Whatever type of water adventure floats your boat, Chicago’s got it. From kayaking on the Chicago River and fishing at Jackson Park Lagoon to exploring The Wild Mile, Chicago’s diverse waterways are a highlight of what makes this city such a beautiful place to live and play.
While some folks might scoff at the river for its quality and chemistry, we argue you shouldn’t be so quick to judge. It’s undeniable the river’s health has improved over the last few decades due to the city’s efforts through the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, local non-profits such as Friends of the Chicago River and Openlands, and community organizations’ conservation efforts.
From river exploration to basking in the lake, Chicago is full of small businesses and local groups that help make it easy to join an adventure on one of the city’s many waterways. Chicago Adventure Therapy, for example, works to build connections between urban youth and the outdoors through programming within Chicago Public Schools and at local parks. And vendors like Kayak Chicago, Urban Kayaks, Waterider, and REI lead tours and offer rentals across the city during warmer months.
Eager to hit the water but don’t know where to start? We’re here to help. Get out and explore a wilder side of Chicago on these WBEZ-approved water adventures within city limits.
Paddle the Chicago and Little Calumet Rivers in a kayak
What’s 156 miles long, green on St. Patrick’s Day, and flows backward year-round? You guessed it: The Chicago River. This central vein of the city travels west from Lake Michigan to the north and south sides of the city, eventually meeting up with the Des Plaines River. Kayak Chicago, Urban Kayaks, and Wateriders offer tours at multiple locations along the river and Lake Michigan.
If you’ve walked along the Chicago Riverwalk, you’ve likely spotted Urban Kayaks’ lime green boats with paddlers heading through an urban canyon of skyscrapers. The outfitter offers several popular guided trips (from $45) such as a Chicago history kayak tour and night-time Navy Pier fireworks paddle. (Tours daily during summer; 435 E. Riverwalk South, urbankayaks.com)
Or, launch a kayak onto Lake Michigan at Kayak Chicago’s Montrose Beach and North Ave Beach locations to get an epic view of the skyline from the water. You can even hang out on the beach after to watch the sunset. (Tours typically run on weekend nights; 200 W. Montrose Harbor Dr., kayakchicago.com)
The Shedd Aquarium hosts pay-what-you-can conservation kayak tours (recommended amount is $45) during the summer where paddlers can learn about past, present, and future Chicago River ecology from a Shedd nature expert. There’s also the opportunity to participate in conservation work like fish, turtle and waterfowl monitoring as well as river clean-ups. (Tours offered Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays in the summer; 1220 W. LeMoyne St., sheddaquarium.org)
Further north on a quieter pocket of the river, you can kayak from the River Park Boathouse through a densely tree-lined section of the waterway. Grab a spot on a RiverLab paddle trip (from $8), which is managed by the Chicago Park District, to explore this dense, green pocket of the river. (Tours offered weekly during summer; 5100 N. Francisco Ave., chicagoparkdistrict.com)Chicago’s boathouses are also a great place to rent a kayak or canoe to paddle the water. You can rent a canoe or kayak from Chicago River Canoe & Kayak at the Clark Park Boathouse (3400 N. Rockwell), a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddle board from the Lincoln Park Boat Club at the Lincoln Park Boathouse (2341 N. Cannon Dr.), and kayaks from REI the Ping Tom Memorial Park Boathouse in Chinatown (300 W. 19th St.).
The Chicago River shouldn’t get all the attention. Other waterways such as the Little Calumet River offers an amazing escape into urban nature, too. This far South Side waterway with deep-rooted history played a vital role in the Underground Railroad.
The African American Heritage Water Trail begins at the Little Calumet River boat ramp in the Cook County Forest Preserves’ Beaubien Woods and ends at the Village of Robbins — highlighting African American history and stories at 29 landmarks along the seven-mile paddle. Sign-up for a guided tour along a smaller section of the trail with Openlands or rent a kayak to travel the route yourself. (East 132nd St., east of S. Greenwood Ave., openlands.org)
Want to paddle outside of the city? Rent a boat, canoe, or kayak from one of four Forest Preserves of Cook County locations, most of which are within a 40-minute drive from downtown Chicago. A WBEZ guide to kayaking outside the city includes more than a dozen other recommendations.
Stand-up paddle board on Lake Michigan
If you’re new to the sport and want to give it a try with some help, local outfitter Chicago SUP offers private lessons ($100) and group lessons (from $75) from its locations at North Avenue Beach and Diversey Harbor. You can even book a one-on-one lesson with professional racer Kirsten Lefeldt, a two-time Midwest Paddle League Champion and world-ranked ultra-endurance racer. (Tours offered weekly during summer; 1601 N. Lake Shore Dr., chicagosup.com)
If you’re a yoga fan, Chicago SUP’s on-paddleboard yoga class (from $75) challenges your balance while stretching your body. You can even take their full moon SUP yoga class on Lake Michigan under the glow of the night sky.
Tip for first-timers: You’ll want to pick a non-windy day to avoid the waves. We also recommend bringing a dry bag for your wallet and phone, waterproof sandals (such as Chacos), and a carabineer to clip your keys to your belt loop so you don’t drop them in the lake.
