The seat of Vermilion County, next to the Illinois–Indiana state line, is a city that was powered by the coal industry for a century until WWII.
In the mid-19th century Danville was where Abraham Lincoln rode the 8th Judicial Circuit, and historical sites and markers relating to Lincoln are strewn around the city.
By the 1970s huge chunks of former mining land west and northwest of Danville were purchased to build a giant reservoir on the Vermilion River.
This project never went ahead, and instead the land was turned into county parks and recreation areas, primed for hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, boating, paddling and tubing.
1. Gateway to Lincoln
Between 1841 and 1859, Abraham Lincoln spent 18 years practicing law on the 8th Judicial Circuit in Danville.
The city has numerous sites connected to arguably the nation’s most celebrated president, and is an official gateway city to the National Park Service’s Looking for Lincoln National Heritage Area.
You’ll come across interpretive boards around Danville marking spots like the McCormack House where Lincoln wrote the Cooper Speech that helped him earn the presidential nomination, or the former county court where he was involved in more than 200 legal procedures.
2. Downtown Danville
With numerous preserved and restored historic buildings, Danville’s downtown area is a regional center for small businesses.
There’s a lively arts scene here, underpinned by thriving venues like the Fischer Theatre and the Kathryn Randolph Theater, and several live music venues and bars.
Mostly concentrated along southern Vermilion Street and its intersections, downtown Danville is convenient for pedestrians and has a broad range of stores, for antiques, furniture, interior design, jewelry, beauty supplies, shoes, homewares and cosmetics.
Food-wise you’ll also be in good hands, and there are pocket parks and plazas here and there for picnics on warm days. One of these, Temple Plaza, hosts an outdoor concert series on summer evenings.
3. Kickapoo State Recreation Area
Threaded by the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River there’s a wonderland for outdoor recreation little more than ten minutes out of Danville.
Almost 3,000 acres of hardwood forest, river and lakes, the Kickapoo State Recreation Area was established in 1939 on land known to have been inhabited by the Native American Kickapoo people until around the 16th century.
In the century before the park was founded this was the site of strip coal mines, and the pits and spoil piles have since become forested hills and lakes open to boating and paddle sports.
There are 2 campgrounds with a combined 184 sites, 22 water bodies for fishing, 12 launching ramps on nine lakes for boating, 7 marked hiking trails and 11 mountain biking routes.
4. Kickapoo Adventures
Equipment is never a problem at the Kickapoo State Recreation Area, as you can rent bikes, tubes and a range of paddle watercraft from this recreation center around 15 minutes from downtown Danville.
Much of these activities are available in summer, when Kickapoo Adventures offers shuttles to the Middle Fork Vermilion River for tubing trips past shale bluffs and dense river forest.
Rent a canoe or kayak to paddle in the area’s lakes, or join a guided trip along various sections of the Vermilion River.
And on land you’re free to navigate the area’s scenic hardwood forest on two wheels, renting a mountain bike or comfort bike for anything from two hours to a whole day.
5. Vermilion County Museum
Opened in 2002, the main building for the Vermilion County Museum in Danville is an accurate reproduction of the courthouse in which Lincoln practiced law for almost two decades up to 1859.
There are two floors of exhibits to explore inside, including a replica of the Lincoln/Lamon law office, a mine shaft, schoolhouse and a wealth of Lincoln memorabilia. On the same campus is the historic Fithian House, which we’ll talk about in the next entry.
The museum also cares for some other properties around Danville, chiefly the Lamon House in Lincoln Park.
Open to visitors on select Sundays in summer, this Greek Revival cottage was built in 1850 by the cousin of Lincoln’s law partner and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.
6. Fithian House
A little more on that historic house on the Vermilion County Museum campus. The Fithian House is an elegant Italianate residence constructed in 1855 for the surgeon, politician and Lincoln supporter, William Fithian (1799-1890).
Fithian campaigned for Lincoln in 1860, and earlier in 1858, the future president gave a speech from the south balcony during his senatorial campaign. You can visit that balcony, as well as the bedroom that Lincoln stayed in numerous times.
The Joseph G. Cannon Room contains a wealth of personal items belonging to the eponymous politician, remembered for his stint as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1903 to 1911.
7. Kennekuk County Park
Directly west of Danville is 3,000 acres of oak-hickory woodland and prairie earmarked for the defunct Middle Fork Reservoir project in the 1970s.
This gorgeous landscape contains three Illinois Nature Preserves and can be explored on foot or by bike via a 15-mile trail system.
Within the park’s boundaries is the 170-acre Lake Mingo, the largest of seven lakes for fishing, and open to motorboats with a 9.5 HP limit.
