The Grace Teninga Discovery Trail at Kankakee Sands in Newton County, Indiana.
Discovery Trail The Grace Teninga Discovery Trail at Kankakee Sands in Newton County, Indiana. © Ellen Jacquart/TNC

Places We Protect

Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands

Indiana

Kankakee Sands in northwest Indiana is a prairie jewel in progress.

About Kankakee Sands

The Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands is 8,400 acres of prairies and wetlands, owned and managed by the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which serve as a connecting piece between Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, Beaver Lake Nature Preserve, Conrad Savanna Nature Preserve and TNC’s Conrad Station Savanna. Together these natural areas total over 20,000 acres of dry, mesic and wet sand prairies, sand blows, sedge meadows, wetlands, and black oak savannas in Northwest Indiana. These natural areas are home to more than 86 rare threatened and endangered species.

More than 600 species of native plants have been used to plant the prairies of Kankakee Sands and as a result, the land is teeming with native wildlife. Kankakee Sands provides habitat for more than 240 bird species, including such rare species as the Henslow’s sparrow, northern harrier and least bittern.

Kankakee Sands is also home to 70 species of butterflies, including the state-endangered regal fritillary butterfly, and more than 900 species of moths! Dragonflies, bees, frogs, lizards, snakes, badger, and bison all hover, slither and roam at Kankakee Sands.

History of Kankakee Sands

In December 1996, The Nature Conservancy purchased 7,200 acres of agricultural ground in Newton County and began the process of converting these acres to the diverse prairies of today’s Kankakee Sands.

Even further back in history, the land that is now Kankakee Sands was once part of the Grand Kankakee Marsh system and the home of Beaver Lake, then the largest lake in Indiana—7 miles long and 5 miles wide. It was a shallow lake, only 10 feet at the deepest, filled with vegetation and wildlife. The historical area has been referred to as “the Everglades of the North,” and there is a documentary of the same name describing the rich history of the land and the draining of the lake which took place in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

About the Restoration

In 1997, the work to convert the agricultural fields to prairie began. Much historical research was done to understand the complicated prairie systems that would have historically existed and the plants that would have been a part of those prairies.

More than 600 species of plants are native to the area, and those species are used to revegetate the land of Kankakee Sands.

Successful prairie plantings require regular prescribed burns and decades of work managing invasive species. Invasive plant species, such as reed canary grass and phragmites, as well as woody plants, threaten the open prairie. Prescribed fire is used to recreate the effects of natural wildfires that historically occurred here. Fire benefits include releasing nutrients into the soil, spurring seeds to germinate, prompting flowers to bloom and controlling tree seedlings that encroach on the grassland.

Partners in the Project

The Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands has been made possible through partnerships with the Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, Natural Resources Conservation Services and the generous support of our donors.

Visiting Kankakee Sands

Whether you are visiting alone, with a small group, a school group or a tour group, there is always something to see and do at Kankakee Sands. There is never a dull moment on the prairie, and any time of the year is a good time to visit, whether for a quick stop or a full day.

Bison Rangers are on duty at the Bison Viewing Area on the last Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to answer questions about Kankakee Sands, bison and all things prairie!

If you would like to bring a school group or large group to Kankakee Sands and would like a Bison Ranger on hand to meet and greet the group, please contact Alyssa Nyberg, anyberg@tnc.org, to schedule your visit.

We've created a Kankakee Sands Story Map for those who really want to prepare for a visit!

Where to Begin

Begin your visit to Kankakee Sands at the Visitor Kiosk in front of the Kankakee Sands office for current news and activities. Then set off to visit the Bison Viewing Area, the Birding Overlook, or one of our several trails.

For an immersive prairie experience, coordinate your visit on a day that we have a schedule workday or event planned. We offer workdays and events all throughout the year. Click the "Volunteer With Us" tab for information about upcoming events and workdays.

