Getting Back to Nature

All over the region, there are so many opportunities to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. A wealth of natural beauty, wildlife and family-friendly adventures await!

Emiquon, a demonstration site for the Nature Conservancy’s river restoration work, offers a wide range of recreational activities, from birding to paddling to hunting and fishing. Photo: Laura Stoecker Photography LTD

The Illinois River is the uncontested heart of our region, a migratory route for ducks and other species, and a unique platform for recreation and play. The surrounding river valley teems with biodiversity—including oak and hickory savannas, sand prairies, grasslands, marshes, hardwood forests and backwater lakes—and is home to more than 400 bird species and thousands of native plants. With dozens of conservation sites available for wildlife observation, fishing, camping, hiking and hunting, there are many ways to get outside… and get back to nature!

From more than 200 freshwater bodies at Banner Marsh to the scenic wetlands at Rice Lake, natural beauty abounds across Greater Peoria. To the north, the bottomlands, backwaters and bluffs of the Marshall State Fish and Wildlife Area comprise more than 6,000 acres, while the Woodford State Fish and Wildlife Area encompasses another 3,000 acres. South of Lincoln, the forest canopy of the Edward R. Madigan State Fish and Wildlife Area boasts Illinois’ largest sycamore tree and a large pheasant hatchery.

Just outside of Havana, the Nature Conservancy leads the ecological renewal of the 7,100-acre Emiquon Preserve, frequented for its angler fishing, waterfowl hunting and bird watching opportunities. Visitors can learn about the area’s 12,000-year history at Dickson Mounds Museum—one of the nation’s premier onsite archaeological museums—while in nearby Canton, Giant Goose Ranch features some of the finest lakefront campsites and fishing lakes in the Midwest.

Across the river, the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge offers a diverse habitat of wetlands, swamps and woodlands, while Sand Ridge State Forest is Illinois’ largest state forest with 7,200 acres of native oak-hickory and pine, sprawling fields and grasslands, and unique sand prairies.

Wildlife Prairie Park
Ride the Prairie Zephyr on two different loops throughout Wildlife Prairie Park.

Just outside of Peoria, Wildlife Prairie Park serves nearly 140,000 visitors each year in its mission of conservation, education and recreation. Some 50 native species—including wolves, bison, black bears, elk and cougars—can be observed from viewing areas along hiking trails or from the Prairie Zephyr Express, a two-mile scenic train loop. With unique lodging options like cabooses and teepees, as well as traditional cottages and cabins, it is also one of the area’s most popular sites for festivals, weddings and other special events.

Less than 10 miles away, Jubilee College State Park features 3,200 acres of rolling valleys, unique bedrock, sloping ravines and a meandering creek, with plenty of options for picnicking, hiking, camping, horseback riding, hunting, cross-country skiing, mountain biking and fishing.
Rock Island Trail State Park, a former railroad corridor turned recreational trail, offers a wealth of natural beauty for hikers and bicyclists. Spanning 26 miles from Alta to Toulon, it connects to the Peoria Park District’s 13-mile Rock Island Greenway, which cuts right through the City of Peoria, and across the river to the River Trail of Illinois for a total distance of 46 miles.

Stretching from Ottawa to Havana, the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway links more than 100 historic sites and natural destinations up and down the Illinois River. Byway travelers can experience nature up close by hiking its river bluff trails, biking its historic canal towpaths, throwing out a fishing line, or enjoying the serenity of wildlife habitats—all while immersed in the rich history and natural beauty of the Illinois River Valley.

Peoria Zoo
The African lion is a highlight of the Peoria Zoo’s Africa exhibit, a unique simulation of its native grasslands.

Celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2019, the Peoria Park District is the oldest and largest park district in Illinois. It covers nearly 60 square miles and is responsible for the care of almost 9,000 acres of green space. All kinds of sports—including softball, soccer, volleyball, disc golf and more—can be found at a Peoria Park District facility. Owens Center offers ice skating year-round, while hikers and bicyclists can explore more than 50 miles of trails in and around Peoria.

Each year, hundreds of concerts, festivals and special events are featured on the Peoria RiverFront and in Peoria’s many parks, in addition to wellness activities at four recreation centers around town. The Peoria Park District is also home to an outdoor amphitheater and a bicycle safety center, as well as the RiverPlex Recreation and Wellness Center, which features an indoor aquatic center. Visitors can also enjoy the great outdoors at Forest Park Nature Center, a designated Illinois State Nature Preserve.

