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Kayaking Chicago – The 15 BEST Spots In and Near the Windy City!

Mark Armstrong
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Being on the shores of one of the Great Lakes, there’s no shortage of space to paddle in the home of the deep-dish pizza.

The Windy City also has plenty of rivers miles and lakes to explore, whether you’re looking for the tranquility of nature or a bustling cityscape.

Only a hop, skip, and a paddle away from Chicago, a world of aquatic adventure awaits. Uncover the magic of kayaking in the beautiful waterscapes in and near this amazing city.

15 Best Places To Kayak In And Around Chicago

1: Chicago River

Chicago River KayakingPin
Courtesy: David Wilson on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

One of the best places to head to if you want to paddle through the heart of the city, with shiny skyscrapers towering on either side, is the Loop. This can be a busy waterway, filled with commercial vessels, water taxis, and tour boats, so it’s recommended that you have a high level of paddling skills and experience.

Because of the increased traffic, this is generally not ideal for beginners.

A good spot to launch is at Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown where you can rent kayaks and paddle two miles north through downtown. There’s also kayak rental near the Chicago River Walk, just north of Millenium Park.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I/II – easy, slow-moving river

Where to launch & how to get there:

Ping Tom Boathouse, 300 W 19th Street, Chicago, IL 60616

2: Busse Woods

Located just a short drive west of O’Hare Airport, Busse Woods can be a great spot to spend the day surrounded by woodlands and wildlife. The 457-acre lake features calm water that can be ideal for beginners and families. It can also be good for fishing, with largemouth bass, walleye, and Northern pike being popular catches.

You can launch your kayak at the Busse Lake Boating Center, where you can also rent kayaks if you don’t have your own.

Class of rapids rating:

N/A – flatwater lake, easy

Where to launch & how to get there:

Busse Lake Boat Ramp, 3000 Busse Woods, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007

3: Independence Grove

Around 40 miles north of downtown, Independence Grove features a 115-acre lake that can be an ideal spot for a relaxing paddle whether you’re a beginner or just looking to enjoy nature.

You can rent kayaks from the marina or you can launch your own kayak or canoe using the boat launch. As well as exploring the lake, there’s also access from Independence Grove to the Des Plaines River if you’re looking for a river paddling trail.

Class of rapids rating:

N/A – flatwater lake, easy

Where to launch & how to get there:

Independence Grove Boathouse, Libertyville, IL 60048

4: Des Plaines River

Des Plaines River KayakingPin
Courtesy: Brian Plunkett on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Des Plaines River stretches 133 miles from Wisconsin through Illinois until it meets the Kankakee River and becomes the Illinois River. There are plenty of paddling miles if you’re looking for an extended trip. But you can also paddle the river for shorter sections.

A good spot to launch is at the canoe launch opposite the North Bay Pavilion in Independence Grove Forest Preserve. There’s a take-out just over two and a half miles downstream at Oak Spring Road.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I/II – easy to moderate depending on the water levels

Where to launch & how to get there:

16400 W Buckley Road, Libertyville, IL 60048

5: Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan is one of the Great Lakes and if you’re looking for great views of the Chicago skyline then this could be the perfect place. There are plenty of beaches and places to launch within easy reach of downtown. One good spot to launch into the lake is North Avenue Beach in Lincoln Park. However, the beach can get pretty busy during the summer.

You can paddle south along the shoreline and see the city from a new perspective. Remember, the lake can get quite choppy, especially when it’s windy, and there is often other boat traffic, which may make it less relaxing if you’re a beginner.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I/II – easy to moderate, coastal conditions

Where to launch & how to get there:

1603 N Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60611

6: North Branch Chicago River

North Branch Chicago River KayakingPin
Courtesy: Raed Mansour on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The North Branch of the Chicago River can be a peaceful place to paddle without leaving the city. There are several places where you can launch and rent kayaks along the banks.

A good spot to launch your kayak is at River Park and it’s just a two-mile paddle downstream (through mostly natural surroundings) to the next take-out at Clark Park or you can turn around and paddle back.

This can be an easy trip and ideal for new paddlers. You can also rent kayaks at Clark Park and paddle south to Goose Island, which is roughly three and a half miles downstream.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I/II – easy, generally slow-moving water

Where to launch & how to get there:

River Park Kayak Launch, Chicago, IL 60625

7: Tampier Lake

Tampier Lake can feel like a world away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Chicago and can be a great place for a relaxing paddle. Located within the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Tampier Lake features calm flatwater and can be ideal for all skill levels. It can also be a good spot for fishing and bird watching.

There is a boat launch at the Tampier Lake Boating Center, where you can also rent kayaks and purchase fishing supplies.

Class of rapids rating:

N/A – easy, flatwater lake

Where to launch & how to get there:

131st Street, Orland Park, IL 60467

8: Fox River

The Fox River can offer peace and relaxation (and good fishing) only an hour’s drive west of downtown Chicago.

This is a picturesque spot to kayak where you can paddle alongside cliffs, bluffs and dells, with forests and shallow banks that are ideal for picnic stops.

From the launch at Shuh Shuh Gah you can paddle around 19 miles to the takeout at Ayers Landing. But there are other takeouts and places to camp along the way.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I/II – easy, shallow, slow-moving river

Where to launch & how to get there:

Shuh Shuh Gah Canoe Launch, 7400 Valley Drive, Newark, IL 60541

9: Kankakee River

About an hour’s drive south of Chicago, you’ll find the Kankakee River. This 133-mile river begins its journey in Indiana before flowing through Illinois and joining the Illinois River.