As mentioned, anytime of the year can be a good time to visit Kankakee Sands:

  • Spring affords you wet conditions, migratory birds, spring wildflowers at Conrad Station Savanna, and the intense greening up of areas that have been burned using prescribed fire.
  • Summer allows you to enjoy the vast number, colors and shapes of our prairie wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies, and the hum of the prairie.
  • Fall is when the prairie changes from greens to golds, the call of the sandhill cranes flying over, the return of the hawks and harriers, and prescribed burning begins.
  • Winter is crisp and cold on the prairie, often with views of the short-eared owls, and staff and volunteers are often planting the seeds for the next prairie.

Bison at Kankakee Sands

In October of 2016, we brought 23 bison to Kankakee Sands to help manage our prairies. Historically, bison were found across the state of Indiana and were an integral part of our grasslands. Bison preferentially graze grasses and sedges, giving an advantage to flowering plants and the insects and animals that those plants support. Grazing lowers the overall height of vegetation, and in doing so, provides habitat for such rare birds such as the upland sandpiper.

Additionally, when bison wallow, they create shallow depressions on the prairie, which fill with rainwater and can provide habitat for amphibians, reptiles, insects and early successional plants.

Today there are more than 70 bison at Kankakee Sands. The bison are grazing on 1,100 acres of prairie, located both north and south of our Kankakee Sands Office. The pasture is divided into a 750-acre north unit and a 350-acre south unit.

The pasture is surrounded by a 5-foot-tall woven wire fence and a hot wire. For safety reasons, the public is not allowed to be in the pasture with the bison.

The Nature Conservancy and Bison Herds

Our Kankakee Sands bison came from the Lame Johnny herd in South Dakota, and are descendants of the Wind Cave National Park bison herd.

Our bison herd at Kankakee Sands is the twelfth herd managed by The Nature Conservancy. Currently, bison roam our Conservancy preserves in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma.

The Bison Viewing Area is the best spot at Kankakee Sands to learn more about and see the Kankakee Sands bison herd. The Viewing Area has four informational panels about bison and Kankakee Sands, and short graveled walking paths to the top of a sand top dune for good views of bison, prairies and the landscape.

The Bison Viewing Area is open from 7 a.m. to dusk (Central Time).

Enjoying the full Kankakee Sands Experience

A visit to Kankakee Sands can be self-guided and very enjoyable. There are several trails and a driving tour. Come explore!

  • Kankakee Sands Brochure: Orient yourself to this large property with hiking trails, a birding overlook, a bison viewing area and room to explore and unwind.
  • Grace Teninga Discovery Trail: 2 miles loop trail through a prairie
  • Conrad Station Savanna Trail: 1.6 mile loop trail through an oak savanna
  • Wet Prairie Trail: 1 mile loop trail through a wetland—bring your boots! Trail open only when the bison are not in the north pasture.
  • Monarch Trail: 0.1 mile out-and-back trail along a gravel walkway with informational signs about monarchs and milkweeds
  • Milkweed Trail: 0.3 mile loop trail at the Kankakee Sands Nursery with informational signs about pollinators and milkweeds
  • Driving Tour: Allow 2 hours for this comprehensive self-guided driving tour around the Kankakee Sands property.

Volunteer with Us

Volunteers play a critical role in helping us maintain our prairie. We have volunteer opportunities in a variety of shapes and sizes, for all ages and abilities. Join us in a way that suits you best.

Monthly Volunteer Workdays

Second Saturday of each month. Workdays change with the seasons and include such tasks as greenhouse work, invasive plant species removal, seed collection, seed processing. Check out our current workdays.

Weekday Workdays

Throughout the growing season, we often host weekday workdays. For more information on the weekday workdays, contact Alyssa Nyberg at anyberg@tnc.org.

Kankakee Sands Bison Ranger

Bison Rangers meet visitors at the Bison Overlook Area and talk with them about how bison are helping to manage the prairie at Kankakee Sands. Training is offered twice a year. Volunteers should be able to commit to volunteering as a Bison Ranger twice a month at minimum.

Kankakee Sands Trail Steward

Trail Stewards can select a Kankakee Sands trail to steward. Duties include removing annual and biennial weeds by hand, and reporting new invasive species to a Kankakee Sands staff member. Volunteer should be able to commit to volunteering at minimum once per month.

