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EXPLORE WITH LENORE

Watch now: Fransen Nature Area a 'hidden gem' in Normal

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Fransen Nature Area has a field of wildflowers that is bursting with color right now, a fishing pond with colors of its own, a gravel pathway and places to sit and contemplate nature.

NORMAL — Fransen Nature Area is easy to overlook. It doesn’t have a parking lot, playground equipment or other amenities you find in highly developed parks.

What it does have is a field of wildflowers that is bursting with color right now, a fishing pond with colors of its own (more on that later), a gravel pathway and places to sit and contemplate nature.

Gene Kotlinski, assistant director of Normal’s Parks and Recreation Department, calls the park “a hidden gem.”

The 5.5-acre park at 721 E. Raab Road was dedicated in June 2003. It is named after Dr. Werner Fransen, whose family “dedicated the western 4 acres of the annexed tract to the town to be developed as a nature preserve featuring wetlands, indigenous natural plants, grasses, trees, flowers and shrubs,” according to the town’s website.

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Dean and Staci Widener of Normal walk their dog at Fransen Nature Area in Normal on July 19. The 5.5-acre park has a gravel walking path.

A lot of the town’s parks are groomed and mowed weekly and have athletic fields or playground equipment, noted Kotlinski.

“The niche this park fills is more of a natural park,” he said. “This is more of a natural area where you can experience some wildlife and native plantings.”

Stunning purple prairie blazing star were just starting to bloom this past week amid bright yellow black-eyed Susans. Purple coneflowers also were abundant. Several young bunnies quickly hopped in and out of the vegetation.

“It’s a great spot to see butterflies and other pollinators,” said Kotlinski.

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A yellow swallowtail butterfly lands on a purple coneflower at Fransen Nature Area in Normal on July 19. The native plantings, including milkweed, attract butterflies and dragonflies.

Monarchs were enjoying the milkweed, and yellow swallowtail butterflies floated from coneflower to coneflower. There were bees and dragonflies, too.

It’s a popular spot for photographers, especially when the wildflowers are in bloom. But it’s also lovely in winter when there is snow clinging to the branches of the evergreens that surround the park.

On the south end, there is an observation deck over a pond where fishing is allowed.

The first things you are likely to observe are flashes of orange below the surface of the water.

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Wildflowers bloom in the center of Fransen Nature Area in Normal on July 26. The spot has stone walls where you can sit and watch butterflies and bees.

Someone — not the parks department — put koi in the pond and, much to the dismay of the town, the koi have flourished.

“We thought they would not live through the winter,” said Kotlinski.

Though not as visible, the pond was stocked with bass and bluegill last fall, he said, and the town hopes the bass grow large enough to help control the koi population.

The pond also is home to several turtles.

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An observation deck overlooks a pond surrounded by trees at Fransen Nature Area in Normal on July 26. Fishing is allowed from the deck.

There is a small driveway where two carefully parked cars can fit, although backing out onto busy Raab Road can be a challenge.

A safer option would be to park at the Rosa Parks Commons — a traditional park with a playground, soccer fields and portable toilet — about a half mile to the west on Constitution Trail. If you are on foot, use the sidewalk on the south side of Raab Road to go to and from the park. By bicycle, you can ride on the road or use the wider path along the north side of Raab Road; just be very careful crossing the street.

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Another option is to park at Carden Park, about a half mile to the east, behind Fire Station No. 3 and adjacent to Prairieland School.

“It’s a great spot,” said Kotlinski. “It’s nice to have these little pockets.”

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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