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Kayaking In Chicago – The BEST Spots!

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. But 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.

We’ve put together a short guide to some of the best places to go kayaking in Chicago no matter what your skill level.

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7 Best Places To Kayak In 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 many places where you can rent kayaks and canoes around Chicago, with some also offering guided tours.

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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