts a nice paved path and great views of farmland to the east.
Noel Park – Champaign
I have a weird thing for Noel Park—for me there is no better park. But why? The main reason is its layout. Noel Park is well-integrated within its neighborhood. Little paths and greenways connect the park to different parts of the neighborhood, allowing pedestrians to flow into it unobstructed by streets and cars. Noel Park feels like its a part of its community and not merely an addendum to it. Additionally, it’s relatively quiet and has a lot of different types of environments. Whether you prefer the larger open area, which includes a grill, or one of the more-forested, cozier greenways, for me it’s the perfect place in C-U to have a picnic. I have, though, discovered one flaw in Noel Park: no water fountains. Not a fatal flaw, though, so just bring a bottle and you’ll be fine.
Hessel Park – Champaign
If you’ve read my previous guide, or even this one, you’ll probably notice that I tend to prefer the deep-track version of parks—ones that are rarely discussed, but deeply loved by those in the know. Being one of the most popular parks in Champaign, Hessel Park is certainly an exception to this, but there’s no way to not include it in this list. It’s the perfect space for any occasion, offering tennis courts, grills, pavilions of all sizes, playground equipment, a baseball field, open area large enough for a soccer game, and lots of shade trees. Also bathrooms! Its many amenities and central location explain why it’s such a popular destination for both townies and students alike.
Honorable Mention: Davidson Park
Story time. One time I was slowly biking out of Davidson Circle at its southeast corner. Turning, I fell and ate gravel. My body and bike were slightly broken and my girlfriend picked me up. Despite my associations of this park with a bloodied shirt and the need to buy new handlebar tape, it’s a really nice park on the more northern end of Champaign. It’s the kind of place to bring coffee and food for a breakfast al fresco. Mind the gravel, though.
Located 28 miles from Neutral Cycle, Kickapoo State Park is a place you can camp, bike, hike, ride horses, canoe, boat, fish, hunt, and scuba dive. Not only is it a place that’s worth biking to, it’s also a place that’s worth biking at. Kickapoo has 12 miles of mountain bike trails, making it the best place for off-road biking in the area.
The Kickapoo Rail Trail, a planned 24.5-mile bike path connecting C-U to Kickapoo State Park, is now under construction. This will provide a great alternative to existing roads, offering unparalleled scenery and a welcomed respite from motorized vehicles. Remember, the sooner it gets funded, the sooner it will be completed, so if this is something that interests you, consider making a donation.
4. Local Small Towns
Use your bike as a way to get to know Champaign County. It’s important to note that Champaign-Urbana is not all that exists in Champaign County. There are lots of small towns between ten and twenty miles from C-U that are ideal destinations for an afternoon ride. Don’t take the highways, though! Make use of all the smaller, county roads for a quieter, more peaceful, less traffic-ridden ride. Lots of these cities have places to eat and shop, making them destinations well-suited for more than just a water break or a picnic. If you have a lot of time on your hands, considering making a circuit and hit up a few towns in a row.
5. Area Farms/Orchards/etc.
Enjoy the fresh produce and dairy that Central Illinois has to offer by heading out on your bike to a local farm. Here are a couple of my favorites:
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery
If you’ve been to the farmer’s market, you probably know of these guys. Prairie Fruits offers goat-milk cheese, goat-milk ice cream, and organic fruits. They’re located just a little bit north of Urbana on North Lincoln, so it’s an easy half-day trip. Starting in mid-June, they’re open for self-guided tours and sales from 11-6 from Wednesday through Friday. On weekends you can stop by from 10-4, they have an open house each Wednesday from 4-6PM. If you’re want a unique experience, inquire about their Dinners on the Farm—events where you can enjoy an evening outdoors with a multi-course dinner that utilizes locally-sourced ingredients. And keep an eye out because soon they’ll have a shop at their farm called The Real Stand where they’ll sell produce and other foodstuffs from their farm and other local producers.
We’ve talked about them before, Curtis Orchard is probably the best known local producer of foodstuffs. Like Prairie Fruits, they’re not far away—just south of Curtis and Duncan. They’re open from 20 July to 20 December. As the summer progresses, you’ll be able to head out into their orchard to pick your own apples. Keep an eye on their website so you’ll know when your favorite apple cultivar will be ripe and ready to pick!