BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
There is nothing like hiking on a prairie or through a dense forest without seeing nearly another soul for 4+ hours. And that is what I experienced last week when I visited Kankakee Sands on a sunny, humid day in the high-80s. This stunning natural area may be only about 60–75 miles from Chicagoland and its 9.5 million residents, but it felt like a million miles away from the dense neighborhoods; the righteous, peaceful protests for racial justice; the completely wrong looting that has bedeviled my beloved city; and the general stress of living packed together with severely reduced relaxation/entertainment options during the pandemic.
Kankakee Sands is part of The Nature Conservancy’s Efroymson Restoration, which the TNC describes as “a biologically rich, diverse and healthy ecosystem of prairies and wetlands…[that is] one of the largest restorations east of the Mississippi River.” More than 240 bird species live or migrate through the Efroymson Restoration. The Restoration, when combined with the neighboring Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, Beaver Lake Nature Preserve, and Conrad Savannah Nature Preserve, comprises more than 30,000 acres of protected natural habitat. Kankakee Sands is located in Northwest Indiana in Newton County, on either side of U.S. 41.
Bison were what first attracted me to Kankakee Sands. They are an enduring symbol of the old American West—and our national mammal. Massive, powerful, and free, they linger in the American imagination unlike any other land animal except perhaps the bald eagle and grizzly bear. At their peak in the mid-1800s, an estimated 30 to 60 million bison ranged from Canada to northern Mexico and from the Plains to Eastern forests. The diaries of early settlers recorded herds of bison so vast that they took hours to pass. But the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the indiscriminate killing of bison by white hunting parties (they often only took the animal’s tongue and hide, leaving the carcass to rot on the prairie), and a concerted effort by the U.S. military to deprive Native American tribes of one of their principal food sources during the Indian Wars decimated these vast herds. The tens of millions of bison were reduced to massive piles of bones and hides, and by about 1890, only 1,000 or so bison remained, including two dozen in Yellowstone National Park. All seemed lost for the bison, but ranchers such as James “Scotty” Philip, the U.S. government, and others stepped in to save the last remaining bison. Today, there are approximately 150,000 bison in the United States, with nearly all found in the West—especially in Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho), Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota), Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota), and Santa Catalina Island (California).
But you don’t need to go west to see bison. There are approximately 8 places in the Midwest—including Kankakee Sands—where you can view bison. Today, there are more than 70 bison at Kankakee Sands. They are descendants of the Wind Cave National Park bison herd. You can find them on 1,100 acres of prairie that are located both north and south of the Kankakee Sands Office in the Bison Viewing Area [which is open from 7 a.m. to dusk (Central Time)]. This acreage is surrounded by an electric fence that protects both the bison and visitors from potentially deadly encounters. You don’t want to make a bison mad! They are massive creatures that can run up to 30–45 miles per hour.
Did I see any bison? Unfortunately not, despite visiting the Bison Viewing Area twice during my visit to try to catch a glimpse. The herd is hard to find at times in the vast grassland and savannah, but I enjoyed the “hunt,” camera and zoom lens at the ready, and walking the fence line amidst the sunflowers, butterflies, and birds. I would’ve loved to see the bison, but sometimes the quest in itself is enough.
Hiking at Kankakee Sands
There are several hiking trails at Kankakee Sands that you should check out. I hiked the Conrad Station Savannah Trail (1.6 miles) and the Grace Teninga Discovery Trail (2 miles), which I’ll discuss later in this story. Other trails include a Birding Overlook; the 1-mile Wet Prairie Trail, which is open only when the bison are not in the north pasture; the 0.1 Monarch Trail, which features educational signs about monarchs and milkweeds; and the 0.3 mile Milkweed Trail at the Kankakee Sands Nursery which features informational signs about milkweeds and pollinators. Click here for maps and other information about these trails. This link also provides information on a 2-hour, self-driving tour you can take of this vast area. My advice: make the Kankakee Sands Office your first destination. The office is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, but there are outdoor informational kiosks and maps that will help you to learn about the area and help you to navigate this vast expanse.
Conrad Station Savannah Trail
On this trail, you will journey through sand dunes that have been populated by a dense forest of black oak savannah as well as a tallgrass prairie restoration. You’ll also pass the ruins of the town of Conrad, which was platted in 1908 and founded by Jennie Conrad. A plaque, which is situated next to the ruins of the former hotel, tells the story of Jennie Conrad and her dreams of building a community. Another source presents a much-harsher depiction of the town’s founder, and her family’s negative effects on the natural world in Indiana. I was fascinated by how quickly the town of Conrad returned to nature once it was abandoned in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, much of the damage that the Conrad family inflicted on the environment remains today.
