click to enlarge The Dickson Mounds Museum is about 60 miles northwest of Springfield, at Lewistown, near Havana. - PHOTO BY DOUG CARR / ILLINOIS STATE MUSEUM
Photo by Doug Carr / Illinois State Museum
The Dickson Mounds Museum is about 60 miles northwest of Springfield, at Lewistown, near Havana.

School may be virtual for many kids in Illinois this fall, but that doesn't mean they have to miss out on the excitement and fun of field trips. Perhaps now more than ever, parents are seeking new excuses to get the kids out of the house, while at the same time, finding creative ways to enrich their academic experiences. Even though public health concerns necessitate that we all keep our social distance, families can still get up close and personal with the history, ecology and culture of central Illinois. So pack a picnic and head out on an afternoon hike, or schedule a trail ride or canoe trip down the historic Sangamon River.

Nature lovers can spend the day on horseback basking in the beauty of the autumn leaves or peacefully paddling downstream. Riverside Stables in Springfield has been offering trail rides on horseback as well as canoe and kayak rentals for families for over 20 years. Guests can enjoy an eight-mile trip from Riverton to Springfield on the same river a young Abraham Lincoln traveled generations ago, with half and full day rentals available. Rides and rentals are available year-round by appointment only, seven days a week.

Both the Illinois State Museum (ISM) and Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) in Springfield are now open to visitors, with restrictions, under Phase Four of the Restore Illinois Plan.

The ISM is free of charge at this time and guests should reserve their visit ahead of time via a link on the website. Groups will be limited to 10 persons or less and one adult is required for every five children in the group. In addition to the museum's permanent exhibits, a new exhibit titled "Fashioning Illinois" is on display until Memorial Day 2021, celebrating Illinois fashion from 1820 through the 1900s.

Visitors are also asked to book ahead for the ALPLM, and the museum has expanded the content available online. The ALPLM Facebook page includes information from the oral history program and "This week in history" features.

Directly across the street from the ALPLM is a sculpture by Decatur native Preston Jackson commemorating the 1908 Race Riot. The Springfield chapter of the NAACP offers a downloadable brochure on its website, highlighting significant places and their history in the brutal 1908 attack.

The Dickson Mounds Museum, located 60 minutes northwest of Springfield, offers a respectful and awe-inspiring presentation of Native American life over 12,000 years in the Illinois River Valley. The museum is open and operating at 25% capacity from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and visitors are asked to wear a mask while indoors and limit their time inside the museum to two hours.

The museum site and observation deck sit on a bluff overlooking the mouth of the Spoon River. Over the past 15 years, the native Emiquon wetlands that once thrived here have been reestablished and reverted to their natural setting, adding context and connecting visitors to the history of the space. According to Duane Esarey, museum director for Dickson Mounds, each fall visitors can look forward to seeing thousands of white pelicans, egrets, herons and other shore birds at they stop on their migratory path south, making this site one of the preeminent spots for experiencing the ecological diversity of the Illinois Valley. The museum sits on more than 300 acres of land and offers over four miles of trail systems, some newly established, and all perfect for safely enjoying the natural beauty of Illinois.

The Macon County Conservation District, just outside Decatur, has a wide array of outdoor activities perfect for families looking to get out and explore the natural world, including prairie, woods, bike trails and hiking paths. The excellent website is regularly updated with new events, including historic presentations, guided nature hikes, canoe trips, workshops on hummingbirds and astronomy and bike rides. Guests to the Rock Springs Nature Center are asked to wear a mask while indoors and to keep social distance while enjoying the district's conservation areas. For more information, visit https://maconcountyconservation.org.

And for those looking to simply soak in the pure joy of autumn, look no further than Kirstin's Patch. Owned and operated by Norm Diehl, just around the corner from University Illinois Springfield, this pick-your-own pumpkin patch and a corn maze is a low-key way to celebrate fall. There's no petting zoo or face painting at this patch (named for Norm's daughter), just a big field full of brightly colored pumpkins, perfect for family photo ops and happy memories.

Ashley Meyer lives in Springfield and is always looking for family activities that her two daughters will enjoy.

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