Rocky Shoreline in Kanakee River State Park Illinios

5314 W, IL-102, Bourbonnais, IL 60914

N: 41.203 W: -87.979

Where is Kankakee River State Park?

This state park lies along 11 miles of the Kankakee River, as it winds its way due south of the Chicago area. Kankakee River State Park is a bit over an hour drive from the metropolis, in rural Bourbonnais, Illinois. The park is sandwiched by Routes 113 and 102, and more broadly by I-55 and I-57. Red barns and silos, and fields of greens and golds comprise the landscape.

How Big is Kankakee River State Park?

At 4,000 acres, this park offers vast prairies as well as wooded trails along both sides of the river, with a whopping 200 campsites. Kankakee River US State Park is located entirely within the “Land of Lincoln”. Though the highest points in the park are on the many limestone bluffs that climb along the river, the lowest point is the river itself. An in-park road allows you to drive along much of the of the north side of the river, with small parking lots spaced throughout. This provides easy access to many eye-catching spots along the banks. 

Stream Running Through Kanakee River State Park Illinois

Kankakee River State Park Weather

This state park has weather typical to northern Illinois—extremely cold mid-winter, and often in the upper 80s or hotter in the middle of summer. Springs are rainy and summers are dry, for the most part. There are periods of thunderstorms and occasionally, torrential downpours. Always check the weather report!  There is an abundance of wildlife in every season, from pheasant, to beaver, to the river fish and fowl. You may be lucky enough to spot a white snow owl high up in the trees during winter. Finally, autumn is an ideal time to visit. The trees turning color inside the park are every bit as lovely as the amber and gold fields sprawling out around it.

When did Kankakee River become a National Park?

When Chicago’s Ethel Sturges Dummer donated 35 acres in 1938, this region along the river became Kankakee River State Park. Commonwealth Edison, the region’s large provider of electricity and jobs related to it, then donated over 1,000 acres. The park grew even more in 1989. Before it gained state park status, it was home to the immensely popular Custer Bowery Amusement Park.

Things to do in Kankakee River State Park

There are many activities here, like horseback riding, geocaching, snowmobiling, archery, and fishing. Each has its own allure for the people it draws. Read on for a short description of these diversions provided by our State Parks Visitors Guide.

  1. Horseback Riding: with the many hills in the woods and fields next to the river, it’s nice to catch a lift from a four-legged friend. You can appreciate the views from a bit higher, atop a horse. Take advantage of this opportunity, which is often hard to come by.
  2. Take pictures from the walking bridge: kids will relish walking high over the river via the suspension bridge. It’s just the right amount of scary! Adults will love it too, for the great photos they can take from the middle of the bridge. This vantage point has dramatic views in each direction.
  3. Archery: perhaps even less common today than riding horseback is shooting a bow and arrow. Kankakee River State Park gives you the ability to practice your skills in this endeavor, which was used constantly for survival by the earlier inhabitants of this land. Presently, it’s the only permissible way to hunt dear at the park.
  4. Metal Detection: get your permit at the visitor’s center during business hours and go on a hunting trip of a different kind. Who knows, you might find a relic from the Potawatomi or Chippewa tribe. These peoples lived in great number along the river and surely left a few things behind. While your excavating for metal finds, kids will enjoy playing detective and may spot an arrowhead or a broken stone with macrame in it.
  5. Kankakee River: the water brings so many types of fowl on and along the river, like doves, hawks, pheasant, and the Canada goose. There are an equal variety of fish. Surprisingly, this includes the shelled type. Along the bank you’ll spy remnants of the meals devoured by our flying friends—the clamshells more massive than you would guess. Take a canoe, kayak, or fishing vessel along the river to photograph nature, catch a turtle, or just get some exercise.
  6. Campgrounds: those who jump with both feet into our natural environment will love the ample campgrounds here. With the large amount of camping here that is Class B (electricity, but not plumbing) or Class C (no electricity or plumbing) you can really get back to the basics at Kankakee River State Park.
  7. Biking: the small hills and size of this park make it perfect for biking. You’ll get a good work out, and the paved throughways will give your tires a break. The views you’ll get aren’t too shabby, either. Be careful riding your bike over the narrow suspension bridge, or walk it across, to avoid harming pedestrians.
  8. Boating and Fishing: the Kankakee River is both wide and deep in many places, making it a good place to boat. Small boats like canoes and kayaks are able to glide over the shallower, rocky spots of the river. There are two boat launches in the park, for motors of 10 horsepower or less. Fishing can yield channel catfish, smallmouth bass, pike, and more.
  9. Geocaching: you can have a lot of fun pursuing this newer activity, although you’ll need to follow the guidelines. While the park encourages virtual geocaches, it does allow for actual containers. Submit a proposal with your name and group, along with details about the container ahead of time.
  10. Snowmobiling: when hunting season ends in January and there are four or more inches of snow, take advantage of the park’s trails for snowmobiling. Maps of the trails are available in Area 4. This ride is a heap of fun in a cold winter but can be dangerous. Proceed safely and use caution, as you would in any sport, or with other motorized equipment.

