Smile Politely

Year of the Park, Video Feature: Lake of the Woods, Mahomet

As Year of the Park continues, we will be documenting every park in Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy, Champaign County Forest Preserves, along with other odds and ends between July 2020 and July 2021. You can see what has been covered thus far by clicking here. If you have suggestions or ideas or feedback, feel free to contact us at [email protected].


Lake of the Woods


109 S Lake of the Woods Rd, Mahomet, IL 61853


This history of Lake of the Woods, located just northwest of Champaign-Urbana in Mahomet, is vast. Topographically, it is something of an anomaly for Champaign County, which is known to be comprised of the flatest and nutrient rich soil in the entire world. Our economy stems from this agricultural goldmine, but as a result, the people who settled here and who continue to live here don’t get quite as many places to explore forests, or natural bodies of water, or even many hills to hike up and down. 

That is part of what makes Lake of the Woods such a special place, and why we need to not only maintain it, but also invest into its future. This particular column and video feature is being published the day before we go to the polls to vote on a referendum that would increase our property taxes by the slimmest margin you can think of to create a better and more sustainable future for our Forest Preserves. Lake of the Woods, above all perhaps, deserves our time and coin, to see that happen. 

First off, here’s a short video for you to enjoy about Lake of the Woods. It is a wonderful place to be: 

Back in the mid part of the twentieth century, Lake of the Woods was actually a public watering hole, where people could swim and lay out on a “grass beach” and spend the day shooting down a water slide that looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. 

hundreds of people from the 1960s congregate on a grass beach; a massive waterslide is in the background

Photo from Champaign-Urbana History Facebook Page. 

Seriously, look at that water slide! That seems like a ton of fun in any decade.

a water slide from the 1960s is implanted into the shallow part of a lake

Photo from Champaign-Urbana History Facebook page. 

Alas, sometime in the 1970s (no one is 100% certain when and I am not digging into the morgue at Urbana Free Library in a pandemic to find out) the cost of insurance on keeping the beach and waterslide open became too much to manage. Rumors swirl online about the reasons why: a kid lost a finger, a man lost a toe, the water became contaminated, goose poop was too hard to manage… who knows? Point being is that today, swimming in Lake of the Woods is strictly prohibited and there is no monumental waterslide jutting out of the ground either. C’est la vie. Those who were around for it say it was an epic hang, and frankly, it looks like it to me as well. 

Here and now, however, there is plenty to make up for it. Lake of the Woods is a great way to spend time outdoors in Champaign County, but there are other amenities as well. 

an overhead view of a golf course surrounded by trees

Photo by Tim Bailey.

The 18 hole golf course is my favorite in the area. It isn’t the best one, as there’s no bent grass on the fairways, but the grounds itself are truly marvelous. It’s a challenging course, as the holes are lined with trees, and the doglegs are roguish at times, and some of the Par 5 holes are absolute monsters. Hole 3 is actually like 1000 yards, or… that is how it feels at times. Green fees are radically affordable, and the pro shop has really nice folks running the place who don’t treat you like a weirdo if you walk in in a regular tee shirt and shorts on a warm day. 

a sign states Mabery Gelvin Botanical Gardens

Photo by Tim Bailey.

The Mabery Gelvin Botanical Gardens are a result of years of tedious and continuous improvement and commitment to growing one of the best places for flora in the community. It was named for the wife of H.I. Gelvin, who was the founder of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, and rightfully so. It is the perfect spot to spend intimate time in discussion with a friend, or to take your family out for a day exploring flowers and plant life of all kinds. 

Photo by Tim Bailey.

The relatively new bridge that overlooks a small pond and an area for children to play is one of the more striking features of the park. What was once a small plot of land has become an eight acre space with walking paths and informational stops along the way. 

Photo by Tim Bailey. 

We have done a lot of talking about Museum of the Grand Prairie at Smile Politely over the years and especially recently, so instead of trying to recreate all of that in this space. I will simply link you to a search that showcases that

In particular, our own Nicole Anderson Cobb did an intensive report on its history this past summer as part of a grant from the Pulitzer Foundation, and you can read part one here and part two here

It used to be a truly hidden gem but the past decade has seen it turn into one of the more popular destinations around; that is the result of smart curation and dedicated staff, and I am deeply thankful for it, for one. 

Photo by Tim Bailey. 

Every year, when it snows, I drive to the covered bridge just to slowly roll through it a few times and pretend like I am in a different era, at a different time. There’s no better time than the present — I am serious when I state that — because we are lucky to be alive, no matter how hard the world seems to pile on. But this is a majestic little covered bridge; it is an exact replica of the Pepperel Bridge near Boston, MA and was designed by German Gurfinkel, who was a civil engineering instructor at University of Illinois when it was constructed in 1965. 

Additionally, there are bats that live at this bridge! If you stake them out and time it right, you can see them if that is your thing; or read more about them here. Pretty cool!

a very tall bell tower is seen from above amongst a forest; a water tower is in the background

Photo by Tim Bailey. 

The HI-Tower rises above the Preserve at one hundred feet tall, and can be seen for miles around. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. it chimes; at quarter past and quarter before the house, it places music. 

It has a wonderful history that you can explore more by reading about it here, but my recommendation is that you just go see it and ascend to check out the magnificent views of the area. You truly can’t believe you are still in Champaign County when you are up there. 


Look, let’s not kid ourselves. We know what we know about Champaign County and Champaign-Urbana and our topography. We are lacking for it, and we know that, by comparison to just about every other county in the nation. 

But I’ve always said it depends on how you look at it, right? For me, Lake of the Woods is just as nice as just about any other park or preserve of its kind, save for unbelievable forces of nature like Turkey Run or Starved Rock, places where the earth got wild and decided to offer up something truly stunning. 

This is precisely the reason why we need to find a way to put more money into the CCFPD’s coffers. They deserve to be able to do their jobs effectively and in ways that will improve their system — OUR system — for the future generations that are bound to enjoy it all the ways we do. 

The biking trails and hiking trails are worth returning as often as you can find the time. As I said above, the golf course is a gem, and because it has the support of tax payers, it will likely be able to remain open when other private courses won’t be able to. 

I am deeply grateful for Lake of the Woods, and with the weather climbing into the 60s and 70s this week and the leaves still turning colors, now is as good at time as any to go out that way and spend some time in nature. Enjoy! 

Top image by Tim Bailey. 

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