With 22 forest preserves, hundreds of miles of waterways, and 68,000 acres of natural open space, Chicago offers some unexpectedly diverse—and awesome—paddling experiences. Not only does seeing the Windy City from the water offer an entirely new perspective, but you also won’t have to deal with noisy traffic or fight your way through crowds of tourists at The Bean.
Instead, the only thing you’ll have to worry about is choosing which unique Chicago kayaking spot fits your desired adventure. Drift down peaceful rivers through both urban and natural landscapes, get up-close and personal with the abundance of wildlife that inhabit local waterways and their banks, and get a new appreciation for the outdoorsy side of the city.
Here are six spectacular trips along the Chicagoland-area waterways (and where to rent a kayak or canoe if you’re without your own). And for more inspiration, check out the online paddling guide recently launched by local water and land conservation organization Openlands Chicago. This handy resource covers more than 500 miles of water trails across 10 waterlands in northeastern Illinois, laying out the how-tos and best tips for seeing Chicago by water.
1. The Chicago River
Experienced paddlers can experience the heart of downtown by navigating the veins of the city on the Chicago River—drifting in and out of the shadows, beneath towering buildings, and under steel drawbridges in what’s known as “Skyscraper Canyon.” Overhead, apartments, offices, and historical museums stand tall, while yellow water taxis speed around tour boats and private yachts. It might not be the most relaxing paddle, but there’s really no city tour quite like this one.
Begin your trip south of The Loop at Ping Tom Park in Chinatown, where you can rent your gear from Urban Kayaks and paddle north two miles into town. Or, from the North Branch Turning Basin in Lincoln Park, rent at Kayak Chicago and paddle south 2.5 miles. Navigate around the east side of Goose Island to explore “The Wild Mile:” a greenway and eco-park boasting floating wetland vegetation that reclaims the steel-walled waterway.
This trip is rated for expert paddlers who have excellent control, bracing, and balancing skills (be sure to stay close to the edge of the river, keeping clear of moving boats). It’s not suited for beginners due to high commercial water traffic through this area.
2. Clark Park Boathouse
In 2016, Chicago celebrated the opening of its fourth boathouse in a citywide effort to reclaim and re-establish the Chicago River park system and water-based recreation. The boathouses—River, Clark WMS, Ping Tom, and Park No. 571—provide Chicagoans with access to paddling and recreation at all corners of the city.
One of the most popular stretches of waterway, this route between River Park and Clark Park, offers a quiet escape against the background of the city’s hustle and bustle. Rent single or tandem kayaks at the Clark Park Boathouse and paddle two miles north, passing Horner and Ronan Parks along the way. The abundance of deciduous conifers along the banks makes for a beautiful fall trip. In the spring and summer months, soak up the sense of seclusion beneath the river’s canopy.
3. DuPage River—McDowell Grove to Knoch Knolls Park
More seasoned paddlers can opt for an 8-miler (one way) along the DuPage River, from McDowell Grove Forest Preserve to Knoch Knolls Park. The river cuts through mature woodlands full of butternuts and black maples at the start of the trip. Heads up: One mile in, you’ll hit Fawell Dam which requires a portage (make sure to portage right if you’re heading south). Paddlers should expect some riffles along sections of this water trail. But during the driest times of the year, rocky shallows can cause you to bottom out, so be sure to check rain forecasts before planning your trip.
About halfway, you’ll reach the quaint Chicago suburb of Naperville, where you can pull off at the riverwalk to explore downtown and grab some local eats. To start at McDowell you’ll need your own boat, or, you can reverse the route and rent at Naperville Kayak and paddle upstream to the forest preserve.
4. Independence Grove to Route 60
For even more adventure, add in a set of wheels with a bike-and-paddle exploration. Independence Grove Forest Preserve in Libertyville, 45 minutes north of downtown Chicago, offers the best of both worlds. The Des Plaines River Trail, a 60-mile part-paved, part-gravel bike path, hugs this section of the Des Plaines River. Make a land-to-river loop by parking your bike at the take-out area at Route 60 (Townline Road). Next, return to park your car at Independence Grove Canoe Launch and start your paddle back to your bikes (seven miles one way). Once you’ve arrived, double back the same distance on two wheels to complete the loop. Remember to bring along a cable lock so you can temporarily secure your paddles and kayak while you bike back to your starting point.
5. Skokie Lagoons
The Skokie Lagoons, a chain of inner islands just 30 minutes north of the city, offer the opportunity for creative paddlers craft their own route around the bends of this 894-acre wooded preserve. The lagoons were hand-dug by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1933 and 1942 and quickly became home to local wildflowers, plants, and hundreds of species of native birds. Nowadays, they’ve become a popular, yet still peaceful, paddling destination.
Paddlers can rent at the Chicago River Canoe and Kayak at the lagoons and drift around bends of the wooded preserve. And every year on Father’s Day weekend, the Chicago Botanical Gardens (four miles north of the launch site) open a unique experience for canoes to enter the grounds that are otherwise closed off to paddlers.
6. Nippersink Creek
Nippersink Creek is worth the hour drive from downtown, its wide-open spaces beckoning as a serene escape from the noise and excitement of the city. The 23-mile-long creek branching off the Fox River runs through a 138-square-mile watershed and is accessible for all paddling abilities. Pick from five various launch sites (Keystone Landing, Glacial Park North, Pioneer Road, Lyle Thomas Park, and Canoe Base Rt. 12) and experience iconic Illinois landscapes like peaceful prairie grasslands and majestic oak savannahs as you wind through the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. Keep an eye out for native species that inhabit this area, including bald eagles and the endangered Blanding’s turtles.
Written by Erica Zazo for RootsRated Media in partnership with RootsRated.