Take a stroll through Peoria Zoo, with its open-air exhibits arranged by continent. Rhinos, lions and giraffes—including the baby giraffe, Zara—roam the grasslands of Africa. Emus and wallabies inhabit the Australia Walk-About, while the Amur tiger, Galapagos tortoise and the zoo’s newest arrival, Meg, a female Sichuan takin, are highlights on the Asian Trail.

Also nestled within Glen Oak Park, the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum is full of interactive exhibits for children. Families can top off a day of fun with a stop at Luthy Botanical Garden to admire its extensive collection of rainforest plants, succulents and orchids. Whatever your recreational pleasure, you’ll find there’s always more to explore at the Peoria Park District.

An array of golf courses, both public and private, can be found across Greater Peoria, challenging beginners and pros alike. The Peoria Park District offers three courses, Kellogg, Newman and Madison, while the Golf Learning Center supports golfers of all levels. WeaverRidge is Peoria’s premier championship golf course, with bent grass tees and fairways, world-class practice facilities, and an elegant clubhouse and restaurant. Recognized by Zagat and Golfweek magazine as one of Illinois’ top public courses, its 18 holes are nestled amongst rolling hills, winding creeks and towering oaks.

Coyote Creek Golf Club in Bartonville features 18 holes and 6,700 yards of outdoor glory, while the Metamora Fields Golf Club, designed by renowned pro D.A. Weibring, offers 18 holes on a picturesque, rolling green. Other area options include Quail Meadows in Washington, Fon du Lac Golf Course in East Peoria, Lick Creek Golf Course in Pekin, Crane Creek Golf Course in Havana and the Lincoln Elks Golf Club in Lincoln.

Greater Peoria has also become a national mecca for disc golf, with more than a dozen courses around the region. Over the last decade, the Ledgestone Insurance Open has become one of the premier disc golf tournaments in the country—leading to the selection of Greater Peoria to host the 2019 Professional Disc Golf World Championships.

Ivy Club
The Ivy Club offers a pleasant respite for boaters traveling the Illinois River. Photo: Charity Monroe.

High atop Grand View Drive—“the world’s most beautiful drive,” as Teddy Roosevelt once remarked—the Country Club of Peoria is the area’s oldest private club, offering fine dining, swimming and golf alongside picturesque views. Nearby, Mt. Hawley Country Club features golf, tennis and a renovated water park, while the Pekin Country Club boasts an 18-hole championship golf course and practice facility.

One of the region’s most unique amenities is the IVY Club, which offers sailing, power boating, canoeing, kayaking, tubing and other water sports—plus a restaurant, marina and pool. The club hosts weekly sailboat races and offers sailing and boat safety classes for youth and adults.

Greater Peoria is also home to a wide range of fitness and wellness facilities, from EastSide Centre to the Clubs at River City to Landmark Recreation Center. A variety of specialty workouts can also be found around the region, from yoga studios and CrossFit gyms to facilities for Muay Thai, martial arts and more.

Across the river in East Peoria, the Fon du Lac Park District oversees 25 parks, two golf courses and the River Trail of Illinois, which includes a nature preserve, marina and campground. The Fon du Lac Farm Park is a fun destination for kids, with opportunities to feed the farm animals and multiple places to play.

East Peoria’s RiverFront Park offers striking views of the Peoria skyline, while the EastPort complex is home to a marina, luxury housing, and options for lodging, shopping and dining. The Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino is downstate Illinois’ finest gaming and entertainment destination, featuring a full-service casino with nearly 1,000 games.

Elsewhere in Tazewell County, the Morton Park District maintains a network of parks and trails, a fine arts pavilion and an indoor soccer facility, while the Washington Park District oversees a dozen parks and is a partner in Five Points Washington—a large multi-purpose facility with a fitness center and performing arts center among its many amenities.

The Pekin Park District is home to Dirksen and McNaughton parks, offering hiking and horseback riding, an archery range and more, as well as Mineral Springs Park, featuring athletic fields, an ice rink, water park, dog park, and a lagoon with fishing and paddleboats. Outstanding park districts in Havana, Canton, Lincoln, Chillicothe and beyond provide opportunities for play and recreation all over central Illinois. PP

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