Tucked back off Cosgray Road in Hilliard, Homestead has always been a gem. But since the facility became part of the Metro Parks system in September 2015, it's become even better thanks to an improved programming lineup and a few other changes.

Tucked back off Cosgray Road in Hilliard, Homestead has always been a gem. But since the facility became part of the Metro Parks system in September 2015, it's become even better thanks to an improved programming lineup and a few other changes.

Perhaps most noticeable to visitors at the 44-acre park is a huge new prairie garden at the front of the property. "Because we're a conservation-based agency … they thought it would be a perfect place to plant a 10-acre prairie," said Metro Parks spokeswoman Peg Hanley. "Each year, we'll add more things."

The garden, which features prairie grasses dotted with bright flowers, attracts butterflies and songbirds. "We use natural prairie seeds that we have harvested from the Darby Plains," Hanley said. Admire it from a distance or up-close on a stroll around the neighboring 0.75-mile multiuse trail. The path is perfect for letting the kids burn off some energy, and it also connects to the Heritage Rail Trail.

Budding naturalists - or even children who see a bird and want to know what it is - can take advantage of the fact that a full- and part-time naturalist are now based at Homestead. "We've ramped up the number of programs being offered there," Hanley said.

A visit to Homestead can be as relaxing or as active as you want it to be.

Children will love scampering over and through two playgrounds at opposite ends of the park. Closest to the entrance is an adaptive-use play area with a rubberized surface, a peek-through train and a sand pit. Several pieces of Greenfields Outdoor Fitness equipment sit nearby.

Also in this area is a replica train station, Norwich Junction, that houses one set of restrooms. Another set is across the park at the Barn Shelter.

There's also a real train caboose that has long been a fixture at Homestead. Scheduled programs are held here, and naturalists will sometimes unlock it for an impromptu presentation.

Head across the park to discover an expansive play area with equipment catering to all age levels, grouped in sections. There are numerous slides, tunnels, climbers, swings and even a tether ball pole. (Do watch very young children, who tend to disappear into the tunnels and emerge in another area.)

Need to break for lunch or dinner? There are multiple shelters, pavilions and picnic areas (some with grills), including a new cluster of tables that replaced both a water-play area dubbed Fort Washington and a farm-themed toddler nook. Hanley said the new area has been heavily used, not a surprise since the park is very popular with locals. More than 290,000 guests visited from January to mid-August.

Like sports? Set up an interfamily tournament on the sand volleyball and basketball courts. Or cast a line into the 2.5-acre fishing pond, which Hanley said is stocked with bluegill and small- and largemouth bass. No license is required.

The adjacent covered bridge - the site of numerous Girl Scouts bridging ceremonies - is a popular spot both for romping and watching ducks.

Future plans for the park include a putt-putt course set to open either late this year or in 2017.

-Julanne Hohbach