Snowy Scene in Kanakee River State Park Illinois

When to go to Kankakee River State Park

The park is open year-round, so your passions will determine when you should visit. Photographers will get splendid shots after a snowstorm coats the trees and riverbanks in white. Fall is ripe with color for those wanting to capture striking forested images. Fall, not to mention summer, is a fine time to connect with your inner equestrian, as the lush surroundings provide a nice backdrop for your ride. Spring is best for spotting babies—like fawn or ducklings. However, April and May often bring torrential rains, so check the weekly weather reports to make sure that riverside areas will be hospitable. Hunters should check open-season dates and know that mid-January, the park opens to snowmobilers, prohibiting hunting.

Must-Have things to bring to Kankakee

The park is in a rural section of the state, but close enough to populated regions that you should always be able to get a cell phone signal and other essentials. If you’re trekking for the whole day however, List of Parks suggests you’ll need to have the basics on hand.

  1. Permits: don’t forget your fishing or hunting licenses, your metal detection permit, and to get approval for geocaching.
  2. Food and Water: for day-trippers, bring plenty of water. The hills, the wind, the sun, can all leave you parched. Bring protein as well, to replenish all the energy you expend.
  3. Park Maps: your smartphone will almost always suffice, but it’s good to have a physical map, especially of things that may be unavailable online, like snowmobile trails.
  4. Closed-toe shoes: the banks are muddy and soft, and the bluffs are hard and rocky. Though sandals may be more comfortable when wet, they don’t protect you from jagged rocks or branches.
  5. Clothing appropriate for the weather: since the weather at Kankakee River State Park varies much, so do the clothing requirements. Just remember to check the weather and plan accordingly.
  6. Sunglasses and Sunscreen: visitors can catch too much of a good thing here, like the sun’s rays. With high bluffs and the reflection off the river, the amount of sun exposure on many days may take you by surprise.
  7. Binoculars: the river is wide in spots. Binoculars will give you a better picture of the tremendous waterfowl on both sides.
  8. Toilet Paper and Plastic Bags: while the park has bathrooms in many areas, the Class B campsites have no plumbing and the Class C campsites have no plumbing nor water. Large towelettes intended for bodily use are a reasonable substitute for a shower while you’re roughing it.
  9. Bug Spray: where nature is, so are insects. From pesky mosquitos to bees, bring whatever you need to protect yourself from their nasty stings and bites.
  10. What not to bring! Firewood and alcohol are both prohibited at the park. The emerald ash-borer has wreaked havoc on trees in a large portion of the state, and Kankakee River State Park is no exception. Thus, campers are not allowed to bring their own firewood, lest they unknowingly transport the critters into the park. 

View of Trees an River in Kanakee River State Park Illinois

Where to stay in Kankakee River State Park

For overnight trips, the best way to get to know this environment is by camping in it. However, for those who don’t want to know the park quite so intimately, there are numerous hotel chains represented in the Bourbonnais/Kankakee region offering a comfortable, clean stay. The Holiday Inn Express or the Hampton Inn are only two of your choices. 

Food Nearby the Kankakee River

There are plenty of picnic shelters but not much food for sale in the park itself. Be sure to bring along all the food and drink you’ll need for a picnic, hike, or fishing trip. Or eat in the vicinity around the park. You’ll find all the common chain eateries, like Cracker Barrel and Culver’s. Incidentally, Culver’s is a smaller Wisconsin-based restaurant that serves real custard, featuring a daily flavor.

Flowers in Spring Time at Kanakee River State Park Illinois

Airports near Kankakee River State Park

Three major airports are not far from the park. Chicago’s Midway Airport is about an hour drive north. Go about a half hour further and you’ll reach O’Hare International Airport. Gary International Airport is the nearest option for flyers, with fewer flights, but a shorter drive. You can get there in under an hour. People typically drive to Kankakee River State Park though, with I-80 to either Iowa and Indiana nearby, as well as I-57 to Memphis and I-55 to St. Louis.

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