If you haven’t experienced the thrill guiding a canoe or kayak through the “canyons” of the Chicago River created by the skyscrapers looming on the shores you have an item to add to your bucket list. It’s not only fun, paddling in Chicago is a great way to experience city’s unique architecture, inspect the workings of the bridges, and, increasingly, appreciate the local wildlife.
Rent a Canoe or Kayak in Chicago
There are a handful of tour operators and rental outfits that can set you up.
Friends of the Chicago River offers opportunities to paddle the Chicago River and make it a better place through their Canoe and Clean and Paddle and Plants programs. Look for those low-cost programs on our event calendar or head over to the Friends website.
Other Chicago outfitters that provide rental and tours include:
Check with your park district or local nature/conservation group to see if they have any trips planned that may help you stretch your comfort zone in terms of location, or time of day (moonlight paddles are cool).
And expect even more urban canoeing and kayaking opportunities as Chicago develops the Wild Mile along the North Branch of the Chicago River.
Paddling in Chicago and Northeast Illinois
A few years ago, Openlands, one of the nation’s oldest and most successful metropolitan conservation organizations, launched a free online paddling guide for the Water Trails of Northeastern Illinois.
The guide contains detailed, step-by-step descriptions for over 50 trips throughout the region, with information on skill levels, trail length, directions, and equipment rental locations. Interactive maps are available for each waterway, indicating launch sites, dams, and the paddling difficulty along the trail. Paddlers are also encouraged to help keep the site up-to-date by reporting log jams, unexpected water traffic, wildlife sightings, and other significant observations via the comments for each trail.
About the Water Trails
- Calumet Area Water Trails: These water trails connect paddlers to waterways of globally significant ecology while exploring the area’s industrial past. Open paddling is an option on Wolf Lake and Powderhorn Lake.
- Chicago River Water Trails: From Skokie Lagoons or Evanston on the Northshore Channel, through downtown Chicago to Portage Park on the southwest side, paddlers can experience wooded areas, huge skyscrapers, and areas of historical significance on the Chicago River.
- Des Plaines River Water Trails: The 95-mile long Des Plaines River begins in Racine County, Wisconsin and flows south through four Illinois counties. With multiple boat launches available in Lake, Cook, and Will counties, the river changes in character from a prairie stream to a large urban river, and then to a major industrial waterway.
- DuPage River Water Trails: The DuPage River is a small-to-medium sized stream flowing through DuPage and Will counties, with east and west branches that meet south of Naperville. The trails include peaceful, scenic trips for beginner paddlers and rapids for whitewater enthusiasts.
- Fox River Water Trails: The Fox River Water Trails begin at the Illinois-Wisconsin border, traveling south from the Chain O’Lakes into highly urbanized areas including Elgin and Aurora, giving way to more natural settings and many islands downstream in Kendall County.
- Kankakee River Water Trails: The Kankakee River provides great opportunities for paddlers to experience high quality aquatic habitat. Many sections have a gentle current and wide, shallow stretches.
- Kishwaukee River Water Trails: This river’s watershed covers 1,257 square miles across six counties in northern Illinois. The Kishwaukee has some of the highest quality aquatic habitat of the 10 trails, offering chances for paddlers of all skill levels to view wildlife.
- Lake Michigan Water Trails: Approximately 23 miles of Chicago’s Lakefront are almost entirely open, with many boat-friendly sand beaches throughout the city.
- Nippersink Creek Water Trail: This easy, scenic water trail is an excellent way to experience the landscapes of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge in McHenry County.
- Salt Creek Water Trails: Salt Creek Water Trails connect DuPage and Cook counties. Open paddling is available on Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Busse Lake, and the water trail begins below the lake’s dam, passing through high quality natural areas such as the Dorothy and Sam Dean Nature Sanctuary.