Places We Protect

Kankakee Sands


Sunrise through trees.
Kankakee Sands Sunrises over the rare black oaks at Kankakee Sands-Illinois. © Carol Freeman

Located in a culturally rich community, Kankakee Sands-Illinois has some of the best examples of rare black oak savannas in the world.



Few natural areas exist in Illinois or the Midwest that look essentially like they did 200 to 300 years ago. Kankakee Sands-Illinois is one such place. A visit to these TNC preserves is like stepping from a time machine into a birdsong-filled, tree-dotted grassland known as a savanna. You will find unspoiled sand dunes, prairie grasses and wildflowers that stretch as far as the eye can see. 

This peaceful sanctuary is located in the ancestral lands of the Potawatomi—a member of the Council of the Three Fires with the Ojibwe and Odawa—along with other tribal nations. Most of the preserves are in Pembroke Township, which is one of the nation’s oldest Black rural townships. It was founded by Joseph “Pap” Tetter, who escaped enslavement in North Carolina and settled his family here in 1861. 



Kankakee Sands Preserves are located in St. Anne & Pembroke Townships, Illinois.


Open sunrise to sunset, 365 days a year


Visitors to Kankakee Sands can explore four preserves of rare sand prairie and black oak savanna. Visitors can enjoy walking, nature photography and birdwatching. Kankakee Sands-Illinois is a 20-minute drive to another TNC preserve, Kankakee Sands-Indiana, where bison graze the prairie. (See link below.)

Explore our work in Illinois

A monarch butterfly flying towards bright purple flowers.
Monarch at Kankakee Sands Kankakee Sands-Illinois is home to rare black oak savannas that support a plethora of wildlife and insects. © Michael R. Jeffords

Why This Area Is Important Ecologically

The landscape at Kankakee Sands-Illinois is unique not only because it remains unchanged since pre-settlement times. The habitat is also geologically fascinating. Consider the sandy soil and sand dunes here. Most of Illinois is known for its nutrient-rich soil that has made the state an agricultural powerhouse. How did so much sand end up in northeastern Illinois?

The answer: A torrential flood during the last ice age, known as the Kankakee Torrent. Fast-moving meltwaters from a retreating glacier broke through an earthen dam (moraine), sending tsunami-like waves rushing across Illinois, leaving behind sand dunes and sandy soil.

The black oak savannas here are also rare. Oak savannas once covered about 27 million to 32 million acres of the Midwest. By 1985, only 0.02% remained, according to research. Black oak savannas, which thrive in sandy soils, account for a small percentage of the remaining oak savannas. Preserving this landscape benefits species that thrive in dry sand savannas and prairies, such as bird-foot violets (which rare regal fritillary caterpillars like to eat). 

Two people hiking.
Hiking Among the Black Oaks Walking, birding and nature photography are all welcomed at Kankakee Sands-Illinois.  © Tom Eisenhart/TNC

Why You Should Visit

In addition to providing a tranquil escape from today’s plugged-in world, Kankakee Sands offers an opportunity to see a variety of wildlife, including many rare and threatened species. Depending on the month, you may hear the hammer of red-headed woodpeckers, catch sight of an ornate box turtle, or smell the sweet scent of wild lupine. 

Every season offers a reason to visit: 

  • Spring:  Great Plains pocket gophers may be seen digging up new mounds as glass lizards emerge from hibernation and the preserves’ black oaks bud green.  

  • Summer: Dragonflies and butterflies—including the threatened regal fritillary butterfly—will be flitting among the wide variety of prairie flowers, including yellow indigo and purple prairie clover. 

  • Fall: Sassafras trees will be turning orange and red and the bugling sound of migrating sandhill cranes can be heard as they fly overhead.  

  • Winter: Redtail hawks, northern bobwhites and other birds can be spotted, as well as coyotes, minks, foxes and badgers. 

