Hiking trails just the start at Forest Park Nature Center

By Elise Zwicky For Chronicle Media

Located in the heart of Peoria and managed by the Peoria Park District, Forest Park Nature is a 540-acre forest protected as a dedicated Illinois State Nature Preserve and is home to more than 150 bird species and more than 600 wildflower species. The park is open for hiking every day of the year from dawn to dusk. (Photo courtesy of Forest Park Nature Center)

Right in the heart of Peoria is a 540-acre forest that even some longtime residents might not know exists.

“My love of hiking started in the Smoky Mountains. But for years I didn’t realize we had so many great and hilly trails right here in central Illinois,” said East Peoria native Tom Sheppard, who discovered Forest Park Nature Center just over two years ago and now hikes there several times a week when the weather permits.

“I have been so pleasantly surprised at the beauty of the woods and how challenging the trails are in terms of how steep they are,” Sheppard added. “One of the reasons I think I finally checked it out was that I was driving by the sign for Forest Park Nature Center on Route 29 every Sunday on my way to church.”

Located at 5809 N. Forest Park Drive just off Illinois Route 29, Forest Park Nature Center opened in 1964. The park is open year-round, has seven miles of hiking trails and is home to more than 150 bird species and more than 600 wildflower species.

“We have hiking trails that are good for all levels of fitness. So there are flat trails, moderately hilly trails and some challenging trails, as well,” said Kristi Shoemaker, the park’s chief naturalist. The nature center also has a small nature museum and gift shop.

Forest Park Nature Center is owned by the Forest Park Foundation but operated and managed by the Peoria Park District, though that may soon change.

“We’re working on grants to help the Peoria Park District purchase the land that the nature center is on and the nature center itself from the Forest Park Foundation, because the foundation does not want to be in the land-owning business anymore,” Shoemaker said. “Our main goal is to keep it open to the public.”

If the Peoria Park District is able to receive grants from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to help buy the property, the public should notice few changes.

Asked how the nature center has changed over the past 55 years, Shoemaker said, “Displays have changed over the years and the trail system has evolved. And, of course, our understanding of science and ecological restoration has evolved over that time, too. So while people might get the same nostalgic feel when they walk into the nature center, the information we’re providing has been updated.”

More recently, budgetary concerns have forced changes in the center’s staffing and hours of operation. The center currently has two full-time and two part-time employees year-round, and a handful of part-timers who help with programming and rentals.

“We’re down from three full-time staff, as well as a part-time staff person that had more hours,” Shoemaker said.

Fall is the most popular time to hike at Peoria’s Forest Park Nature Center, according to chief naturalist Kristi Shoemaker. The 540-acre state-protected forest is located off Illinois Route 29 and attracts about 100,000 visitors a year. (Photo courtesy of Forest Park Nature Center)

Due to the staff reduction, the center’s hours changed in January from being open seven days a week to being closed on Sundays and Mondays in the winter and closed on Mondays the rest of the year. The center is now open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. From April through October, the center is also open from 1 to 5 p.m. on  Sundays.

However, even when staff is not present, the park’s trails are open every day of the year from dawn to dusk, a fact Shoemaker thinks many people might not realize.

It’s fair to say that the park is not a complete secret, though, since Shoemaker estimates at least 100,000 people use it each year. The center frequently offers guided hikes and has a 100-mile hiker club that offers incentives for reaching goals.

“It’s a way to help keep people motivated while they’re out hiking. It doesn’t matter how long it takes them to reach 100 miles or whatever their goal is. Some do it in a couple of months and others take a couple of years, but that’s OK,” Shoemaker said.

The nature center also offers a variety of classes and programs throughout the year, as well as a program for home-schoolers.

“Probably our most popular event is the holiday Shop and Stroll coming up in December,” Shoemaker said. “We have musicians playing inside the building, a nature art show will be going on and people can shop in our gift shop. On the trails, we’ll have candles lit all the way to a bonfire, so people can take a nice winter stroll and have hot chocolate while they’re out there.”

The event usually runs on four dates but has been cut back to three this year due to the staffing changes. Shop and Stroll will take place this year from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 13, 14 and 20.

The gift shop offers bird-feeding items, field guides, hats, snacks and exploration toys for kids, such as compasses, glow sticks and survival whistles.

Forest Park Nature Center also hosts an annual nature photography contest and a monthly Songs from the Woods concert series and is a meeting place for several area organizations, including the Central Illinois Herpetological  Society and the Peoria Academy of Science.

The center’s museum area can be rented during non-business hours for events such as baby showers or even small weddings.

Fall is the busiest time for hikers in the forest, but Shoemaker encourages people to try winter hiking, as well.

The Forest Park Nature Center will be holding its annual Shop and Stroll holiday shopping events from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 13, 14 and 20. (Photo courtesy of Forest Park Nature Center)

“As long as they’re prepared, winter hiking is one of the best times to go. There are fewer  people out, so you might see more animals and animal tracks in the snow, and it’s very peaceful out there,” she said.

Shoemaker reminds hikers that nothing can be taken out of the park, including leaves, mushrooms or flowers. Dog are not allowed at the park either.

“Those special rules come from being a dedicated Illinois State Nature Preserve,” she  said. “The rules are to protect the plants and animals that live here.”

For more information about Forest Park Nature Center, visit the website at www.peoriaparks.org/places/fpnc or call 309-686-3360.