One of many great state parks in Illinois, Kankakee River State Park serves a unique purpose for many Champaign-Urbana families — a perfect halfway mark between here and Chicago
Whether you want to explore someplace different or arrange a meet-up with family and friends who live in the Chicago area, Kankakee River State Park is a great spot to add to your “must visit” list
All Illinois state parks, fish and wildlife areas and recreational areas, as well as select historic sites, are open to the public with normal park hours. For the most up-to-date information on the reopening of IDNR sites and their operations during the pandemic, be sure to research your specific destination and check the IDNR website for more info.
Located 90 minutes north of Champaign-Urbana, Kankakee River State Park is one of Illinois’ state parks we can count on for a great nature-y time with our kids. Whether you are looking to take a nice long walk, like to river fish, or just want to stand in awe of a really breathtaking view, this state park does not disappoint.
If you’ve ever driven north to Chicago, you’ve probably noticed crossing a big river just about halfway there — that’s the Kankakee River! And just a little ways off the highway, you can enjoy Kankakee River State Park when you want to visit a different spot for your next hike.
It’s worth noting this state park is about 15 minutes off the exit on I-57 (and about 30 minutes from Dwight, if you’re coming via I-55). If you’re coming straight from Champaign-Urbana, Google Maps will tell you to get off I-57 at Pontiac/Ashkum and drive the rest of the way on country roads. If rural driving is something you want to limit, taking I-57 all the way to Bourbonnais only adds about five minutes of drive time to your trip.
You may have noticed that when we visit state parks, we love to tell you about the ones that are “off the beaten path.” This one does not necessarily fit that description. A lot of people venture to Kankakee River State Park due to its proximity to the Chicago area. That being said, it is huge and it’s easy to space out and have your own fun here. But particularly on a nice warm day, expect to see lots of hustle and bustle, particularly in the afternoons, as city families enjoy a retreat into nature.
Remember, what is peaceful and tranquil for a family accustomed to urban traffic feels quite crowded at times for those of us who call Central Illinois home!
We’ve visited Kankakee River State Park a handful of times, and a walk on the paved trails (over 10 miles of them) is always on the agenda. If you have strollers, scooters or just want a nice flat walk through the woods, sticking to the trails is your best bet. You don’t have to venture far from the main parking lot to take in the picturesque scenes this state park has to offer, so if you have people in your group with mobility concerns, they can definitely enjoy the trails with you.
Once you do get on the trails you will see many opportunities to challenge yourself (your kids will happily point them out). These are trails that are intentionally cleared of brush but are rocky, tree root-laden and full of mud and will take you by the bluffs or down to the river.
You can enjoy the river from a number of scenic overlook spots or you can get an up-close look. Our kids love this! Of course, it’s up to you how close you get to the river and you will want to evaluate how high it is and how fast the water is moving. We’ve seen the water rushing each time we have visited, and each time, we’ve felt safe approaching the river and playing along the rocky shore. The kids have even found seashells.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources page on Kankakee River State Park states, “because the Kankakee River is unpredictable with fast currents, drop offs and a rocky bottom, no swimming is allowed in any area, including Rock Creek.” Be aware of this information before you approach the water.
This is a great location for easy creek stomping, too. There’s a fun little creek that runs under the paved path (pictured below) and you can let your kids stomp around and see what they can find in there.
There are stables on the map here, so we did a little digging and found out there’s a stable at the park that does trail rides. Visit the website for Kankakee River State Park Riding Stables or follow them on Facebook to see when they’ll open for the season.
There are a number of places to fish here, including some clearly marked by “fisherman parking” signs around the park (at various entrances). Know that this is river fishing, and that will be a bit different than your usual cast out and watch a bobber fishing adventure.
Other Things To Do
Pack a picnic for while you’re here. While there will be lots of people having picnics and using the shelters on a typical day, especially a weekend, there are also an abundance of lone picnic tables; we’re certain you can find one to use even on the busiest day. Our favorite area for eating has been the Hickory Hill Picnic Area.
There are plenty of restrooms located throughout the park, most just a step up from portable toilets. Pack your hand sanitizer, as these do not have water to wash your hands. Seasonally, there are some restrooms equipped with running water that are open and unlocked. An early spring visit did not have them open yet.
There’s also a waterfall on the map but we’ve yet to find that on our explorations. It looks like you’d have to walk a decent bit to get there from the parking area and we have seen pictures of this waterfall and know it is small compared to the ones you’ll find somewhere like Matthiessen State Park near Starved Rock.
Camping and Shelter Reservations
If you like to go camping, you’ll see there are a number of campgrounds at Kankakee River State Park. Reservations can be made at camp.exploremoreil.com. This is also where you reserve shelters and day use areas, if you’re planning something large like a family reunion. We saw a group using the main shelter for a birthday party while we were there; it looks to run about $25 a day and has a fire pit. It didn’t appear to have a grill built in, but this group had brought theirs with them.
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