Kankakee Sands Conservancy – Explore Indiana
Kankakee Sands Conservancy is owned and operated by the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which is an international, non-profit organization that works to protect nature and preserve the natural lands and waters to promote life.
Kankakee Sands is located about 45 minutes south of Chicago in Morocco, Indiana. It is free and open to the public 365 days of the year from 7 am until dusk (Central Standard Time) for hiking, nature observation, birding, botanizing, and photography.
Initially, we decided to go check it out because we wanted to see the bison. Yes, Bison! But soon found out there is so much more to see and do at Kankakee Sands Conservancy.
So, let’s get back to the bison, the main attraction to the preserve! In 2016, a herd of 23 bison was brought back to the preserve as they were native to the land years ago. As of today, there are well over 70 that roam over 1000 acres of dedicated restored prairie. The bison are used to help assist in the long-term plan to return the land to its original prairie state.
At the bison viewing area, we were able to read and learn about the bison and their role on the prairie. The plaques were really informative and added to the experience of how special it is to see them. There is a short walk to a hilltop where you can look for them. It is not a given that you will see them well or even see them at all since the bison roam freely they may not be close to the viewing area. If they are not in sight, feel free to drive around to spot them. If they are in the middle of the preserve, take a hike and come back in a few hours.
For the birdwatchers, there is a birding overlook located west of the bison viewing area on CR 400 N. There are over 80 different species of birds that call Kankakee Sands home. There are different types of sparrows, owls, orioles, ducks, and hawks.
For a comprehensive list visit of birds seen at the preserve, click here.
There are a couple of opportunities to hike maintained trails in the prairie.
Wet Prairie Trail is located directly across the parking lot from the visitor’s office. This is less than a mile-long hike so perfect if you are in a hurry and don’t have much time. You will get muddy, so wear boots or shoes that you don’t mind getting a bit dirty. This is open only when the bison are not present in that part of the prairie.
Conrad Station Savanna is over 300 acres that wind through the black and white oak savanna. The trail is a 1.5-mile loop. The trail has some really neat history about the town that used to be there, so you will probably see old building foundations on your hike.
Grace Teninga Discovery Trail is our favorite. It is a 2-mile hike through the restored prairie. There are a wide variety of flowers, butterflies, and birds. We saw a herd of deer, which the kids really enjoyed. I am not sure the deer felt the same! By the way, see if you can spot the prickly pear cactus. It is neat to see this cactus species outside of the desert. We had no idea they grew in Indiana but were shocked to find out they are native to the sand prairies ecosystem.
This trail has no shade, so plan accordingly. Make sure you bring sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen, and water.
There are also several other defined trailheads throughout the preserve. We did not hike any of them, but most of them had a small parking area where you could if you were inclined to do so.
Each season adds a different charm to Kankakee Sands.
Winter is nice as it is pretty to see the snow resting on the prairie covering and protecting what is beneath. It also makes for some neat pictures of the bison.
Spring is great for those who enjoy birdwatching as many migratory birds are stopping through. Also, the prairie is in bloom so you will see many pops of color in the wildflowers.
Summer is a great time to visit as the prairie is alive and it is the best time to see some of the 70 different species of butterflies that call Kankakee Sands home. Most notable is the state-endangered Regal Fritillary butterfly. Your best bet to see them is on the Grace Teninga Discovery Trail or the Kankakee Sands Native Plant Nursery in the months of June through August.
Fall is when the prairie starts to change to a beautiful shade of gold as it starts to become dormant for the winter months.
Tips for your visit to Kankakee Sands:
Download the driving tour map to plan your visit as is the easiest way to explore the entire area and get information about the various stops you can make along the way. The driving tour could take multiple hours if you like to stop and explore.
There are no facilities at any of the stops, minus a port-a-potty at the visitor’s office.
Be sure to bring water and snacks, maybe even a picnic lunch to enjoy.