5 Great Options for Late-Season Paddling Around Chicago

The Chicago River offers paddlers and up-close look at downtown architecture.
The Chicago River offers paddlers and up-close look at downtown architecture.
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The end of the summer isn’t usually associated with the best time to paddle around the Chicago area, with lower water levels the norm. But guess what? Illinois had the wettest June since the state started keeping records in 1895. Lake Michigan is rising at a record pace the last two years, with water levels now above its historical average for the first time since the ’90s. And while August has been hot and dry, we’ve had enough thunderstorms to keep the water level at most rivers navigable. So don’t put that boat away just yet. After all, the fall can be the time for some of the most memorable paddling trips. Here are five great options for paddling around Chicago to consider before the end of the season.

1. Lake Michigan

Sea kayaking on Lake Michigan offers plenty of room and great views of the city skyline.
Sea kayaking on Lake Michigan offers plenty of room and great views of the city skyline.

Sometimes you’re looking for a place to paddle and the answer is right there . As in the giant lake to the east of the city.

Of course Lake Michigan is a destination for kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders. The waves make canoeing a bit of stretch, but when the weather is calm and the water is flat it’s certainly a possibility.

If you don’t own your own sea kayak, it might make sense to start with a lake tour with some guided pros. Several outfitters around the city offer ways to explore the lake for a couple of hours with a group in their boats, while teaching the basics of sea kayaking, safety and lake rules. Kayak Chicago offers 2.5-hour lake paddles that start at North Avenue Beach, just north of downtown Chicago. The city of Evanston rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboard by the hour at the Dempster Street Beach. Group kayaking classes are also available for beginners.

Great Lakes Kayak, a kayak retailer in Lake Bluff, Ill., offers lessons, while The Northwest Passage in Wilmette, Ill., offers private and semi-private lessons for a variety of kayaking disciplines. While they offer guided kayaking trips all over the world, they also do guided sea kayaking trips in Lake Michigan (from their base at Gillson Park in Wilmette) and the Skokie Lagoons.

In Chicago, you have a few weeks left to rent kayaks at Montrose Beach and North Avenue Beach during the summer months.

2. Chicago River

The Chicago River has become a popular spot for group kayaking trips.
The Chicago River has become a popular spot for group kayaking trips. Gabe D.

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.

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. You can get a ride from Urban Kayaks, Water Riders, Kayak Chicago and Chicago River Canoe and Kayak.

While the Chicago River system includes 156 miles of waterway, the downtown section 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.

3. Skokie Lagoons

The Skokie Lagoons are an excellent spot for paddling.
The Skokie Lagoons are an excellent spot for paddling. Brad Hagan

First thing to know: the Skokie Lagoons aren’t in Skokie, Ill. The forest preserve is part of the Cook County system and is located in Winnetka, Northfield and Glencoe, well north of Skokie.

The lagoons are located on a site that was originally marshland that was called by the Potawatomi Indians “Chewbab Skokie,” or big, wet prairie. The site eventually became called Skokie Marsh by the English-speakers, even as it was partially drained to create more farmland. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps brought the flooding under control by creating the lagoons that you see today. Workers moved more than 4 million yards of earth, in what the Forest Preserve of Cook County says was the largest CCC project in the nation.

The result is seven numbered lagoons of various sizes plus dozens of channels and islands that link them all together. The forest preserve claims it features some of the best fishing in Cook County, with strong populations of walleye, northern pike, largemouth bass, catfish, crappie, bluegill and bullhead. You also may be able to spot coyote, mink, gray and red fox and lots of birds, including common loons, black-crowned night-herons, green herons and prothonotary warblers.

The forest preserve starts at Willow Road, and runs basically parallel to I-94, just east of the expressway. The Chicago Botanic Gardens marks the northern edge of the preserve, between Dundee and Lake Cook Road, and paddlers can explore the gardens from the lagoons that surround the property.

Private boats can be launched from the Tower Road Boat Launch, which is just south of Tower Road and east of I-94. Rentals are available just a bit further east on Tower Road from Chicago River Canoe and Kayak. They even offer a guided sunset dinner paddle during the summer, which features a picnic dinner on Seafisher Island and a twilight return through the lagoons.

4. Western Branch of the DuPage River

The West Branch of the DuPage River can become low in the fall, but when the water is high enough it can be a great trip.
The West Branch of the DuPage River can become low in the fall, but when the water is high enough it can be a great trip. Jeff Banowetz

At most points, the DuPage River isn’t much more than a large stream, and often during the summer the water level can make it difficult to navigate sections, even in a kayak. But when the water level is high enough—and it is during much of the year—the river offers a natural setting that may surprise you in the suburbs.

The DuPage River flows from north to south, running through DuPage and Will counties before reaching the Des Plaines River in Channahon, Illinois. The East Branch of the river is channelized and used more for drainage than recreation, but the West Branch has been incorporated into the forest preserve system, with several put-in locations that allow for an easy trip.

The West Branch of the DuPage River is probably known best as the centerpiece of Naperville’s Riverwalk, which encompasses both banks of the river as it flows through downtown Naperville. The Riverwalk is indeed a beautiful urban park, featuring a covered bridge, public art, fountains, paved pathways and Centennial Beach, the former quarry turned into an impressive swimming facility. It’s the perfect place to walk off a meal from one of Naperville’s restaurants. But it’s not the easiest place to access, unless you want to paddle upstream from Pioneer Park, about two miles south of downtown Naperville.

5. Salt Creek

Salt Creek is an accessible paddling destination that's great for families and close to the city.
Salt Creek is an accessible paddling destination that's great for families and close to the city. Clark Maxwell

Salt Creek can be divided into three sections that run through northeastern Illinois, starting at Busse Lake in Elk Grove Village. Each section has it’s own unique attributes, but the final leg from I-294 until the creek reaches the Des Plaines River in Riverside is the best section to paddle, offering more than nine miles of river nearly completely surrounded by forest preserves.

This section of the creek is accessed at the nature sanctuary on the south side of Canterbury Lane just east of York Road. From there you will go underneath I-294 and enter the Bemis Woods Forest Preserve. This is the nicest and most accessible section of the creek.

The 480-acre Bemis Woods Forest Preserve is situated on either side of Salt Creek, creating a north and south side of the park. Both sides feature amenities for picnicking, and there is a one mile unpaved path for hiking or running. Large shelters can be rented for groups, and there’s a canoe/kayak launch for those interested in taking out or putting in there.

After Bemis Woods, you’ll hit Salt Creek Woods, and have to do a portage around the Possum Hollow Dam just north of 31st Street. From there you’ll enter Possum Hollow Woods, West Chester Woods and Twentysix Street Woods. You’ll pass through the west side of Brookfield Zoo, but there is no access to the zoo from the water.

You can take out at the Brookfield Village Hall Canoe Landing, or continue south to the Plank Meadow Road Boat Ramp. But you must exit there. Beyond that you reach the Hoffman Dam, which is illegal to portage. See the map of this section here.

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