Great Places To Go Kayaking In Illinois

Kayaking on Chicago River. Two on the river north from the city center

Illinois doesn’t rank at the top of most paddler’s lists when it comes to kayaking destinations (neither does Iowa, which has amazing routes as well indeed), which is a shame given the sheer variety of water available: short urban paddles, exotic bayous, big wave sea kayaking, and meandering rivers for the beginners. It’s all here in Illinois, just waiting to be discovered.

Like a number of other states that are hoping to prove themselves more attractive to kayakers, Illinois has an extensive system of water trails, which are carefully signed to indicate, put in and take out points along with detailed information like mileage and hazards present in each section. These will be your best bet when looking for great kayaking locations in Illinois.

1. Chicago River

What could be more exciting than paddling through the skyscrapers of America’s third largest city? The Chicago River Water Trail passes through some of the most famous sections of the Chicago Loop and consists of two sections: the main branch and the south branch. You’ll want to take the main branch as the southern fork has a number of small dams that necessitate portaging and prevent longer trips.

For a solid day-long excursion, put in at Clark Park and take out at South Western Ave, which comes out to about twelve river miles. There’s a small public boat launch at Clark Park, so you won’t have any trouble putting in. Less than a mile downriver is the Webster Street Aeration Station, which you will want to avoid as it can cause some unpredictable currents that could be dangerous to inexperienced paddlers. Ping Tom Park is about 7 miles further downstream and would be a good place to take out if you don’t feel like doing the full 12 miles. The next four miles to South Western Ave doesn’t have any particular hazards beyond the draw of fresh and delicious seafood from Lawrence Fisheries, which has it’s own dock to accommodate hungry paddlers.

One major disadvantage of this route is that it has a lot of commercial traffic. Always remember, bigger boats take more time to stop and always have the right of way. Stay close to shore to avoid them.

Where to Rent a Kayak: Chicago River Kayak and Canoe in Chicago

2. Lake Michigan Water Trail

That don’t call the Great Lakes America’s third coast for nothing – the vast expanses of Lake Michigan look more like the open ocean than a tranquil lake. In fact, Lake Michigan can get some seriously nasty weather that results in big waves that will swamp all but the largest boats. While paddling close to the shore will save you from some of the more intense waves, the lake should not be attempted in anything less than a sea kayak. You’ll also want to brush up on your bracing and rolling skills to prevent any mishaps from occurring.

The Illinois section of the Lake Michigan Water Trail stretches for 68 miles from Illinois Beach State Park on the border with Wisconsin to Calumet Park on the edge of Indiana. In between Indiana and Chicago is a near continuous string of municipal and state parks for put in and take out. There are far fewer sites in the northern half of the water trail; so most paddlers will stick to its southern reaches.

You could spend a summer of weekend afternoons exploring the entirety of the water trail, but one of best sections is near its southern terminus, going from the 63rd Street Beach off of Lake Shore Drive to Calumet Park – a distance of just over 6 miles. While that might not seem that far, the waves can be punishing (or thrilling if you’ve got the skills to surf them). It’s parkland all along the coast though, so you’ll have a place to beach if things get too hairy.

Where to Rent a Kayak: Kayak Chicago in Chicago

3. Hennepin Canal

We’ve all heard of rails to trails, where commercial railroad tracks are ripped out to make way for recreational bike paths. But have you ever encountered a canal being repurposed to become a kayaking hotspot? This is exactly what happened with the Hennepin Canal, which connected the Mississippi River with the Illinois River before it was shuttered to commercial traffic just after its completion thanks to the faster and cheaper railways.

Today the canal offers 78 miles of calm waters that are perfect for novice kayakers. Obviously, this is too long for a day or even a weekend outing, so I’ve chosen one of the more scenic sections to explore going from the East 2300th St Bridge outside of Atkinson to the Illinois Highway 78 Bridge near Annawan – a distance of five miles. It’s one of the more historical parts of the canal with views of a large iron truss bridge and concrete aqueduct.

As this was a functioning canal, there are several locks to raise and lower the water levels in different parts of the route. While many of them have been removed and replaced with concrete walls, each of them will require a short portage, so be prepared to step out of your boat every so often. On this particular section there’s a lock about a mile and a half into the route to ascend twenty feet.

Where to Rent a Kayak: C & M Canoe Rental in Ottawa

4. Lower Cache River

The Lower Cache River is an unexpected treat for paddlers, looking more like a Louisiana bayou with its submerged 1000-year-old cypress trees than a river of the upper Midwest. Additionally, while most of Illinois population is concentrated in its northern counties adjacent to Lake Michigan, some of its best kayaking can be found closer to its southern tip. You won’t need to worry about crowds here; it’ll just be you, your boat, and any friendly companions you choose to bring along.

To start your adventure, put in at the Lower Cache River Access, three miles southeast of the town of Perks. From there you can put together a six-mile trip by taking out near the Cache Lever Access on Route 3, about half a mile north of Karnak. While it can be a little bit disorienting paddling through the swamp, there are a number of arrows and yellows stripes painted on trees to get you heading in the right direction.

Oh and don’t worry about coming across any alligators, it only looks like Louisiana bayou country. What you will need to watch out for is flying Asian carp, which have a tendency to jump into your boat whenever they are disturbed.

Where to Rent a Kayak: White Crane Canoe Rentals in Perk

We hope you enjoyed our article about Chicago, Illinois and surrounding kayaking spots. Please also check our recently revised piece on kayaking in Anchorage, and if you are looking into renewing your gear – our best of guide for kayak trailers and kayak carts.