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Canoeing And Kayaking In Illinois

Mark Armstrong
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With plenty of rivers and lakes, including one of the Great Lakes, Illinois can offer countless paddling opportunities, no matter what your experience level is. Whether you’re looking for a river expedition or a lake adventure you should be able to find a great spot in the Prairie State.

But to help point you in the right direction for some of the better spots, we’ve put together this guide to some of our favorite places to go canoeing in Illinois.

Why Go Paddling In Illinois?

Illinois is home to tens of thousands of miles of rivers and streams, not to mention it has a shoreline with Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes. The rivers have also played a significant role in American cultural history, being the main routes for explorers, pioneers and traders.

When Illinois was first documented back in the 17th century, it was because of the rivers that provided a passage to explorers who were traveling by canoe. Now, through canoeing in Illinois, you can have the opportunity of paddling along the same rivers and maybe imagine yourself as an early explorer.

As well as history and heritage, there is also beauty and wildlife to be found. There are several water trails, including two National Water Trails and there’s also a designated National Wild and Scenic River. So there should be no shortage of exciting places to canoe.

Places To Go Canoeing (and Kayaking) In Illinois

Rock River

The Rock River is part of the National Water Trails system, with the Rock River Trail letting you paddle along 330 miles of river for an exciting and scenic paddling adventure.

The Rock River actually begins in Wisconsin and flows to the Mississippi River in Illinois. There are 155 access points to the river, with the first one in Illinois being in South Beloite, which means you can paddle as much or as little of the trail as you like.

The Rock River Trail also offers hiking and biking routes as well as access to campgrounds in the various counties along the route.

Middle Fork of the Vermilion River

Canoeing and kayaking at Middle ForkPin
Courtesy: Eco-Justice Collaborative on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

There are 17 miles of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River that have been designated a National Wild and Scenic River. From just east of Collison to just north of Highway 150. This means it can be a good opportunity for spotting wildlife and for generally enjoying a relaxing paddle through natural scenery.

There are several canoe access points along the Vermilion River, as well as canoe access within the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife area and Kickapoo State Park. Kickapoo also has canoe access for lake paddling.

Kickapoo State Park and the Middle Fork Fish and Wildlife area both have campgrounds but note that camping is only permitted in designated campgrounds. You can, however, stop on sandbars for a rest or picnic while you’re out paddling.

Kishwaukee River

The Kishwaukee River offers a 63 mile water trail through natural landscapes where you could see various species of wildlife and numerous species of trees and plants. There are several launch sites for canoes along the trail, with the first one being on the Boone McHenry County Line Road.

With plenty of put-ins and take-outs, it can be a good place for a range of skill levels, even beginners. There are also several parks and nature preserves along the route where you can take a rest or stop for a picnic.

The Kishwaukee River also flows into the Rock River, where you could continue paddling along the Rock River Water Trail.

Mississippi River

Fever River - Kayaking Mississippi RiverPin
Courtesy: Richie Diesterheft on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Mighty Mississippi is one of the longest rivers in the US and one of the world’s largest river systems. Not only does it have historical and cultural significance but it can be a fantastic place for a canoeing trip.

There are plenty of places along the Mississippi River where you can launch your canoe, and there are several parks along the way where you can stop for picnics, hiking, or an overnight stay.

Mississippi Palisades State Park can be a good place to camp, hike and launch or take out your canoe. It’s also great for discovering Native American history. Much of the Mississippi in these areas is calm because of the various pools that are formed, which could make it easier for beginners to paddle.

Cache River

The Cache River State Natural Area is an area filled with swamps, forests and trails. There is a dedicated canoe trail that lets you paddle through this exciting wilderness, including past large and ancient cypress trees.

Video: Canoeing Cache River, Southern Illinois

Because the area is known for its swamps and bayous, the water tends to be calm and easy to paddle. If you’re looking to explore the area, there are a number of campgrounds close to the Cache River, including in the nearby Shawnee National Forest.

Kayaking in Chicago

What About Canoe Trips?

There are a number of outfitters that offer canoe trips on the rivers in Illinois. This can make it easier for you to navigate the rivers and can give you the chance to have a paddling adventure even if you don’t have your own boat.

Rock River (again)

The White Pelican outfitters has a range of trips on the Rock River, including day trips and overnight trips where your canoe and life vest is provided, as well as a shuttle to bring you back afterwards.

You also have the option of arranging a multi-day trip if you’re looking for a longer adventure.

> Guide to touring kayaks

Kankakee River

Reed’s Canoe Trips can offer you three different canoe trips on the Kankakee River and can provide transportation to and from the river, as well as your necessary paddling equipment.

With calm waters, a trip on the Kankakee River can be ideal for beginners and can be a good choice for a family day out.

Illinois River

Kayak or canoe illinois river ChicagoPin
Courtesy: OakleyOriginals on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Illinois River can provide an exciting canoe trip, no matter how long you want to spend on the water. There are canoe launches at Starved Rock State Park where you’ll also find a campground.

If you’re looking for a multi-day canoeing adventure, other campgrounds can be found along the Illinois River, including at Marshall State Wildlife Area, where you can camp on some of the islands within the area.

Wrapping Up

As you can see, Illinois can be a great place for canoeing. Whether you’re looking for history, culture, nature or simply for an enjoyable paddle, there should be the ideal spot for you to canoe in Illinois.

There are plenty of paddling spots if you have your own boat, as well as several places that can offer you rentals. Remember to plan ahead and consider the seasonal weather before you head out. Make sure you read up on the Illinois kayak laws too!

If your favorite canoeing spot in Illinois is not in our guide, leave us a comment to let us know. And remember to share this with your fellow paddlers to inspire new paddling adventures.

Canoeing In Illinois - Pinterest ImagePin

4 thoughts on “Canoeing And Kayaking In Illinois”

  1. Great guide! As an avid Illinois kayaker in the Lasalle county area, I would definitely recommend the Lower Vermillion river if you are looking for more thrills. I would not recommend this though, for inexperienced or timid paddlers when the water is high enough. Best place to put in is in Lowell, then float through the rapids down to Oglesby. You could also start in Streator Illinois.

    Another area I would highly recommend is the Fox River from Yorkville to Ottawa. The route from Sheridan to Wedron is the best place for a relaxing canoe day trip! Ayers Landing canoe and kayak rentals in Wedron has great camping space and also offers drop off for a nominal fee.

  2. I kayak the Illinois river all summer with friends and it has some amazing islands, backwaters areas and also some cool huge rock bluffs. I usually launch from allen park in Ottawa, but if going with friends that dont have kayaks i launch from Kayak starved rock campground as they have kayak rentals right on the river across from starved rock. There is also a cool Lotus flower field to paddle thru near the launch

  3. Is there a Kayak or Canoe in the southwest or west suburbs such as Lisle, Woodridge, Naperville?
    Thank You


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