Though most travel is still quite hazardous due to a certain global pandemic, one way to get away that still safe is camping! (Well, safe-ish from the virus, but not safe from ticks, bears, leeches, trench foot, and broken legs) While I’ve always been fond of hiking, I’ve not done much camping and certainly not backpacking. Thus, I hoped to find some places to train here in Chambana before going on some great excursions this autumn. Obviously there aren’t any mountains here, but there are a few “hills” one can climb to get a taste of mountaineering.

The two most important rules when hiking are 1) Be prepared, and 2) Stretch thoroughly beforehand. With those maxims in mind, I prepared to summit the most challenging hills Champaign-Urbana could throw at me.

The writer is standing in front of a modest grassy hill. He is wearing a baseball cap, t-shirt, and shorts, and has a camping pack on his back. He is stretching his arm across his body. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

I carried a full pack to simulate being on a real backpacking trip. The pack was filled with the kinds of important gear that I would need to get by in the wilds. Since I’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies, I know that rope is vitally important for traversing rugged terrain. However, I don’t currently have any rope, but I brought along an old and mostly non-functional string of X-mas lights which should be a fine substitute.

The writer has a foot propped on a wooden picnic table. He is lunging into a stretch. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

I shouldn’t have to explain the importance of stretching. Just keep in mind that if you get a charley horse in the middle of a strenuous hike you’re extremely likely to fall right off a steep ledge, roll through several dozen thorny trees, and land ultimately on some sharp rocks.

Prairie Park

First up, I visited Prairie Park in Urbana and climbed its sizeable knoll.

The writer is standing at the top of a grassy hill, which has longer grasses lining a path up the hill. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

Difficulty: Variable
Though the hill at Prairie Park has a series of four manicured paths up to its peak, the rest of the hill is left overgrown. If you want a more challenging hike, you can bushwack your way through these prairie grasses to get to the top.

Amenities: 5/5 Great!
There’s a picnic bench right by the hill which is great for stretching, and also for sitting on after a long 8-minute trek up and back. There’s also a water fountain nearby, and, on the day I visited, early voting was happening at the Brookens Administrative Center mere yards away. Now, you just can’t beat that convenience!

Scenic Views: 4/5 Solid!
From the top of this hill you get a commanding view of the rest of the park, the Brookens Administrative Center, and hypothetically, one baseball game, two softball games, and one soccer game concurrently.

The writer is standing with his back to the camera, overlooking a baseball field and parking lot full of cars. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

Orchard Downs

This is probably the best-maintained/most-manicured hill on the list. It’s certainly the one that looks most like the Windows XP default wallpaper.

The writer is way off in the distance at the top of a grassy hill, raising both arms in the air. There is a thin dirt path that runs up the length of the hill. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

Once I made it to the top of this hill, I was quite hungry. Luckily I’d brought along some nonperishable food in my trusty pack.

Photo by Andrea Black.
A close up of the box of noodles. It's a white box with a photo of a pasta dish. The box reads Photo by Andrea Black.

Difficulty: Easy, but slightly steeper than it looks!

Amenities: 2/5 - There’s a bike repair station at the base if you happened to bike to this hill. There’s a full laundry room setup right across the street, but this is for Orchard Downs residents ONLY.

Scenic Views: 3/5 - If your aim is to forget you’re in Champaign-Urbana, the Orchard Downs hill is a pretty good spot. There are so many trees that you can’t really see much else.

A large grassy hill surrounded by trees. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

Even the majority of the buildings in Orchard Downs are hidden from view, along with stuff it’d actually be cool to see like parts of the Arboretum, or President Killeen’s backyard.

Siebel Center for Design

For many months, the monstrous dirt pile created by the construction of the Siebel Center for Design was one of the largest “hills” in town. Through the spring and summer it had become completely overgrown with tall grasses. I’d hoped the University would just leave it that way — a testament to nature’s own designs. Tragically, just a short time before I took these photos, the top of the hill was totally bulldozed. It seems the rest of the hill is not long for this world either as the construction of the center draws to a close.

A small dirt hill is surrounded by a barrier sign that says Siebel Center for Design. There are two trees in front of the site. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

Difficulty: For Experienced Trespassers Only
I’d considered jumping the fence and climbing this hill, however I’m over 30 years of age and jumping a fence has a 50/50 mortality rate for me, so I just took some pics. Once you got over the fence, this hill appeared pretty rough to climb before, but now the bulldozed side is probably quite easy.

The author is looking through a chain link fence at a dirt hill. Photo by Andrea Black. Photo by Andrea Black.

Amenities: It’s close to the Krannert Art Museum!

Scenic Views: ???/5

Centennial Park

The southwest corner of Centennial Park has a pretty substantial hill. About half of it is mowed lawn while the other half is trees and shrubs. There are SEVERAL signs warning people not to sled down the rough side, which does indeed seem a very reckless thing to do.

The writer is midway up a grassy hill with trees lining the horizon. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.
A row of trees with a sign in front that says Warning in red letters. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

Difficulty: There’s some rather challenging ways to try and climb this hill, and those are the avenues you definitely should not sled down.

The writer is standing at the top of a hill holding binoculars up to his eyes. There are trees behind him, and he is standing next to a warning sign. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

Amenities: This hill is spittin’ distance from the bocce ball courts and horseshoe pits at Centennial Park, so once you’ve gone up and down the hill enough to make your legs tired, you can throw some heavy objects and make your arms tired too! (you must provide your own balls and shoes however, just put a bunch of both in your pack)

Scenic Views: Lots of trees get in the way of the south and westerly views. However you can see a lot of the “Prairie Farm” within Centennial Park.

A view down a grassy hill. A white soccer goal is at the bottom of the hill, and there is a white and light brown rectangular building in the background. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

The Overgrown Pile of Detritus Behind the Champaign Meijer

I saved the hardest for last. This hill may not look too dangerous, but get up close and you’ll see it’s not just a pile of unused dirt, but is composed mostly of old loose bricks, chunks of concrete, and rusty pipes!

A dirt hill covered in grass and brush. Photo by Andrea Black. Photo by Andrea Black.

First I tried climbing up the Western side. That proved to be impossible, or at least, not something I wanted to do for the purposes of this column while I was still wearing shorts. The brush was thick, the soil was loose, and steep crevices caused by erosion made it a very unpleasant climb.

The writer is standing in the middle of the hill, amidst the brush, looking towards the top. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

I returned to the bottom carefully, kept walking around the base and wow, the Northern slope is way more barren and easy to climb! Turns out I’d forgotten the actual number one rule of hiking: always walk all the way around the entire mountain before selecting a path to the top.

The writer, standing in the middle of the hill. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.
The writer is standing at the top of the hill, looking back towards the bottom. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black. 

Difficulty: EXXXTREME. This hike is only for absolute experts who are up to date on their tetanus booster, have strong ankles, and are not allergic to ragweed!

Amenities: I DARE you to find another equivalent hike that’s just one block away from a Portillo’s

Scenic View: Well, you have a commanding view of North Prospect, one of my least favorite places in town, but also a nice pond and a bunch of corn. In terms of how far and how much you can see, it’s hard to beat this pile of trash!

The writer is standing at the top of the hill, looking off to the horizon. In the distance behind him is the back of a large building. Photo by Andrea Black. Photo by Andrea Black.
A view from the top of the hill. A large red brick building can be seen in the distance. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.
A vast field of corn with a pond in the distance. Photo by Andrea Black.Photo by Andrea Black.

That’s enough adventure for one column. Stay safe out there intrepid readers!

Top photo by Andrea Black.