Launching near the bridge at the stateline, you can paddle through ancient wetlands on a National Water Trail that naturally winds its way through wildlife preserves, small towns, and historic sites. There are also campgrounds and landing sites along the way.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I – easy, mostly slow-moving river

Where to launch & how to get there:

County Road East 1800 N, Momence, IL 60954

10: Indiana Dunes National Park

Less than an hour from Chicago, and easily accessible by public transportation, is Indiana Dunes National Park. The park lies on the shores of Lake Michigan, so you can access the lake if you want to do a little sea kayaking.

If you’d prefer a more relaxed paddling adventure, head to the Little Calumet River Trail. This is ideal for kayaks and canoes and can be a great place for shorter trips and families, with several places to take-out and camp.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I/II – easy, calm river

Where to launch & how to get there:

Walner Nature Preserve, W Taylor Street, Chesterton, IN 46304

11: Chain O’ Lakes State Park

Chain O’ Lakes State Park can be the perfect place to kayak if you want the potential to cover a lot of water. There is access to several lakes, with 6,500 acres of water to explore, just an hour’s drive north of Chicago.

The launch at Maple Grove gives you access to Grass Lake, but you can also paddle north to Lake Marie or south to Nippersink Lake, Fox Lake, and Pistakee Lake, giving you several days of exploration.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I – easy, slow-moving river and flatwater lakes

Where to launch & how to get there:

8916 Wilmot Road, Spring Grove, IL 60081

12: Tippecanoe River

Less than two hours from downtown Chicago, the Tippecanoe River is a peaceful, scenic river that flows through natural landscapes in neighboring Indiana. It can be a great day out to get away from the city and enjoy the sound of birdsong.

The wooded banks provide habitats for various wildlife, including otters, hawks, and great blue herons.

This can be a popular place for tubers during the summer months, so it can be busy, especially on weekends.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I/II – easy, lazy river

Where to launch & how to get there:

River Tent Camp Boat Ramp, Unnamed Road, Winamac, IN 46996

13: Starved Rock State Park

Starved Rock State Park is one of the best places to kayak in Illinois. And it’s conveniently located around two hours west of Chicago.

The park sits alongside the Illinois River and features huge St. Peter Sandstone bluffs and deep canyons carved by glacial meltwater. You can paddle alongside these beautiful rock formations.

Keep a lookout for bald eagles gliding above you.

The area is filled with wildlife and a rich abundance of trees, including red and white oak, cedar, hickory, and maple.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I – easy, wide, slow-moving river

Where to launch & how to get there:

Lone Point Boat Ramp, Ottawa, IL 61350

14: Skokie Lagoons

This can be a fantastic place to get close to nature without leaving Chicagoland. These lagoons feature calm, flatwater that’s ideal for beginners and families with kids.

Despite being in an urban environment, you can soon feel like you’re miles from anywhere when you’re paddling through the quiet waters that link the lagoons.

At the northern end of the Skokie Lagoons is the Chicago Botanic Gardens. You can even paddle through the gardens once a year during the gardens’ annual canoe adventure.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I – easy, slow-moving water

Where to launch & how to get there:

Tower Road, Northfield, IL 60093

15: Kishwaukee River

The Kishwaukee River is an easygoing river that runs through several forest preserves, making for a picturesque paddling trip.

There are several take-outs and alternative launch points on the river. You’ll also find sandbars along the way that make great places to stop for a picnic lunch.

Wildlife is abundant along the route, thanks to the protected forests surrounding the river. You might see bald eagles, otters, blue herons, and turtles. These waters are also home to several species of fish, including walleye and some northern pike.

Class of rapids rating:

Class I/II – easy, generally slow-moving river

Where to launch & how to get there:

218 S Walnut Street, Cherry Valley, IL 61016

What Are The Chicago IL Kayak Laws?

US Coast GuardPin

When kayaking around Chicago you will need to follow Illinois kayak laws, but you may need to follow federal laws and regulations set out by the US Coast Guard if paddling on federal waters, such as Lake Michigan.

  • PFDs are required by law in Illinois. There must be one wearable US Coast Guard-approved PFD on board for each person on your kayak.
  • Children under 13 must wear a US Coast Guard-approved PFD at all times while on board a kayak.
  • Boating Under the Influence (BUI) is illegal and applies if you have a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or higher. It also applies if you have any amount of any drug in your system that affects your ability to operate any vessel.
  • Kayak registration is not necessary for manually powered kayaks. But you will need to register your boat if you add a trolling motor.
  • A kayak light is required for paddling at night. This can be a flashlight or 360 degree white light that’s visible for two miles.
  • Visual Distress Signals (VDS) are required on Lake Michigan if you’re paddling between sunset and sunrise. For a kayak this can be an electric distress light.
  • Minimum Ages – there is no minimum age to kayak but some rental and tour companies may set their own rules with minimum ages for paddlers.

Kayak Rentals And Tours Around Chicago

There are several outfitters operating in the Chicago area. If you want to experience Chicago architecture from a kayak, it can be a good idea to book a guided tour.

Chicago River kayak tours can be found in the downtown area, from outfitters such as Urban Kayaks, Kayak Chicago, and Wateriders (operating on the riverside behind the East Bank Club).

Many outfitters offer private tours and group tours, in either single or double kayaks, usually for both first timers and experienced kayakers. Kayak tours can also be found at other locations, such as Starved Rock.

Alternatively, many of these paddling locations offer kayak rentals onsite or nearby so you can explore on your own schedule if you prefer. However, some of the locations may require you to have your own kayak.

Final Words

Chicago can be a great place to paddle, with scenic cityscapes to offer on one hand and relaxing nature on the other – all without having to travel too far from downtown.

Remember to factor in the water traffic if you’re taking to the Chicago River or Lake Michigan – and don’t forget your PFD.

Have you been kayaking in Chicago? Maybe you know of a better spot? Leave us a comment to let us know.

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