What you might see at Conrad Station Savannah (courtesy of The Nature Conservancy):
Birds: Orchard oriole, barred owl, blue grosbeak, brown thrasher, vesper sparrow, field sparrow, lark sparrow, bobwhite quail, red-headed woodpecker, rose-breasted grosbeak, scarlet tanager, rufous sided towhee, wild turkey
Reptiles and Amphibians: Blue racer, bull snake, Fowler’s toad, grey tree frog, hognose snake, glass lizard, chorus frog, milk snake
Insects: Common green darter and ruby meadow hawk dragonflies, tiger swallowtail butterflies, great spangled fritillary butterflies, and the solitary wasps (nicknamed cicada killers)
Plants: Lead plant, smooth blue aster, Pennsylvania sedge, New Jersey tea, woodland sunflower, rough blazing star, wild blue lupine, downy phlox, purple milkwort, bracken fern, Carolina rose, sassafras, lanceleaf figwort, goat’s rue, white oak, black oak, lance leaved violet
Grace Teninga Discovery Trail
I enjoyed hiking through the dense forest and occasional prairies of the Conrad Station Savannah Trail, but I loved hiking the Grace Teninga Discovery Trail. This moderately strenuous loop trail takes you through a sand prairie ecosystem. You will hike to the top of the dunes that once overlooked Beaver Lake, Indiana’s largest lake at 7.5 miles long and 5 miles wide, which was drained in 1854 by Lemuel Milk, Jennie Conrad’s father. (The destruction of Beaver Lake and all of its wildlife is a sad story of greed and selfishness that we unfortunately see being repeated more than 165 years later throughout the world.) I loved the Grace Teninga Discovery Trail because in this claustrophobic age of COVID-19, it allowed me to experience vast, wide open spaces where there were just a few black oak saplings, big blue skies, and beautiful scenery around every corner. I loved:
Watching two butterflies dance together above the prairie
Small armies of dragonflies engaging in aerial gymnastics amidst the backdrop of bright sun and blue sky; the one that flew into the back of my head at high speed later in my hike was not one of my favorites, but it certainly made me feel alive to the randomness of nature
Seeing both a lizard and what I think was a plains pocket gopher scurry across the trail ahead of me
Suddenly glimpsing a “herd” of prickly pear cactus atop one of the dunes—something I equate with the western united States, but that are also found in open sand and dry areas at Kankakee Sands and in the dunes along Lake Michigan. Visit in July to see the cacti’s beautiful yellow blooms.
Seeing the vast array of currently blooming flowers and lamenting the one’s I missed earlier in the year (I’m heading back early summer next year)
The total absence of human voices, car horns, loud music being played from cars, and other “city noises”
Visitors planning a hike on the Grace Teninga Discovery should keep in mind that there is NO SHADE on the trail. Bring sunscreen and water, and wear a hat.
What you might see on the Grace Teninga Discovery Trail (courtesy of The Nature Conservancy):
Birds: Field sparrow, Grasshopper sparrow, Lark sparrow, Meadowlark, Red-winged blackbird, Red tail hawk, Rough-legged hawk, Turkey vulture, Wild turkey
Reptiles and Amphibians: Chorus frog, Eastern box turtle, Legless lizard, Leopard frog, Milk snake
Plants: Lance-leaved coreopsis, Showy tick trefoil, Rattlesnake master, Sweet everlasting, Western sunflower, Round-headed bushclover, Wild bergamot, Prickly pear cactus, Foxglove beardtongue, Obedient plant, Yellow coneflower, Little bluestem, Indian grass
Insects: Ruby meadowhawk dragonfly, Regal fritillary butterfly
Tips for a Successful Visit
- Bring plenty of water and sunscreen because many of the destinations at Kankakee Sands do not have a lot of shade.
- Pack mosquito repellant and be careful of ticks
- Be sure to visit the spots I cited in this article, but keep an eye out for small, pull-off parking areas throughout Kankakee Sands in which you can park and wander the prairies and savannahs.
- Dirt bikes, ATVs, horseback riding, and camping are prohibited.
- Be careful during hunting seasons and prescribed burns.
- Slow down, take a lot of photos (then put the camera away and create some memories that don’t depend on technology), savor nature, and have some fun.
Copyright (text/all photos) Andrew Morkes, Nature in Chicagoland
2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT
Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more.
ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies. I’ve written and edited many books for Infobase including the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series.