Smile Politely

Walkin’ in the Woods: Homer Lake Scenic Route

With gas prices at a record high and a spate of abnormally hot weather, the theme for this month’s woodsy jaunt was “shorter, flatter, closer”. With that in mind as I filtered through local-ish options on AllTrails, I decided to head out to the Homer Lake Forest Preserve. Frankly, I’m embarrassed it had been so long since I visited because it’s a sweet, bustling little park that was full of families and people fishing and enjoying an afternoon out in nature. 

I decided to try out the 5.2 mile Homer Lake Scenic Route Trail because I’m a sucker for scenery. Although AllTrails billed it as a “Moderate” route, it was very flat and smooth — heck at one point there was a literal sidewalk — and I’d call it easy. 

Getting There and Parking

It takes less than 20 minutes to get to Homer Lake Forest Preserve from Urbana. It’s an easy, scenic drive and as a bonus you pass near the Village of St. Joseph, home of Wheelhouse restaurant and Wyldewood Cellars (among other places) so you could make a whole afternoon outing out of it and grab brunch or a wine slushie as a reward for a hike well done.  

By now you know that for all of AllTrails’ helpful features, getting one to the correct parking place is a consistent fail and this trail is no exception. You’ll want to park near the West Lake Trail trailhead which is seemingly outside of the park proper. Still, there is ample parking and it wasn’t hard to find.

A photo of the West Lake Trail trailhead sign with the prairie and some trees in the background. Main colors are greens and blue sky in the back.

Photo by Mara Thacker.

Trail Conditions

The trails were extremely well maintained. I’d almost call them lush. They were wide with neatly clipped grass for the most part. And mud? Never heard of it! Thanks to all the dry heat, the ground was firm, dry, and even a little cracked. While it was a nice change of pace from springtime mud, I think we are overdue for some rain. 

Photo of legs in colorful hiking shoes and socks standing on dry, cracked, brown dirt.

Photo by Mara Thacker.

The first mile or so of the trail was prairie, which was awesome in terms of being kind of a Midwest specialty but less awesome in terms of providing shade. There are also two short stretches where you are walking alongside roads. The sun is intense on these sections. You will want to go nuts with the sunscreen and consider busting out a wide brimmed hat for the occasion. You will also want a lot of water. I brought my gallon jug and burned through the whole thing. 

Photo of a path leading into dense trees. Many shades of green in this photo. Shows where the prairie path becomes the woods.

Where the prairie path finally enters the woods. Photo by Mara Thacker.

The Bathroom Situation

Brimming with confidence that the trail was close to home and not all that long, I was not overly worried about the availability of bathrooms. But then I burned through a gallon of water and was left with no choice but to use the woods. Dear readers, I looked in all directions, considered the situation carefully, saw that there was nobody anywhere on trail. I was discrete anyway. And still, upon arising I saw the only other person I was to see on trail for that entire day. Did he see me? I don’t know, I hope not. Anyway, I’m here to tell the tale and also to tell you that there were no obvious bathrooms along the trail. Maybe if the interpretive center is open on the day you are there, or if you step off trail to go into the proper park.  But in any case, forewarned is forearmed and make sure you are prepared to leave no trace. 

Photo of author Mara Thacker standing with her gallon jug of water and woods in the background. Thacker is wearing sunglasses. Main colors are greens and browns.

Photo by Mara Thacker.


The riskiest thing about this trail is getting stuck on an accidental loop that you didn’t intend to go on and adding some unplanned mileage. While there are a number of educational signs to teach visitors about the scenergy and wildlife, there were less trailmarkers than one might hope for and it would be easy to take an unexpected detour. Apart from that, there were no real safety concerns on this trail. The trail itself was well-maintained. Although there were few other hikers, there were plenty of people out on the lake or within the park itself and hence within earshot should something unexpected arise. 

Wildlife and Scenic Views

This trail has a lot to offer in terms of scenic views. There is the lake and a river, and you can watch people fishing or canoeing. But you also get prairie landscapes and woods. I saw one lonely deer, but tons and tons of birds and dragonflies that were as large as birds. I wish I could share a snapshot of sound instead of just pictures to convey the incessant buzzing of the insects in the prairie. 

Photo of the prairie with small, scattered trees and a big open blue sky in the background. Main colors are greens and blues.

Prairie as far as the eye can see. Photo by Mara Thacker.

I’d also say that this trail is benches as Fox Ridge is to trash cans. If there is anything even remotely scenic, you can bet your bippy that there is a random bench nearby. There is no consistency, rhyme or reason in the aesthetics of the benches but they are abundant and charming!

Final Thoughts

Homer Lake Forest Preserve is a treasure of a park and this was a fun, easy trail that would suitable for most novice hikers and families. It would also be a great trail for people wanting to try out trail running and I think next time I go it will be for runnin’ in the woods instead of walkin’.

That said, you might be better off doing the “West Lake Trail” instead of the amalgamation that is the “Scenic Route” because I think the only thing the scenic route actually adds is a few stretches of roadway. It’s like going to Meadowbrook Park and deciding to walk along Windsor and Race instead of staying interior to the park   it’s fine for mileage but not really necessary or scenic. Still, I know I’ll be returning to Homer Lake the next time I need something that is shorter, flatter, and closer. 

Top photo by Mara Thacker.

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