Kankakee Sands Photography Volunteer

Come out on your own time to photograph the splendor of Kankakee Sands. Photos should be 1 MB or larger and shared digitally via flash drive with a Kankakee Sands staff member in a timely fashion.

Kankakee Sands Administrative Assistant

For this position, we ask that volunteers commit to a regular schedule of being at the Kankakee Sands office for 2-4 hour periods to meet and greet the public, as well as do light administrative tasks, such as folding brochures or data entry into Excel spreadsheets.

Contact Alyssa Nyberg at anyberg@tnc.org with inquiries about volunteer positions.

Birds

Below is just a partial listing of the various birds found at Kankakee Sands. No matter the weather or season, birders are bound to be delighted in what they see. Bird names that are italicized indicate rare visitors.

Common Grassland Birds

American Kestrel
Bobolink
Brown-headed Cowbird
Dickcissel
Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Kingbird
Field Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Henslow's Sparrow
Horned Lark
Lark Sparrow
Mourning Dove
Northern Bobwhite
Ring-necked Pheasant
Savannah Sparrow
Upland Sandpiper
Vesper Sparrow 

Less Common Grassland Birds

American Pipit
Barn Swallow
Lark Bunting
Lincoln's Sparrow
Short-eared Owl
Smith's Longspur
Western Kingbird
Western Meadowlark

Wetland/Grassland Birds

American Woodcock
Common Yellowthroat
LeConte's Sparrow
Marsh Wren
Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Sedge Wren
Swamp Sparrow
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Wilson's Snipe

Shrubland Birds

Alder Flycatcher
American Goldfinch
American Tree Sparrow
Bell's Vireo
Blue Grosbeak
Brown Thrasher
Eastern Towhee
Fox Sparrow
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Gray Catbird
House Wren
Indigo Bunting
Loggerhead Shrike
Northern Mockingbird
Northern Cardinal
Orchard Oriole
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Song Sparrow
Tree Swallow
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Willow Flycatcher

Ducks

Blue-winged Teal
Bufflehead
Canada Goose
Common Tern
Gadwall
Greater White-fronted Goose
Green-winged Teal
Hooded Merganser
Horned Grebe
Lesser Scaup
Mallard
Mute Swan
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Redhead
Ruddy Duck
Ring-necked Duck
Wood Duck

Migrating Shorebirds

American Avocet
American Golden-Plover
Baird's Sandpiper
Black-bellied Plover
Dunlin
Greater Yellowlegs
Killdeer
Least Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Long-billed Dowitcher
Marbled Godwit
Pectoral Sandpiper
Piping Plover
Ruddy Turnstone
Sanderling
Semipalmated Plover
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Spotted Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Willet
Wilson's Phalarope

Marsh Birds

American Coot
American Bittern
Black Rail
Black-crn Night-Heron
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron
King Rail
Least Bittern
Pied-billed Grebe
Sandhill Crane
Snowy Egret
Sora
Tricolored Heron
Virginia Rail
White Ibis
White-faced Ibis
Yellow Rail

Raptors

Bald Eagle
Broad-winged Hawk
Merlin
Peregrine Falcon
Red-shouldered Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Swainson's Hawk
Northern Harrier
Osprey
Cooper's Hawk

Migrating Terns and Gulls

Black Tern
Forster's Tern
Bonaparte's Gull
Ring-billed Gull

Open Woodland Birds

American Crow
American Robin
Black-billed Cuckoo
Blue Jay
Chipping Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Northern Flicker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker
Warbling Vireo
Wild Turkey
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Migrating Woodland Birds

Black-capped Chickadee
Black-throated Green Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Cedar Waxwing
Common Grackle
Common Nighthawk
Hermit Thrush
Magnolia Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Ovenbird
Pine Siskin
Red-eyed Vireo
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Tennessee Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Winter Wren
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Other Visiting Birds

Baltimore Oriole
Bank Swallow
Barn Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Chimney Swift
House Finch
House Sparrow
Lapland Longspur
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Palm Warbler
Rock Dove
Rusty Blackbird
Snow Bunting
Tree Swallow
Turkey Vulture