Kankakee County, Illinois
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Making Our Escape

Exploring the natural beauty of Kankakee County, Illinois

By Alex Fontaine

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Work was crazy. In fact, life had been crazy lately! Over dinner, my husband, Jake, and I discussed a getaway, one where we could really kick back and escape from our hectic Chicago lives. A friend from work had told me about Kankakee County. It was only about an hour south of the city, but it sounded like a world away, with the flowing Kankakee River and loads of natural beauty.

Jake was totally on the same page. “Let’s invite Josh and Dani to come along,” he suggested.

Josh and Dani were our best friends from college. Even though we lived in the same city, we never seemed to have enough time together. A few text messages later, we’d coordinated a plan. By the following weekend, we were onboard the Amtrak, speeding off for our adventure.

After picking up a car, we headed to our hotel. We tossed our duffels in our rooms and headed down to the lounge. Over glasses of wine we caught up and solidified our plans for the weekend.

Paddling pleasures

Saturday morning dawned warm and cloudless, perfect for a full day of kayaking on the Kankakee River. We rented two tandems and launched from Aroma Park just before nine o’clock. We decided to get our workout in first by aiming upstream. The Kankakee River is part of the National Water Trails System and is one of the cleanest rivers in the Midwest. We kept up a steady crawl northeast through the sparkling water, admiring graceful swans and the constantly shifting scenic views. We navigated our way around rocks, through narrow channels and alongside tiny islands blanketed in fragrant wild roses.

Lighted view of Momence Island Park Walk Bridge in Kankakee County, Illinois
Momence Island Park Walk Bridge

Eventually the banks widened, and we spotted the Momence Island Park Walk Bridge in the distance. Damp with sweat, and exhilarated, we pulled up onto a tiny island, snapped some Insta-mementos and basked in the warmth of the sun for a break before heading downstream for the 10-mile return trip.

By the time we arrived back at Aroma Park, we were famished. So, we stopped for dinner at nearby Ryan’s Pier. Sun-drenched and giddy from our 21.2-mile paddle, we shared plenty of laughs as we wolfed down loaded potato skins and burgers, washing it all down with icy brews.

Riverside tranquility

On Sunday, we opted for hiking Kankakee River State Park. The park spans about 4,000 acres with thick forest of oaks, maples and hickories, and more than 10 miles of trails along the Kankakee River. We focused our hike on a five-mile southeastern section, which we’d heard was particularly pretty. We parked in a lot just off State Route 102 and walked east along the river.

I felt that tranquil hushed quality you might feel when you’re in a sacred space.

We scrambled up a short but steep 50-foot hill to walk along a wooded bluff overlooking the river’s edge. Crossing a small suspension bridge, we paused in the middle to soak up striking panoramas of Rock Creek Canyon. I rested my hands on the green railing and peered down. We could clearly see smallmouth bass and walleye swimming around in the clear water 75 feet below.

The trail swung north, and we encountered a small grove of pines. Walking among those trees, with golden rays of sunlight filtering through, I felt that tranquil hushed quality you might feel when you’re in a sacred space. Farther on, we stopped to admire a frothy, eight-foot waterfall before retracing our steps back to the car.

“We still have time before we head back to Chicago. Any ideas?” Josh said.

“Let’s eat!” I said at the same time Jake said “Food!” Almost on cue, I heard someone’s stomach rumble.

Good food & tasty brews

A quick online search revealed BrickStone Restaurant & Brewery was a short drive down the road in Bourbonnais. Laughter and lively conversation from diners greeted us when we stepped inside. Plenty of light poured in through large windows, highlighting inviting decor along with cozy booths and tables spread across the tile floor.

From their abundant selection of handcrafted brews and cocktails, Dani ordered the Hyacinth Margarita. Jake and Josh chose Golden Promise—a copper-color Imperial red—while I selected the Cherry Bomb—a fruit ale that offered a perfect balance of hops and subtle tartness from Michigan cherries. The combination with our appetizer of homemade pork rinds seasoned with chili-lime salt was pretty much magical.

A chicken meal with a glass of beer at Brickstone Brewery in Kankakee, County Illinois
Sipping and savoring as it should be

For our meals, we all went for something different. Dani ordered a steak salad covered in bacon and bleu cheese crumbles. Jake got a charbroiled burger topped with smoked Gouda, peppadew peppers and slathered with sun-dried tomato mayo. Josh chose an oven-roasted turkey sandwich layered with thick slices of hickory-smoked bacon, avocado and Swiss cheese, while I went for a grilled chicken wrap mixed with roasted black bean and corn salsa, and chipotle ranch dressing. Since we exchanged samples of each entrée, I can confidently vouch for them all (with extra love for that chipotle ranch accompanying my meal).

For dessert, we ordered two to share: warm, creamy piña colada bread pudding and a salted caramel torte stacked with sweet layers of caramel mousse and chocolate ganache. We rolled out of there just in time to catch our train back to Chicago.

I felt completely satiated in more ways than one. Our last meal in Kankakee County had been amazing. But so had the entire trip. Taking the time to immerse ourselves in nature, and reconnect with friends, was the perfect respite from our frenetic city lives. And with Kankakee County being such an easy train ride away, I knew it wouldn’t be long before we’d all be escaping here again.

Find more ways to enjoy Kankakee County.