Sixty miles south of Chicago, Kankakee is a county seat and the main city in the Kankakee-Bourbonnais-Bradley metropolitan area.
Home to around 28,000, the city is on the sparkling river of the same name, where French fur trappers plied their trade in the 18th century.
Kankakee has some fabulous heritage, with striking buildings downtown and a pair of Prairie School houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright at the turn of the 20th century.
After leaving the city, the Kankakee River weaves through woodland and bluffs, and past a dolomite cave and ravine system that you can visit at Perry Farm Park.
1. B. Harley Bradley House
Owned by a non-profit organization, this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house is open to the public for tours.
The B. Harley Bradley House is an early example of Wright’s Prairie School style, inspired by the surrounding tallgrass prairie and wide, horizontal landscapes.
Over the last 120+ years, the property has served a residence, office and even an acclaimed restaurant, before it was restored in the 2000s and opened to the public in 2010.
The house has many of the features that would later become Wright hallmarks, like a low-pitched roof, overhanging eaves and abundant stained glass. In fact the art glass is particularly celebrated here, and 82 of the original 90 windows survive.
2. Downtown Kankakee
Visibly enhanced in recent years, Kankakee’s walkable central commercial district blends attractive shops, grand landmarks, interesting museums, diverse dining and more than a dozen entertainment venues in the space of a few blocks.
When we wrote this article the county had also commissioned the Finding Frank murals, stylish works of street art evoking the Prairie School style of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Downtown’s centerpiece is the Harold & Jean Miner Festival Square, an events plaza surrounding the city’s historic railroad depot, and an anchor for the Merchant Street MusicFest in summer.
3. Kankakee County Museum
Established in 1906, Kankakee County has the oldest incorporated historical society in the state.
The society’s museum sits by the west bank of the Kankakee River at Small Memorial Park. There you can peruse a pair of living history buildings, at the Dr. A. L. Small Memorial Home (1855) and a one-room schoolhouse from around 1904.
The main, modern building has fascinating permanent exhibits and regularly updated temporary exhibits.
You can find out about the three Illinois governors to hail from Kankakee County, the Kankakee-raised sculptor George Grey Barnard (1863-1938), the county’s sporting prowess, stories from the Civil War and its African American heritage.
The largest space is devoted to a complete and interactive timeline of Kankakee County, from the Ice Age to the 1980s.
4. Perry Farm Park
Bourbonnais Township Park District takes care of this idyllic park on what used to be farmland.
There’s a reminder of what came before at a working historic farmstead, with a farmhouse, barns, outbuildings and a variety of domestic animals for kids to meet and feed.
The park also has a mosaic of formal gardens, orchards and recreational fields, as well as four miles of paved trails meandering through the woods, prairie and riverside habitats for walks and bike rides.
Something unexpected, just in from the Kankakee River bank is a ravine and cave system, which we’ll talk about a little later.
5. Riverview Historic District
On a sunny day you could spend a relaxing hour or so ambling around this elegant area, a few blocks south of downtown Kankakee.
Home of course to the B. Harley Bradley House, the Riverview Historic District is the oldest intact neighborhood in the city, covering almost 80 acres and boasting scores of sumptuous houses, many well over a century old.
Wright also designed the Warren Hickox House (1900), next door to the Bradley House, while there are 116 other properties contributing to the district.
These are on wide, leafy streets and boulevards, growing mature elms, oaks and maples. The district’s website has a downloadable brochure for a self-guided tour, starting at the Bradley House and making 13 stops along South Harrison Ave, South Chicago Ave and Cobb Blvd.
6. Exploration Station
Packed with fun and interactivity, this children’s museum at Perry Farm Park is aimed at kids aged 2 to 8.
With engaging hands-on exhibits and a rich array of daily activities, Exploration Station will be an enriching and educational day out for little ones.
Among the exhibits and areas are the interactive Exploralot Castle, the science and mathematics-themed Illumination, Up, Up and Away, where children can build and test their own aircraft and the Shop-A-Lot Market, for everyday roleplay.
At the STEAM Learning Lab, kids can put concepts into practice with open-ended exploration, while budding veterinarians can learn about the basic principles of animal care at the Pet Clinic.
7. Indian Caves
On the west side of Perry Farm Park, the Bourbonnais Creek flows through a wonderful dolomite cliff and cave community on its way to the Kankakee River.
Spread across 30 acres, these formations are protected as an Illinois Nature Preserve and are a delight to explore, especially in the summer if you need to cool off.
There’s a narrow ravine, several caverns and a beautiful little waterfall, all framed by craggy dolomite walls and embedded in woodland.
