Destination of the week: Springfield, Ill.
Check out this state capital for history and nature with a small-town feel.
Mon, Feb 07, 2011 at 06:12 AM
ABE WAS HERE: Historic New Salem re-creates the village where Abraham Lincoln lived and worked. (Photo: Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau)
Springfield is the state capital of Illinois, but it is most known because it was the home of Abraham Lincoln from the 1830s until he took office in Washington, D.C., in 1861. There are several important historic sites in the city, including the presidential library, that draw tourists from across the country and Lincoln admirers from around the globe.
Springfield is by no means an eco-tourism mecca. It does, however, have some impressive features that environmentally conscious travelers, be they fans of Honest Abe or not, will find appealing. There are plenty of places to eat local food and bicycle trails throughout the area. Hikers will find trails in the prairielands outside the city limits, and more than two dozen parks dot the metro area (not too shabby a number for a place with a population of less than quarter of a million).
For history fans who want a low impact vacation or for people who are simply looking for a laid-back, small-city vacation (an alternative to Chicago, perhaps), Springfield is a good, green choice.
For non-campers, the State House Inn is the place to stay if you want to keep your Springfield footprint light. All the usual eco-friendly hotel traits are present at the State House: energy efficient lighting, low-flow faucets, recycling and reusable glassware. The hotel also has a computer system that monitors and regulates the energy consumption of major appliances. Windows are coated to let in warming rays during the winter and to reflect the hot sunshine in summer. An air exchange system allows the main areas of the hotel to be cooled by fresh air in the summertime.
There are several camping options ranging from the standard RV-friendly KOA to basic but user-friendly state park campgrounds. The New Salem State Historic Site Campground, located near a living history town from the Lincoln era, is a good choice. There are 200 campsites that are available on a first-come-first-served basis. There two are campgrounds at Sangchris Lake State Park, within striking distance of Springfield. Campers have easy access to the lake and to the park’s hiking trails.
The small Henson Robinson Zoo houses more than 300 animals, representing 90 species. The zoo is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an alliance of over 200 zoos in the U.S. that has the goal of championing nature conservation throughout North America. At $4.50 ($2.75 for kids), this is one of the cheaper zoos to visit in the Midwest.
Springfield’s Muni Theater brings highbrow culture to the outdoors. The not-for-profit, all-volunteer theater group puts on four Broadway-style shows each summer in an amphitheater on the shore of Springfield Lake. Visitors can take in both nature and culture and also support local theater.
Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site, about 20 miles from Springfield, is one of the better places in the area for camping. The site also contains a living history settlement with a dozen log cabins, period shops, a tavern and sawmill. Though living history is the main attraction, there are more than six miles of trails throughout the site for visitors who want a little education to go along with their hike.
Springfield’s large urban park, Carpenter Park, is located on the banks of the Sangamon River. It is a wooded area that contrasts the mostly flat, prairie landscapes around Springfield. The area was once heavily logged, but has regrown and is now protected by the city and the state. Carpenter is a popular place for birders. More than 75 species have been sighted inside the park and it is considered an “important bird area” by the state of Illinois. Carpenter has hiking trails and is popular amongst nature lovers. There are other parks in the city, too. The Springfield Parks district oversees these 2,500 acres of green spaces, miles of bike trails and four golf courses. The organization also runs a botanical garden that houses 1,200 species of plants and provides educational opportunities for gardeners, children and nature lovers.
Sangchris State Park has a 3-mile-long trail that passes grasslands and bird-filled fields of wild flowers. There is also a 5-mile-long horse-riding trail. The park is home to deer, including several albino deer that are unique to this area of western Illinois. Sangchris is also a pleasant place for canoes and rowboats because motorboats with engines more powerful than 25 horsepower are not allowed on the lake.
Food Fantasies is a Springfield grocery store focused solely on selling local, organic and natural products. It is the best place in the city to find local organic produce and herbs. There is also an in-house bakery and a selection of frozen foods. For those who prefer to get their local produce outdoors, the Old Capitol Farmer’s Market, which runs from every Wednesday and Saturday from May through October, is worth a visit. The market stretches for two blocks and its rules ensure that all vendors are local growers.
Other vegetarian and fresh-food venues include the Garden of Eat’n, which offers salads, soups and wraps, and D’Lynn’s Delights Café, a bakery with natural and gluten-free options.
As in most small cities in the U.S., exploring Springfield and its environs is most convenient when done by car. However, it is easier to avoid getting behind the wheel in Springfield than in other cities of its size. Springfield Trolley tours provide hop-on-hop-off privileges to tourists visiting the historic sites, such as the Lincoln Presidential Library and the Illinois State Museum. A daylong pass is $10. The trolley runs every 45 minutes and stops at 10 attractions in Springfield. Springfield’s 17-stop bus service (the SMTD) has a “historic route” bus that stops at many of the same places. A day pass is only $3. The SMTD buses are a good option for traversing main areas of the city and getting to and from all central sites. The buses do not run on Sundays, however.
Springfield has a strong bicycle culture. There are trails and bike lanes throughout the city. The Springfield Bicycle Club is a nonprofit group that organizes regular group rides to various points throughout the area. Not a bad, low impact way to see the city.
Springfield is a small city with a wealth of natural attractions that are surprisingly diverse given the prairie landscapes that are so prevalent in this part of the U.S. The parks and preserved natural areas are a major attraction for eco-minded travelers. The historic sites, organic, local markets and thriving bike culture are also reasons to visit this section of Illinois. All these features make Springfield a worthy small-city destination.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
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