Smile Politely

Walkin’ in the Woods: Lake Mingo Trail

Although “Walkin’ in the Woods” is a new column, Lake Mingo trail in Kennekuk Cove County Park is an old favorite of mine. I have walked that particular trail more than half a dozen times over the years. Hiking in the winter is new to me though, and so is hiking alone. So this week I will be considering a new perspective on an old favorite.

Getting There and Parking

Getting to Kennekuk Cove County Park from Champaign is pretty quick and straightforward. It takes just under 40 minutes from Urbana. As with many parks, however, once you drive through the park entrance it might be less clear where the trailhead is. In this case, once you turn into the park entrance just keep traveling down that main road until you see a sign pointing towards Lake Mingo on the right and then there is ample parking near the little fishing pond. 

On a slightly tangential note, at the intersection of US-150 E and Henning Road, which will ultimately take you to the park, you there is a small gas station and the Little Nugget. The Little Nugget is an irresistably kitschy steak house and bar, and after years of passing it without trying the food I can say while it’s not fine dining it’s pretty tasty. If you’re a meat eater and ravenous after your hike it’s worth a stop sometime. The gas station is also possibly your last opportunity for a flushing toilet for a while and has a decent array of junk food and snacks. So if that matters to you I’d stop and grab some snacks and use the facilities. Reminder again, I never claimed to be an outdoors woman so this is the kind of advice you should be expecting from a delicate flower such as myself. 

Trail Conditions

In my many years of visiting this trail there are zero times that I have no experienced mud, probably because it’s a trail that literally goes around a lake. Generally, it’s a very well marked trail and according to AllTrail there is only a 380 ft. elevation gain. So as long as you have the stamina to walk seven-ish miles, you should be able to handle this trail. There are a few inclines that can be slippery when it’s especially muddy or icy and the bridges are slippery when wet, as most bridges are. It’s also not uncommon for there to be a fallen tree blocking the path. They’ve always been easy enough to scramble over so long as you don’t mind getting your hands a little bit dirty. 

The writer is standing on a tree trunk that is laying on the ground. She's wearing a big blue fuzzy hat, pink jacket, and black pants with rainbow stripes. There is a row of trees in the background. Photo by Mara Thacker.

Photo by Mara Thacker.

The Bathroom Situation

As mentioned above, if you’re squeamish about rustic bathrooms and peeing outside I recommend making a stop at the gas station at US-150 E and Henning Rd. But otherwise there are some rustic outhouse type bathrooms right at the trailhead and about two thirds of the way into the trail. In the summer spiders are guaranteed to share the space with you, and toilet paper is never guaranteed. But it is sheltered at least. Otherwise there are ample opportunities for stumps or fallen trees to offer a modicum of privacy outside. Just remember not to leave any trash behind so if you use toilet paper you must plan on a way to transport said toilet paper back out of the park with you. 


I have never felt unsafe on this trail, even alone. It’s lightly trafficked which is nice for feeling like you are communing with nature but I usually run into at least one or two other hikers on any given trip. 

One thing to note, however, is that hunting is allowed in Kennekuk County Cove Park. It’s not uncommon to hear gunshots in the late fall and winter. In theory, it shouldn’t overlap with the trail and based on the number of gunshots in a row I heard this January I’m assuming it was either target practice or a meeting of the worst hunters in the world because there is no way any animal life in the vicinity didn’t hear the ruckus. I didn’t feel overly concerned but it’s good to pay attention to any signage and wear bright colors during hunting season just to be safe. 

Wildlife and Scenic Views

The Lake Mingo trail consistently delivers on scenic views and majestic wildlife. I’ve seen a rafter of turkeys on more than one occasion, along with deer, squirrels, chipmunks, and most majestically of all some great blue herons. 

An icy lake with a line of birds flying over it in the distance, against a cloudy gray sky. Photo by Mara Thacker.

Photo by Mara Thacker.

My favorite thing about Lake Mingo trail and the reason I keep going back is that it manages to pack so many genres of beautiful scenery in one single trail. You want rolling pastures? Check. Views of a lake from right up close or looking down? Check. Tiny old cemetery? Check. Old timey exhibition town? Check. Dense woods? Check. Lake Mingo has it all. 

Final Thoughts

No doubt about it, the Lake Mingo trail is my favorite local-ish trail. It’s a quick and easy drive from C-U, it’s not too overrun with people, it’s got many types of gorgeous scenery, and it’s challenging enough to make your feet pleasantly tired afterwards but not so hard that you need to train in order to try it out. Plus you can stop at the Little Nugget afterwards for kitsch and a steak dinner. What’s not to love?

Top photo by Mara Thacker.

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