A good pair of walking shoes is a must, as the rocks can become slippery, and it’s a good idea to stick to the designated paths.
8. French Heritage Museum
Run by the Kankakee County Museum, this attraction downtown is open on Saturdays, April through December.
The first thing to note about the French Heritage Museum is its historic limestone building, built as a carriage house in the 1860s by the businessman Lemuel Milk, whose sprawling mansion used to stand nearby.
This is officially the third-oldest building in Kankakee, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Inside you can find out all about the role of French explorers, traders and missionaries in the history of the Kankakee River Valley. There are also fascinating details about how this French heritage remains a part of Kankakee’s identity.
9. Kankakee Railroad Museum
This delightful little museum is at the north end of the restored historic Illinois Central Depot, which is still a functioning Amtrak station.
The Kankakee Railroad Museum was founded by the local model railroad club in 1999 and consists of several railroad artefacts.
Most noticeable outside is the Pullman Coach, built in 1947 and containing a complete dining car, endowed with furniture and all sorts of interesting fixtures.
Next to this is a Union Pacific cupola caboose, and a trolley barn with a vintage trolley undergoing a long-term restoration.
Head inside the depot and there’s a trove of interesting objects relating to real and model railroads. You can also check out three intact model railroads on N, HO and O scales.
10. Splash Valley Aquatic Center
Summers in Kankakee wouldn’t be the same without this outdoor pool complex, found in a campus also home to the Centrue Bank Sports Complex and the Ice Valley Centre skating rink.
Splash Valley came through a significant reconstruction project in the late 2010s, and is centered on a large pool, with a deeper area for serious swimmers and a shallow area for families.
The complex has three slides, two closed and one open, as well as water troughs, a play feature, concession stand and two sand volleyball courts.
11. Kankakee River State Park
Beginning just downriver from Kankakee is a 4,000-acre state park, encompassing the woods and scenic bluffs on both banks of the Kankakee River for around 11 miles.
You can venture into this wilderness via a whole network of trails, including the paved Kankakee River Trail, a paved bike path running almost the length of the park.
The river is a big draw, as it has been for many centuries, attracting the Illini and Miami Native Americans in the 17th century and then famous French fur traders like Noel Le Vasseur in the 18th century.
There are two campgrounds at the park, offering more than 100 sites each, as well as a 12-mile equestrian trail, numerous fishing opportunities, boat launches, picnic areas and a seasonal concession stand.
12. Reeds Canoe Trips
The Kankakee River is celebrated as one of the cleanest in the entire country, and when you match that with stunning natural scenery and easy currents you’ve got a superb watercourse for paddling.
Based in Kankakee, Reeds Canoe Trips has a choice of three trips, ranging from two to a maximum of six hours long, suitable for canoeists of all abilities.
The most popular of these is a 12-mile journey down towards Kankakee River State Park, stopping at Perry Farm park to go ashore and explore Indian Caves.
Trips include all the necessary basic equipment, as well as transportation to the starting point and pickup and return to Kankakee at the end.
13. Kankakee Farmers’ Market
May through October, the Kankakee Farmers’ Market takes place downtown on Saturday mornings.
It’s the only Saturday market in the area, which helps to bring in shoppers from neighboring towns, and even from across the line in Indiana.
To sum up, the market has a little bit of everything, from fresh fruit and vegetables to cheeses, meat, poultry, spices, flowers, an array of baked goods, kettle corn, arts and crafts and more.
There’s also a great selection of food and drink to go, like freshly roasted coffee, pizza, tacos and Filipino street food, with live music most weeks.
14. Haigh Quarry
A flooded old limestone quarry on the outskirts of Kankakee has been converted into a first-class scuba diving center.
Haigh Quarry has sensational visibility, partly because it’s fed by a spring, and the 12-acre pool is home to various species of Midwest freshwater fish.
The quarry descends more than 50 feet, and a variety of interesting things have been sunk here, like a 33-foot cabin cruiser, a truck and an amphibious vehicle.
Haigh Quarry is open May through October, and offers PADI courses for all levels, right up to professional, as well as equipment rentals.
15. Merchant Street MusicFest
A colorful two arts and music festival hits Kankakee at the end of July. The Merchant Street MusicFest takes place in the very center of town at Harold & Jean Miner Festival Square, with the historic railroad depot as a memorable backdrop.
In store are three stages of live music, showcasing local, regional and national artists. This is all paired with a slew of art vendors along Artist Alley and a wonderful choice of local food and drink.
You can choose from BBQ, fried chicken, tacos, wood-fired pizza, Philly steak sandwiches, Filipino favorites and much more.