Go with the Flow
Enjoy Kankakee River State Park & the meandering Kankakee River.
“Kankakee is a tight-knit community. The people there want to talk about and share their home with any traveler who comes through. After adventuring in Kankakee County, it’s clear why people love it here.” –Caroline Toberna, an adventurer from Chicago, IL
What do you get when you pack in paddling, music, scuba diving, and state park camping into one weekend? A whole lot of adventure. Exploring Kankakee County looks and feels different than your average weekend trip from Chicago. Just 50 minutes from The Windy City, the Kankakee River Valley brims with lush nature, great food, interesting history, and a community that’s passionate about sharing its uniqueness with anyone who visits. Here’s how to explore this nature-filled gem of the Midwest.
“The Kankakee River State Park campground hosts were super friendly and helpful. They greeted us when we arrived and were really excited to hear about what we were doing over the weekend. That made us even more eager for our adventures ahead.” –Kiley Gafner, from Chicago, IL
Make Kankakee River State Park your home away from home for the weekend.? Surrounded by dense forest and the sounds of nature, you’ll forget you’re only an hour southwest of Chicago. The 4,000-acre park on the edge of the Kankakee River has over 110 spacious campsites to choose from. Once you set up, hike the scenic 3-mile loop along the Rock Creek and Chief Shaw Trails or explore the 75-foot-long and tall Rock Creek Suspension Bridge, originally built in 1929. It’s one of the tallest suspension bridges in the state – and a great place to snap an aerial photo above the Kankakee River.
Take a hike along the river’s edge at Kankakee River State Park after setting up camp.
After camp is set up, head to downtown Kankakee to explore this small town with big energy. We recommend syncing your trip with the Merchant Street MusicFest – hosted every summer [the last weekend] in July – to take advantage of amazing music all weekend. The four-stage music and local art fest spreads throughout Downtown Kankakee and features a diverse mix of artists from around the country.
From Beyoncé covers blasting from the main stage to new wave tunes pouring through downtown, the Merchant Street MusicFest rivals music you’ll find in other big cities in the Midwest during the summer. Stages at the historic Train Depot and the Harold and Jean Miner Festival Square show off Kankakee’s historic architecture – and are steps from amazing restaurants, bars, and parks in town. You can also explore Artist Alley at the festival to shop from local artists and craft vendors.
Pro tip: Not visiting during the fest? Check out the Kankakee Farmer’s Market which pops up at the intersection of S. Schuyler Ave. and Merchant St. every Saturday – May through the end of October.
The summer Merchant Street MusicFest blends diverse music, local arts, and history in downtown Kankakee.
“We hit up BrickStone Brewery for dinner our first night. The bruschetta was bomb and the burger was amazing – literally cooked perfectly.” –Ashley Reed, from Chicago, IL
Dinner and a drink at BrickStone Brewery in nearby Bourbonnais is a must-stop spot if you’re into good beer and comfort food. From chargrilled burgers to fresh bruschetta, BrickStone does it right with flavors that hit the spot every time. Try a pint of the crisp and clean Permanent Vacation, a Citra IPA packed with tropical notes of grapefruit and pineapple, if you’re visiting in summer. At the tail end of the year, snag a pour of BrickStone’s “Not-so-secret secret beer” Dark Secret, a chocolate-forward stout brewed and released in limited batches. It’s the perfect beer for leaf-peeping season or for sipping during the Kankakee Fall Festival in late September.
You can buy BrickStone Brewery beer across the state, but you can’t beat a fresh pint and burger in the taproom.
“Haigh Quarry is definitely a hidden gem because we ran into people on our trip who’ve lived in Kankakee their whole life and were like, “Wait, you're going scuba diving where?!”.” –Rachel Feit, from Madison, WI
In the morning, start your day at Lori’s Diner (you can’t go wrong with crispy hashbrowns and a homemade omelet). The friendly staff and daily specials won't lead you astray. Ask to meet Miguel Puebla, who worked at Lori’s for 13 years as a busboy and then lead chef before taking ownership of the beloved local spot. After breakfast, head to Haigh Quarry for a day of snorkeling and scuba diving. Yep, you heard that right: scuba diving. Locals call the former limestone mining site “The Caribbean of the Midwest.” The quarry encompasses 13 acres of diveable and swimmable waters that drop down to 80 feet at its deepest point.
Underwater you can swim among submerged statues (like a life-size gorilla and manta ray) or snorkel over the ruins of a sunken ship. Already have your scuba certification? You can pick up a $25-day pass and explore on your own. New to scuba? Test the waters with a beginner-friendly certification course for $135 (book in advance).
“I hadn’t been scuba diving in years and my instructor, Dean, took his time to review things with me. He was super patient in answering my questions too, and when diving, we started shallower and gradually increased depth until I started to find my “rhythm.” –Rachel Feit, from Madison, WI
Pro tip: You don’t have to scuba to enjoy Haigh Quarry. A $15-day pass gets you entry into the park and quarry for snorkeling and swimming – rentals are available too!
On your way back through downtown Kankakee, give axe throwing a go at Splitting Targets. Splitting Targets’ coaches provide tips and tricks to keep you safe and your best chance at hitting the Bullseye at the center of the wooden target. Huge garage doors on both sides of the building open up to downtown streets and a full bar, giant Jenga, bags, pool, and even water pong will keep those entertained when it’s not your turn to chuck an axe.
Stefari West Avenue down the street serves up modern European plates, coffee drinks made to order, and craft cocktails (including non-alcoholic drinks too). We especially love the charming café’s freshly made sandwiches on homemade sourdough and lattes flavored with syrup made in-house. Pop into Knack Brewing & Fermentations after lunch for a pint of locally-crafted beer made by a Kankakee native who turned his homebrewing passion into a thriving community-centric brewpub in downtown Kankakee.
Finish the day riding by horseback on 12 miles of equestrian trails at Kankakee River State Park riding trails. Guides from Kankakee River State Park Riding Stables will lead you on a relaxing horseback ride under an overstory of oak and sugar maple trees on forest trails. Come in the fall to witness a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows as the foliage turns before the winter season. When snow falls, you can take a carriage ride down snowy trails too.
Hit up Blue’s Cafe after packing up the campsite. This super popular breakfast joint is known for its huge variety of pies (you won’t regret breakfast pie – trust us). No matter if you’re into classics like fruit pies (we loved the Raspberry Pie) or local favorites (like the Butterfinger Pie) a trip to Kankakee County isn’t complete without a stop at Blue’s.
Once you’re full, meet up with Reed’s Canoe Trips to explore the river at your own leisure. Reed’s rents single and double kayaks, and of course, canoes. They also take care of the heavy lifting by shuttling you up to your starting point at Mayor RJ Bailey Park in Sun River Terrace on the Kankakee River. All you have to do is pack your own cooler of food and drinks or pull off on the 3–4-hour journey at one (or several) bars and restaurants to grab some food or a beer before you continue on. You’ll pass The Office Bar Grill & Pizza near the start of the trip, the American Legion (which has a chill outdoor patio) just before the halfway point, and Ryan’s Pier at the very end.
Post-paddle, stop at Jaenicke's Root Beer Stand for a classic Chicago Dog and a root beer float. Their hole-in-the-wall grill serves up tasty cooking at a super great price. Seriously, here you can get a hot dog and fries for $2. Need one last pick-me-up? Grab a coffee at Recharge Coffee Co. before you hit the road home.
“Kankakee County is full of small-town charm with big-town energy. Every community – from Bourbonnais and Bradley to Essex and Kankakee – felt close-knit yet welcoming to us travelers on our adventure.” – Rachel Feit