Be sure to stop by the park’s visitor center, which has a compelling natural history museum, a 1,000-gallon aquarium and an interesting exhibit about the area’s Native American heritage.
8. Vermilion County War Museum
A monument to behold in downtown Danville is this Beaux-Arts former public library. A Carnegie library, the palatial building was completed in 1904 and served as the public library until 1995 when a new home was completed just to the north.
Today the occupant is the Vermilion County War Museum, which holds a sizable collection of more than 25,000 objects, from the Revolutionary War through current military engagements.
There are permanent exhibits for D-Day, Trench Art, the Cold War, PoWs, Medal of Honor recipients, the Merchant Marines and Women in the Military.
Among the artifacts on show are uniforms, field kits, diaries, electronic equipment, flags, medals, documents, photographs, weapons and much more.
9. Fischer Theatre
Another head-turning landmark downtown is this theater, which opened in 1884 as the Grand Opera House and has an impressive marquee.
The Fischer Theatre has witnessed plenty of change since then, taking on its current name in 1913 and later adapted for movies in 1929.
The theatre closed in 1982, remaining empty some time and slated for demolition in 1997, before the Vermilion Heritage Foundation took over and restored this sumptuous building.
The interior is exquisite, particularly the mouldings on the proscenium arch, and the acoustics are exceptional.
Come for a rich variety of musicals, live music, classic movies and workshops. Next to the lobby, the Stage Presents Gift Shop sells pieces by local artists and artisans, as well as gifts and souvenirs relating to the theater’s programming.
10. Lake Vermilion County Park
There’s a 1,000-acre reservoir along the Vermilion River, on Danville’s northwestern margins. You can access this beautiful body of water from the west shore at the seven-acre Lake Vermilion County Park, which has two docks, a boat ramp, picnic shelter, children’s playground and concession stand.
The lake is a major fishing destination, regularly stocked, and containing bluegill, carp, channel catfish, largemouth bass, muski, walleye, white crappie, white bass, yellow bass and yellow bullhead.
No surprise then that Lake Vermilion hosts several important fishing tournaments in the spring and summer. The lake is designated “high use” on summer weekends, when powerboating, jet-skiing and waterskiing are permitted.
The north end is a protected, “no-wake” area serving as a vital heron rookery, nesting site for eagles and river otter habitat.
11. Heron County Park
At 950 feet, the floating boardwalk in an important wetland site at the north end of Lake Vermilion is the second-longest in Illinois.
You’ll be able to make your way through the Kennekuk Marshes Wetland, a habitat for an extraordinary wealth of birdlife, from songbirds to migratory waterbirds.
Among the many species visible here at various times of the year are kingfishers, Canada geese, mallards, sandhill cranes, green herons, bald eagles and American egrets. Take a moment to survey the entire park from the wooden observation tower, standing 30 feet tall.
12. Harrison Park Golf Course
On the North Fork of the Vermilion River, the Harrison Park Golf Course dates back to 1929. That year, Mr and Mrs. John Higgins Harrison, part owner and editor of the local Commercial News, donated the former Danville Country Club to the city in memory of John’s mother.
Backdropped by picturesque wooded hills, the course is an 18-hole par 72 that walks the line between challenging and relaxing.
Get back into the swing of things at the driving range, and there are putting and chipping areas if you need to polish up your short game.
13. Winter Park & AMBUCS Playground for Everyone
Within ten minutes of downtown Danville is a neighborhood park with a special feature that will appeal to families with younger children.
This is a remarkable 10,000-square-foot playground expertly designed to be fully accessible to children of all abilities.
As well as modified traditional equipment there’s a sand play area, musical features, interactive stations and a splash pad. On the east side, Winter Park also has facilities for soccer, baseball/softball and volleyball.
14. Danville Farmers’ Market
The parking lot at 3613 N Vermilion St hosts Danville’s farmers’ market, every Saturday morning, mid-May through late October, rain or shine.
The organizers constantly update their Facebook page, informing shoppers about new vendors, as well the fruit and vegetables coming into season. There are 20+ vendors each week, all of whom are local, small scale producers.
The lineup changes by the week, but as well as farm fresh fruit and vegetables you’ll normally find fresh bread, meat, poultry, eggs, herbs, homemade candy, flowers, candles, soaps and handmade gifts.
15. Balloons over Vermilion
The Vermilion Regional Airport to the northeast of Danville is the location for the city’s premier annual event. Balloons over Vermilion is a fairly recent creation, having only begun in 2016, but attracts big crowds across two days in July and has a program brimming with activities.
There’s a carnival, live music throughout both days, a kids’ zone, a parade for the pilots, plane flyovers, tethered balloon rides and much more going on.
Of course the main event on both days is the balloon launch, which takes place in the early evening, so you can see them glowing overhead at dusk.