Explore The Wild Mile
Get a glimpse into how urban waterways can be transformed into urban wildlife sanctuaries at The Wild Mile. Spearheaded by local river conservation non-profit Urban Rivers, the 17-acre oasis of native plants and wildlife opened to the public in 2022. It’s the first-ever, mile-long floating eco-park in the world tucked behind the REI Lincoln Park store on the eastern shoreline of Goose Island. (1550 N. Kingsbury St., wildmilechicago.org)
The boardwalk-meets-public-garden does much more than beautify this once-industrial hub along the Chicago River — the Wild Mile gardens overflow with native wetland plants and provide food, shelter, and high-quality habitat for native wildlife while also improving water chemistry through natural filtration of the river.
Walk The Wild Mile at your own leisure, take a tour, launch a kayak from its public boat ramp, or attend a public program, led by the group Urban Rivers every Thursday night at 6 p.m. on the boardwalk throughout summer. The group is looking to expand the concept into other areas of the river such as Bubbly Creek on Chicago’s South Side and north of downtown at River Park.
Cruise around in an electric boat
You’re likely familiar with one of the most popular boat experiences on the Chicago River: The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s boat tour (from $54). (Tours offered daily; 11 E. Wacker Dr., architecture.org)
But why not be the captain of your own boat for a day? Rent an electric boat and cruise down the Chicago River (at your own leisure) through the heart of the city.
Chicago Electric Boat Company’s diverse fleet of boats ranges from comfortable cruisers like the Duffy electric boats (rentals from $155), which are prime for sitting back and relaxing with drinks and snacks on the water, to modern classics like the Retro Boats, which are refurbished and retrofitted with eco-friendly electric motors (rentals from $145). The company also rents cycleboats, donut boats, and a 57-foot 1964 Chris Craft that fits up to 12 passengers and cruises out on Lake Michigan. Chicago Electric Boat Company has four locations on the river, including Marina City, the Chicago Water Plaza, the Chicago Riverwalk downtown, and at the new Rockwell on the River on the north branch. (300 N. State St. Marina Level – Unit EE, chicagoelectricboats.com)
You can even hire a certified captain to drive if your whole crew wants to take advantage of a day on the water without the stress of manning the ship.
Row with the Chicago Rowing Foundation and Lincoln Park Boat Club
No matter if you’re an experienced rower or brand new to the sport, you can join Chicago’s vibrant rowing community. The Chicago Rowing Foundation (CRF) hosts camps, clinics, and seasonal teams from its location out of the Clark Park Boathouse. Adults can sign up online for a learn-to-row class (from $225), offered over two sessions in the summer, or youth can join the summer or fall camp to prepare for teams that run during the school year. (3400 N. Rockwell St., rowchicago.com)
The Lincoln Park Boat Club, which rows out of the Lincoln Park Boathouse, Clark Park Boathouse, and Lathrop Homes Boat House, also offers youth teams and camps. Its nine-session learn-to-row courses for adults (from $300) are a popular class for beginner rowers. (2341 N. Cannon Dr., lpboatclub.org)
Not a fan of rowing or paddling but still want to catch the action? You can often spot boats cruising down the river (with a pint in hand) from the patio at Metropolitan Brewing, which overlooks the north branch of the Chicago River. (3057 N. Rockwell St., metrobrewing.com)
Cast a rod at Lincoln Park, Jackson Park or Lake Michigan
Where there’s water in the city, you’ll find fish — like salmon, lake trout, perch, and carp to name a few.
Beyond wild fish in Lake Michigan waters, the Chicago Parks District stocks many species throughout city parks in 13 lakes, ponds, and lagoons. Heads up: You’ll need to buy an annual or daily state fishing license online to avoid fines. No fishing license is required while attending Chicago Parks District programming, for anglers under 16, or those who are disabled, blind, or on active duty.
Jackson Park’s Columbia Basin (6401 S. Stony Island Ave.) on the north side of Jackson Park Lagoon is a popular spot on the South Side. Lake fish like salmon and steelhead swim into Jackson Harbor during colder months, but year-round, you can cast your hook and snag one (or many) of the carp, largemouth bass, and the occasional trout that call the lagoon home year-round. You can also hike out to the park’s tranquil Wooded Island after fishing. Here you’ll find the tucked-away Garden of the Phoenix, a Japanese garden known for its manicured landscaping and abundance of cherry blossoms that bloom in early May.
Anglers also frequent the Lincoln Park North Pond (2610 N. Cannon Dr.) as well as on Lake Michigan shoreline at hot spots like Burnham Harbor (1559 S. Lake Shore Dr.),Northerly Island Park (1521 S. Linn White Dr.), and 31st Street Harbor (3155 S. Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable Lake Shore Drive). The Chicago Park District’s RiverLab also offers on-the-water programming to educate and reconnect residents to the river, including free fishing on the Chicago Riverwalk (from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) during summer months.
The Forest Preserves of Cook County also hosts learn-to-fish clinics and open fishing at more than 40 bodies of water across the city. Fishing, canoeing and archery are all on the itinerary for the annual Kids’ Fest at Wampum Lake (598 Thornton Lansing Rd., Thornton) in Chicago’s south suburbs on Saturday, July 8 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
If you want to give fly fishing a try, head to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s Casting on the Pier clinics held every Wednesday at 10 a.m. during summer months (2430 N. Cannon Dr.). These free, hands-on lessons teach you how to cast a fly fishing rod from expert casters on the North Pond Casting Pier.