Tell some older folks that you’re paddling in the Chicago River and you may get a few odd looks. And yes, there was a time not too long ago that the Chicago River had a level of pollution that would make you think twice about getting close to the water. They did, after all, reverse the flow of the river to keep pollution from getting into the drinking water supply of Lake Michigan.
What Makes It Great
But that was more than a hundred years ago. And with the help of organizations like Friends of the Chicago River, the river has become much cleaner and an enjoyable spot for recreation. And a popular one. Several outfitters now take groups out in canoes and kayaks to explore downtown Chicago.
While the Chicago River system includes 156 miles of waterway, we’re going to focus on the downtown section, which is unlike any other trip in the country. It’s one of the best ways to explore Chicago’s architecture and get a view of the city unlike any other.
Just a few caveats to start: The Chicago River is a busy, urban waterway, with heavy boat traffic. It’s by no means a difficult route—you’ll have no trouble paddling back and fourth to the same drop-in point in most weather conditions—but you should be comfortable navigating the boat and be able to stay balanced when faced with small wakes. (Powerboats must maintain a low speed, but the larger boats still churn up the water.)
Urban Paddle: This 7-mile trip starts at the Weed Street access point, which is the closest put-in on the North Branch of the Chicago River to downtown Chicago. It’s located just south of North Avenue where Weed Street runs into the river on its east side. When water levels are low, this spot can be unusable, so check on conditions before you make the trek to the Old Town neighborhood. (Check here for more info.) If you can’t put-in at Weed Street, you can head further north to Clark Park, which is just south of Addison Street at 3400 Rockwell Street, on the east side of the river. That will add about three miles to the trip.
When you launch at Weed Street, you’re actually in the North Branch Channel, the east side of the river that goes around Goose Island. The channel will converge with the river just north of Chicago Avenue.
Continue south and you’ll reach the familiar “Y” that forms when the Chicago River separates into the north and south branches at Wolf Point, which is now the site of the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. You can do some exploring by taking the river east to see some of the city’s most impressive buildings along the river, including the Merchandise Mart, Marina City, the Trump Tower, the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower, just to name a few.
One you continue back to the south branch, you’ll continue along the urban canyon, seeing the Civic Opera House, Willis Tower and the old Chicago Post Office. About three miles south, you’ll reach the south fork of the south branch, also known as “Bubbly Creek.” Stay to the right to remain on the south branch of the river. The takeout is on the left side of the river just past the Western Avenue Bridge. See the full map here.
Also, Friends of the Chicago River also offers an excellent interactive map with all that the river has to offer here.
Who is Going to Love It
Intermediate paddlers will have no problem, and beginning paddlers can certainly do the trip with a little guidance.
This Weed Street Urban paddle starts at the Weed Street access point, which is the closest put-in on the North Branch of the Chicago River to downtown Chicago. It’s located just south of North Avenue where Weed Street runs into the river on its east side.