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Kayak Chicago: The 5 Best Rivers in Chicagoland

One of the advantages of being by the Great Lakes is that there’s plenty of space for water sports. Chicago isn’t just about the lakes though as there are rivers and creeks in and around the city that are great for kayaking. Here are the five best rivers if you want to kayak Chicago.

The Chicago River

The Chicago River is a highlight you simply cannot miss. The river runs through the center of the city, through the Riverwalk, under bridges and through everything that makes Chicago unique.

Fair warning, it’s not the cleanest river in the world, but as long as you don’t plan on swimming, you’ll be fine.

In return for paddling, you’ll get to see Chicago from a perspective few people have ever seen. If you’re unsure about going it alone, there are tours aplenty run across the city with knowledgeable guides and set at a pace everyone is comfortable with.

Summer is best as the weather can be great. If you want to see something truly memorable, a sunset kayak is the move.

Des Plaines River

Image by Ela108 Garwacka-Goralik

Des Plaines River is about an hour’s drive from Chicago, and has a few spots to launch from and huge lengths of river to paddle. You can also keep it short as there are lots of parks, riverbanks and places to stop and enjoy the sunshine.

The current is slow and steady in most places along the river although there are sections where you’ll need to be aware to be able to stay in control.

It’s a river ideal for lazy paddles at the weekend or for learning to paddle. You could launch from Joliet but we would recommend driving a little further to Aux Sable or Morris as it becomes greener the further you go.

North branch of the Chicago River

The North branch of the Chicago River is worth mentioning on its own as it’s a completely different feel to the main river that runs through the center of the city.

This part is calm, tranquil and even has kayak rentals along its length. There are launch areas too if you have your own, like at River Park.

The north branch is relatively short, 3-4 miles, but it’s relaxing and ideal for practising or for new kayakers to perfect their technique.

Despite being so close to the city, the riverbank is largely green and tree lined. Some of the banks can be rocky in places and the current is calm and steady. Some of the many reasons why this is a great place for beginners or for a chill paddle down the river.

Nippersink Creek

Image by Janet Everhard

Of all the rivers to kayak near Chicago, Nippersink Creek in Richmond is too good to miss. It’s an offshoot of Nippersink Lake and Fox Lake north of Chicago and is around an hour’s drive from Downtown.

The area is flat and wide open with long sightlines and a real feeling of being out in the country. Considering you’re just an hour from one of the largest cities in the country, that’s a great reason to visit.

The waters are tranquil, the current, when there is one, is usually calm. That makes it ideal for new kayakers or for those relaxed paddles where you go as slow as you like while you recharge your batteries.

There are parks everywhere, lots of places to launch and land and Hackmatack National Reserve, so there’s plenty to do out of the water as well as in it.

Wisconsin River

Ok, the Wisconsin River is a bit of a drive from Chicago but it can be well worth the trip. It’s around a 3 hour drive north and a little west around Port Edwards or anywhere along its length.

The Wisconsin River has the advantage of being more rural so you can camp, sunbathe and laze around the riverbank at your leisure. It’s a great place to vacation in summer as well as kayak so you’ll find it busy through the warmer months.

It’s worth it though. Green spaces, little traffic, clean water and sandbanks make this an amazing place to kayak. The current is slow and steady and the sandbars break it up in places so you can sit in the water and enjoy just being there.

Kayaking in Chicago’s rivers

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Chicagoland is a lot about the lakes, but that’s not all it’s about. The lakes are amazing and provide days and days of happy paddling, but there’s more on offer.

Each of these five options prove that rivers can be as lovely as lakes and we recommend trying one whenever you have a free afternoon.

The Chicago River is most convenient to the city but has the busiest waterway. It’s definitely something to try if you’re staying here though.

The Wisconsin and Des Plaines rivers are a short drive but give you a taste of the countryside and quieter rivers. The waters are clean and calm and make for a great day out.

Finally, north branch and Nippersink are also viable options worth checking out. They are closer to the city and haver charms of their own that make them worth the trip.

You won’t regret visiting any of them!

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