TNC’s Kankakee Sands-Illinois Preserves is free and open to the public 365 days a year. Go to the Visit section to learn more about the variety of wildlife to see at Kankakee Sands-Illinois.  

Photos from Kankakee Sands

At 1,800 acres, Kankakee Sands contains a number of state-threatened or endangered plant species and many bird species.

Sunset over a prairie.
A regal fritillary butterfly sitting on a wildflower.
A person walking in a natural area.
Wildflowers in a grassy field.
A pocket gopher.
A grasshopper sparrow standing on a branch.
Savanna habitat.
Prickly Pear.
People at a festival looking at a snake.
Signage that reads "Carl N. Becker Savanna".


What to See and Do


    Birds and Animals

    A Midwestern birding mecca, Kankakee Sands is home to some of the fastest-declining bird species in North America, including Henslow’s sparrows and bobolinks. Other rare birds found here include greater prairie chickens, American kestrels and grasshopper sparrows.  

    A variety of animals also travel through or call the preserves home, including foxes, coyotes, badgers and minks. Visible throughout the preserves are large mounds in the sandy soil, created by plains pocket gophers. These burrowing rodents mostly live underground. Their digging helps bring organic soil nutrients up to the surface, which helps plants and flowers to thrive. 

    For a chance to see bison grazing, consider also visiting nearby TNC Kankakee Sands-Indiana preserve, an 8,000-acre restored prairie that is home to a herd of bison and other wildlife. The distance between the Indiana Kankakee Sands preserve and the Illinois Kankakee Sands Preserves is about 20 minutes by car. 

    Reptiles and Amphibians

    The Kankakee Sands-Illinois Preserves are among the few places in Illinois to see the ornate box turtle, which has yellow bands on its brown shell. Other reptiles that may be spotted include tiger salamanders, slithering glass lizards and bull snakes. At dawn and dusk in spring and summer, you may also hear the songs and cries of grey tree frogs and Fowler’s toads.

    Butterflies and Other Insects

    The regal fritillary butterfly flits about Kankakee Sands, typically from May to September. In Illinois, the regal fritillary is a threatened species, primarily due to the loss of prairie habitat. The abundant sand prairies and dunes at Kankakee Sands—and the plants that grow here, such as bird-foot violets—attract the lovely pollinator.  

    Other butterflies and insects that frequent the preserves include monarch butterflies, dragonflies and native bees. 

  • The most famous resident of the preserves are the thousands of black oaks scattered around the savanna, which range in size from knee-high saplings to 80-feet tall mature trees. Black oaks, which do not like shade, flourish on the preserves’ dry sand savanna. 

    Many rare flowers and grasses also call Kankakee Sands home. You may see or smell prairie fame flowers, prickly pear, wild lupine, cinnamon fern, starry false Solomon’s seal and lance-leaved violet. 

  • Walking, birding and nature photography are all welcomed at Kankakee Sands-Illinois. Our staff are available to provide guided tours to schools, clubs and other groups. For more information, contact Mihesha Gibbs (

    Kankakee Sands-Illinois is designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Only Illinois lands that have rare plants and animals or unique natural features receive this important designation. 

    To protect the diverse and rich prairies and savannas at Kankakee Sands-Illinois—and maintain our nature preserve designation under state law—some activities are not allowed: 

    • All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are not allowed because they destroy the preserve’s fragile prairie and savanna landscapes. The deep ruts and soil compaction caused by these vehicles hinders the growth of critical species and plants.  

    • Biking on or off trails can harm important wildlife habitat. If you want to bike, consider Kankakee River State Park in Bourbonnais, Illinois.  

    • Horseback riding contributes to the spread of invasive plants when horses eat the plants and spread seeds through their manure. Horseback riding is allowed at Kankakee River State Park.

    • Hunting. To hunt, consider Iroquois County State Wildlife Area.

    Visitors are asked to stay on the trail to protect the habitat. Some parcels of land within the preserves remain in private ownership—please do not trespass. The preserves’ boundaries are marked with small, yellow signs featuring TNC's logo.

