Calumet river kayakers
Kayakers paddle down Little Calumet River. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

Kayaks, canoes and more: 14 great places to find solace on the water

Thanks to some regional conservation groups, some Northern Illinois waterways are in better shape than they’ve been in years – making now the right time to explore.

Kayakers paddle down Little Calumet River. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands
Calumet river kayakers
Kayakers paddle down Little Calumet River. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

Kayaks, canoes and more: 14 great places to find solace on the water

Thanks to some regional conservation groups, some Northern Illinois waterways are in better shape than they’ve been in years – making now the right time to explore.

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So you want to try kayaking or canoeing? For those who want more nature than the heavily trafficked downtown commercial stretch of the Chicago River has to offer, there are dozens of lakes, rivers and other water bodies to paddle within an hour or two of the city.

Dramatic improvements in water quality during the past several decades of conservation advocacy make these excursions healthier and more pleasurable.

WBEZ is listing just a few of the most interesting and beautiful locations for still and moving water trips. Some may be more suited for beginners, and others for more advanced paddlers.

Several groups offer lessons and kayak rentals. The Prairie State Canoeists is a membership group that organizes paddler instruction and trips; Chicago River Canoe and Kayak rents at several preserve locations; Kayak Chicago gives lessons.

Many forest preserve districts also have instructional paddling events and on-site boat rentals (check their websites for details), such as the “Kayak Kollege” series at the Monee Reservoir in Will County (the next event is Aug. 13). Facebook groups also serve as hubs. The most comprehensive guide to be found is the “water trail” directory put together by nonprofit environmental group Openlands.

Dupage River Collage
The DuPage River offers beautiful sights to explore as you paddle. Courtesy of Wayne Slezak / Slezak Photography LLC

Flat water trips: Chicago region

Busse Lake (Ned Brown Preserve)

Elk Grove Village

What to know: Explore the many pools and passageways of this 450-acre reservoir, created in 1978 by damming upper Salt Creek for recreation and flood control. Kayak rentals available.

Skokie Lagoons

Adjacent to Northbrook, stretching along I-90 south from the Chicago Botanic Garden to Willow Road

What to know: Seven lagoons connected by channels cover 242 acres snaking around islands and through an abundant wetlands landscape. A Civilian Conservation Corps initiative to put thousands of men to work after the Great Depression between 1933-41 became the largest public works project in the nation. It’s not in Skokie; the name is derived from the Potawatomi “che-wabskoki.” Kayak rentals available.

Busse river kayakers
A group of friends enjoys a peaceful canoe journey on Busse Lake. Zachary Nauth for WBEZ

Wolf Lake

East of the Hegewisch neighborhood in the Calumet region

What to know: A 400-acre shallow lake sliced by Interstate 90 and the Indiana state line with a large number of birds and other wildlife. Wolf Lake was formed when the glacial Lake Chicago receded and left our current Lake Michigan. It’s part of the Calumet Heritage Area, where ice was cut to keep meat from Chicago’s stockyards cool. Bring your own boat.

Saganashkee Slough

Willow Springs, southwest

What to know: At over 300 acres, this is one of the largest remote water bodies in Cook County. Located on the edge of a glacial feature known as Mount Forest Island, where melting ice burst through and drained Lake Chicago, this shallow marsh is nestled within extensive forest preserves north and south, and near the winding Palos Trails. Bring your own boat; rentals available for nearby Maple Lake and Tampier Lake.

Whalon Lake


What to know: A former limestone quarry in Will County is a deep, 80-acre circular lake stocked with fish, with nearby access to the East Branch DuPage River and bike trails. Rentals available.

Moving water trips: Chicago region

DuPage River

Multiple access points mostly in the western suburbs

What to know: The DuPage and its two main tributaries are the most bucolic nearby waterways, running 63 miles north to south. In the spring, the short four-mile trip from Mack Road in Warrenville to McDowell Grove in Naperville is delightful. Naperville Kayak launches renters on the west branch; about 75 cubic feet per second on the USGS gauge is needed to get paddlers through the fast and riffly Riverwalk, and 100 is ideal. In the summer, start downstream with more water flow at Knoch Knolls in Naperville, and exit seven miles later at Eaton Preserve in Plainfield. From there, Plainfield River Tubing will put you on an easy three-mile float on an inner tube.

Des Plaines River

Flows through the western half of Cook County

What to know: This medium-sized river runs from the Wisconsin border through forest preserves, motorboat- and dam-free, until it merges with the Sanitary and Ship Canal near Lockport where it widens and deepens for commercial traffic. The upper portion in Lake County is more wild but also has less water at times..

Little Calumet River

In southern Cook near Riverdale

What to know: A paddle in this small, calm stream from Gouwens Park in South Holland to the Little Calumet Boat Launch in Blue Island is 7 miles; get out after five miles at Kickapoo Woods. On Saturday, July 23, residents can join a free guided history tour on this river starting at Beaubien Woods.

North Branch of the Chicago River

Water trail begins in Northfield

What to know: This begins as a tributary of the Chicago River, a small, mostly natural stream winds through the forest preserves from the outlet of the dam at the Skokie Lagoons, collecting two other tributaries to become the north branch. It ends downstream at a small waterfall in River Park where it dumps into the dredged section that merges with the North Shore Channel. Signs along the way dub this stretch the Ralph Frese Memorial Trail for a legendary Chicago paddler.

Salt Creek

Drive west 45 minutes toward Westchester

What to know: Salt Creek winds through Cook County forest preserves. A good start is a 6-mile trip from Bemis Woods to an improved landing at Brookfield Village Hall; it’s another mile to Plank Rd where the creek empties into the Des Plaines. More experienced paddlers can continue another two miles on the Des Plaines to Stony Ford landing, which will take you through a mild Class 1 stretch of waves in Riverside where the old Hofmann Dam once stood.

Kayakers collage
Illinois waterways offer something for kayakers of all levels, including the youngest paddlers. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

Moving water trips: Northern Illinois

Rocktown Adventures in Rockford is a respected resource for lessons and gear, and provides rentals for two of the most popular rivers, the Kishwaukee and the Rock.

Kishwaukee River

Northwest to Belvidere

What to know: The medium-sized “Kish” is one of the most scenic and pleasant rivers in Illinois, well-tended by its many local devotees. A six-mile family friendly trip is Espenscheid Memorial Forest Preserve to Atwood Park.

Fox River and Rock River

The Fox at Yorkville is about one hour drive time from the city; the Rock is further west about an hour to Castle Rock State Park near Oregon.

What to know: Both rivers are on the larger side, usually have enough water to paddle year around, and have a “dells” section with deep canyons and high sandstone cliffs. Two groups that offer lessons and rentals are Howling Wolfe in Aurora, and The Yak Shack in Yorkville.

Nippersink Creek

Drive north toward McHenry County

What to know: This is a narrow, curving creek that cuts through the nature-rich Glacial Park Conservation Area and the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. The water quality is very high, in part a result of the county’s stream restoration project to re-meander a straightened agricultural ditch. The most popular trip is seven miles from Keystone Landing to Pioneer Landing. Scull and Oars offers rentals.