Looking for flatwater paddling around Chicago? No problem. We are, after all, located on one of the largest lakes in the world. Throw in the Chicago River, Des Plaines River, Fox River…well you get the pictures. You have plenty of places to drop in a canoe or kayak and explore.
But you may be surprised to find out that there are whitewater rafting outfitters in the Midwest—and that this is the prime season for it. While the Rocky and Smoky Mountains may have the reputation for thrilling whitewater adventure, you can hop in your car, find some thrills—and even be home for dinner. The closest destination is just a two-hour drive from Chicago. Or make a weekend out of it at several options in Wisconsin on rivers that offer Class III and IV rapids.
Vermillion River Rafting, Illinois
The Vermillion is one of the rare rivers that runs south to north. Starting at the border of Ford and Livingston counties northeast of Bloomington, the Vermillion becomes navigable around Potomac and picks up steam after the dam in Streator, Ill. It eventually goes through the Matthiessen State Park before emptying into the Illinois River.
The Vermillion River Rafting outfitters offers trips every day of the week from 9 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. starting on May 1 and usually going until July, or whenever the river becomes too low. These trips aren’t guided, but Vermillion River Rafting will give you everything you need for the trip, including equipment, instruction and transportation to the drop-in point about eight and half miles upriver from its location in Oglesby, Ill.
“You’ll find mostly Class I and II (rapids),” said Ruth Kreiser, one of the organizers of the trips. When the water is high you will get some Class III rapids, but in general this is considered a good beginner trip. The area along the Vermillion offers you plenty of seclusion—there are no manmade structures along the banks of the Vermillion from the drop-in point to the Lone Star Cement Plant close to the take-out. And you'll go through 14 sets of rapids on the ride.
Four- or six-man rafts are available, and the cost is $30 per adult and $25 for children 16 and under. Call ahead (815-667-5242) for reservations or to find out water conditions. After the trip, you can hike or camp in either Matthiessen State Park or nearby Starved Rock State Park.
Wildman Adventure Resort, Wisconsin
The Wildman Adventure Resort offers two locations in Wisconsin near the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that provide an easy, family-friendly way to take on whitewater rafting. The resort offers two locations near the Peshtigo and Menominee Rivers, which features some of the best whitewater rafting in the Midwest. You’ll be able to find lodging there—camping as well as cabins—in addition to other sports like rock climbing, ropes courses and paintball.
The rapids in the Menominee are up to Class IV, and the guided rafts carry 8-10 people. One benefit of the Menominee is that the dam-released river continues to run whitewater well through the summer. The Peshtigo runs better in the spring, usually with 4-5 person rafts with a guide. Rates range from $40-$49 per adult, depending on the day and season.
Shotgun Eddy Rafting, Wisconsin
With trips on the Wolf River in northern White Lake, Wis., Shotgun Eddy’s provides both “mild and wild” rafting trips. For those looking for the biggest rush the Smoky Falls trip features Class III and IV rapids, amazing scenery and the option of 4.5- or 6-hour trips. Rates are $30 to $40 per person.
Thorton’s Whitewater Rafting Resort, Wisconsin
For nearly 30 years, Thornton’s has been offering whitewater rafting trips on the Peshtigo and Menominee Rivers, in addition to leisurely scenic paddles. Trips with Class II to IV rapids are available through the summer with guides. The resort’s campgrounds make for an easy way to create a memorable weekend trip, and the 1,300-acre Caldron Lake onsite offers whitewater-free swimming, fishing and boating.
In the spring, trips are run on the Peshtigo at 12:30 p.m. during the week, 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday and 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Sundays, at a cost of $41-$47 dollars per person. Trips on the Menominee are run daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at $42-$46 per person.
Kosir’s Rapid Rafts, Wisconsin
Kosir’s was the first professional whitewater outfitter in Wisconsin, and has been offering guided trips on the Menomonee River since 1975. With their own wooded campground just steps away from their take-out point in Silver Cliff, Wis., Kosir’s is an easy option for those looking for a weekend camping trip with a whitewater adventure.
Kosir's spring trips on the Peshtigo run in April and May and cost $50 per person.In the summer, the cost drops to $30 per person for basically the same trip—just without the high spring water levels.