  • The local communities around Kankakee Sands-Illinois, including Hopkins Park, St. Anne, Momence and Kankakee, also have much to offer visitors of all ages, from additional outdoor adventures to museums that teach the rich history of the area. There are also numerous festivals and events, including the annual Blueberry Festival sponsored by the nonprofit Rohoboth Blueberry Farm

Know Before You Go

  • As shown on the trail maps linked below, TNC’s Kankakee Sands-Illinois is made up of four savanna and prairie sites located in Hopkins Park and St. Anne, Illinois: 

    Each site has a walking trail, ranging from 1 to 1.5 miles in length. View the full map of all four areas here.

    If you have never been to Kankakee Sands-Illinois before, we recommend you start at Pembroke Savanna to see one of the best examples of black oak savannas left in the world. The other three sites, which are home to many plants, birds and small animals, are within a 10- to 20-minute drive of Pembroke Savanna. 

  • Finding TNC’s Kankakee Sands-Illinois preserve can be challenging if you are unfamiliar with the Pembroke Township, Illinois area. If you are looking online or on your phone for the preserve, be sure to search specifically for “The Nature Conservancy Kankakee Sands Illinois.”

    There are three different Kankakee Sands preserves, which can cause confusion. TNC manages two of these preserves: Kankakee Sands-Illinois and Kankakee Sands-Indiana. Also, the Forest Preserve District of Will County, Illinois, has a Kankakee Sands Preserve. 

  • Kankakee Sands-Illinois is rustic and natural. The sandy trails are not paved.

    Currently, there are no bathroom facilities, water fountains, picnic tables or garbage cans at any of the sites. Please bring water and pack out what you bring in to help keep our preserve clean for other visitors. 

    Limited roadside parking is available at each of our four preserve sites. 

    Public washrooms are available at the following locations: 

    • Rodeo Park, 3687 S. Main Street, Pembroke Township, Illinois

    • The Iroquois County State Wildlife Area, 2803 E 3300 North Rd, Pembroke Township, IL 60958

    We recommend that you wear comfortable shoes, apply sunscreen and take precautions against ticks when you visit.

  • TNC volunteers play a huge part at Kankakee Sands. Whether they help to transplant seedlings or spray invasive plants, the time and energy they donate toward restoring and maintaining prairies and savannas at Kankakee Sands is critical. Our volunteers have donated hundreds of hours in the restoration and management of the site. 

    For volunteer opportunities, please contact Mihesha Gibbs (

Community Engagement

Pembroke Township is a rural area with a burgeoning organic farming industry. The population, which includes Black, Latino and white residents, is more diverse than many other areas of the country.  

At TNC, we believe that people and nature are inextricably linked. In the community around Kankakee Sands, the black oak savannas are literally in the back or front yards of many residents. The community has been caring for this land for generations.


Community engagement is essential to TNC’s mission of helping people and nature thrive—together. Below are some of the ways we are working with the community.

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You can help us do important conservation work at Kankakee Sands and beyond.

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Conservation Work

TNC staff and volunteers at Kankakee Sands-Illinois continually work to keep the rare and fragile black oak savanna thriving. 

  • Early spring and late fall: We perform prescribed burns in select sections of the preserves to help control invasive species and give native species more room to grow. 

  • Late spring to early fall: We weed out invasives by hand, spread native plant seeds and gather native seeds for planting. 

In addition, TNC is working with local officials to reduce the damage caused by trespassers riding all-terrain vehicles.

Staff at Kankakee Sands-Illinois also collaborate and work with staff at our sister preserve, Kankakee Sands-Indiana. Together we have restored nearly 200 acres of agricultural land to native prairie and constructed shallow wetlands. 

Find More Places We Protect

The Nature Conservancy owns nearly 1,500 preserves covering more than 2.5 million acres across all 50 states. These lands protect wildlife and natural systems, serve as living laboratories for innovative science and connect people to the natural world.

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