Smile Politely

Walk the River Bend Forest Preserve

A green wooded path with trees bending toward each other forming a circular view through the woods.
Paul Haker

With spring finally settling in here in the Champaign-Urbana area, many of us want to get outside and enjoy nature. Champaign County has six amazing forest preserves that are perfect for exploring year-round. I try to visit one a week to get out in nature as a form of self-care.

River Bend was one of the last Champaign County Forest Preserves that I discovered, but it’s become a favorite and one I return to often. With the recent news of a $1,125,000 grant, it can only get even better. The preserve is home to Champaign County’s largest lake, Sunset Lake, along with Shadow Lake and the Sangamon River flowing through the preserve.  

The entrance to the River Bend forest preserve. There are trees and a blue sky in the background.
Paul Haker

Getting There and Parking

River Bend is just south of Mahomet, and it takes around 20-25 minutes from Downtown Champaign to get there. It’s located off of IL-47, so you can either drive through Mahomet and go south on IL-47, or take I-72 or IL-10 and turn north on IL-47. There are two parking areas. The larger one, near Possibility Pier, has basic accessible restrooms and a picnic area. 

A gravel path cuts through a forest. On the right side is a deer in the difference.
Paul Haker


There are two trails: the Dogleg Loop (1.3 miles) and the Woodland Trail (1.2 miles). I usually park near Possibility Pier and walk the Dogleg Loop, which follows Sunset Lake. Woodland Trail goes along the Sangamon River, the river that gives the forest preserve its name. 

The paths along Shadow Lake are not official and become overgrown in the summer. These trails are gravel and/or grass. The grass parts may be flooded after rain, so proceed with caution and stay on the marked trail. I’ve only attempted Woodland Trail once, and I had to turn around due to the pond the trail had become. I did see the beautiful 9/11 Memorial that is on the trail, and it’s worth checking out. 

My normal route is to follow the grassy trail loop on Dogleg until it reconnects with the gravel trail. It isn’t marked that I’ve noticed, but there is only one grass path to follow.  

A 9/11 memorial sign in front of a forest of trees and blue sky in the distance.
Paul Haker

The trails are generally well maintained, and while not as popular as Buffalo Trace and Lake of the Woods on the north side of Mahomet, I usually run into a few walkers. Dogs are permitted on leash. 

Along Dogleg, I usually run into leashed dogs, and I often see two of my favorite bird species, the bright red northern cardinal and the blue jay. Both birds love the narrow path that runs between the two lakes.  I’ve also seen eagles and plenty of ducks and Canada geese. I believe this winter I saw a flock of loons, but I fully admit I am not the best bird identifier. This trail is a must for bird lovers, as there are always many bird species singing to me. I have also run into deer. 

Due to the gravel trail, it’s one of the safest bets to visit after rain, although the grassy paths are often washed out. The views of the county’s largest lake also make it a great option. It is typical of Central Illinois with no major elevation change. Fishing is allowed in Sunset Lake, but with restrictions. The web site has more information about what is (worms) and isn’t (minnows, live bait) allowed, as invasive species are a major concern to keep the lakes as they are. According to the website, the forest preserve is a former sand and gravel mine that was restored. It’s a 275-acre site, 130 of those acres being freshwater lakes. The only watercraft permitted are oar, paddle, or electric trolling motors. 

Bare trees surround a big lake reflecting the blue sky.
Paul Haker

In January, the preserve received a grant from the Open Space Land Acquisition and Development Grant Program, which they plan to use for wildlife protection, to increase the number of public access trails and build a kayak launch.

Since I have to drive through Mahomet on the way back, I make a visit to Yo-Yo’s for some sort of coffee treat to finish off my morning in nature. 

River Bend Forest Preserve
1602 W Mid America Road
7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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