September 05, 2023 7 min read

Take in a different viewpoint of the Windy City

A group of people on kayaks at Chicago River

Are you ready to embark on a thrilling kayaking journey in the Windy City? Chicago, with its dazzling skyline and vibrant waterfront, is a paddler's paradise just waiting to be explored. Whether you are in kayaks or on stand up paddle boards, this city has plenty to offer!

Both seasoned pro kayakers and curious beginners will be able to discover a passion for water in Chicago. From urban secrets to nearby escapes, there is somewhere for everyone to dip their paddles and have fun. There is more to discover paddling in Chicago than the mighty Lake Michigan.

Let’s get your daydreams and paddle inspiration fuelled for your next trip to Chicago. We've got you covered with our handpicked list of the 10 best places to go kayaking in Chicago. So, grab your paddles, slap on some sunscreen, and get ready for an unforgettable aquatic adventure!

Chicago River

Kayak on Chicago River and a building on the back

Kayaking on the Chicago River is perfect for all the urban explorers out there. This river allows you to float through the heart of the city while enjoying stunning views of its iconic skyline. It provides a unique perspective and passes by famous landmarks such as the Willis Tower, Navy Pier, and the Riverwalk.

You can navigate through the river's channels and branches, exploring hidden corners and discovering the vibrant energy that pulses through Chicago. It is an opportunity to immerse yourself in the city's dynamic atmosphere while enjoying the outdoors. Chicago's Riverwalk provides convenient access points for kayakers. You can easily launch your sit on top kayaks from designated areas along the Riverwalk, which makes it convenient to begin your paddling adventure and explore the city's waterways.

Lake Michigan

The great and expansive Lake Michigan offers a fantastic kayaking experience in Chicago. With its crystal-clear waters and beautiful shoreline, this is a must-visit place regardless of what vessel you are paddling! We recommend setting out on tandem kayaks so you can share the experience with a pal.

Enjoy a paddle along the lakefront and take in the panoramic views of the city. Popular launch points include Montrose Beach, North Avenue Beach, and 31st Street Harbor. Lake Michigan also offers endless opportunities for exploration. From sandy beaches to rocky cliffs and serene coves, the lake's shoreline presents diverse landscapes that are perfect for kayaking adventures. 

Skokie Lagoons

Colorful Fall of Skokie Lagoon, Chicago

Located just north of Chicago, the Skokie Lagoons is a serene oasis comprising interconnected pools and channels perfect to take a gentle float in an inflatable kayak. This peaceful location is perfect for kayakers looking to immerse themselves in nature. It is a great place to escape to nature within easy reach of Chicago.

Navigate this enchanting kayaking destination through winding waterways and observe wildlife along the shores. There is a diverse array of wildlife, making it a haven for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts. While kayaking, you will have the opportunity to observe and appreciate various species of birds, including herons, egrets, and waterfowl, as they gracefully glide across the water or nestle among the reeds. Keep an eye out for turtles basking on logs and other fascinating creatures that call the lagoons their home.

Busse Lake

Situated in Busse Woods Forest Preserve, northwest of Chicago, Busse Lake is a beautiful and tranquil setting for kayaking. The lake is surrounded by scenic woodlands and a fantastic peaceful atmosphere. Busse Lake is open to kayakers of all skill levels and ages, welcoming both beginners and experienced paddlers.

Since Busse Lake is located within Busse Woods Forest Preserve, it is a public recreational area accessible to the general public. This means that anyone can visit and paddle on the lake, provided they follow the rules and regulations set forth by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.

Jackson Park Lagoon

Jackson Park Lagoon near Chicago Museum

Nestled within Jackson Park, this lagoon provides a picturesque kayaking destination on the South Side of Chicago. You can explore the lagoon's serene waters, surrounded by greenery and the beautiful Japanese-inspired Osaka Garden, from the comfort of your recreational kayak.

These calm waters are perfect for beginners to learn the basics of paddling a kayak and finding balance. The scenic surroundings are perfect for escaping the city’s hustle and bustle, getting into nature, and seeing a new side of Chicago. Accessing the water is super easy as it is just a stone's throw away from the city. 

Burnham Park Harbor

Located near Soldier Field, Burnham Park Harbor offers a convenient location for kayakers to enjoy a session from Chicago. You can paddle around the harbor, taking in views of the city skyline and enjoying the vibrant atmosphere of the area.

Burnham Park Harbor is also a bustling hub of activity, attracting boaters, sailors, and water sports enthusiasts. The lively atmosphere adds a sense of energy and excitement to your kayaking experience. You will find yourself surrounded by fellow water adventurers, creating a vibrant and sociable ambiance as you navigate the harbor's waters. So if you are after a social kayaking destination, then this is the place for you!

Des Plaines River

Des Plaines River, Chicago

Chicago’s Des Plaines River flows out of the city and flows through marshland and plane forests. As you set off on this river you will be immersed in the beauty of nature on this picturesque waterway, surrounded by lush greenery and serene landscapes. 

The Des Plaines River offers a peaceful escape from the city's hustle and bustle, providing a chance to reconnect with the outdoors. Navigate gentle currents, explore hidden bends, and cast your line from a fishing kayak. Whether you are seeking adventure or tranquility, kayaking the Des Plaines River promises an unforgettable experience filled with natural wonders and a sense of serenity.

DuPage River

The DuPage River flows through picturesque landscapes, featuring serene stretches of water, lush vegetation, and charming wooded areas. Paddling along the river allows you to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside within reach of Chicago.

There is something for every level of kayaker on the DuPage River. It offers a mix of calm sections where beginners can practice their paddling skills and more challenging areas with gentle rapids and small drops for those seeking a bit of excitement. The varying water conditions make it an ideal river for both beginners and experienced kayakers.

Further Afield Places To Kayak Chicago  

Up for a kayaking road trip out of Chicago? Well, load up the boats and check these places out! Why not make a weekend camping getaway while you are at it?

Fox River

Two kayakers on Fox River, Chicago

Offering picturesque beauty, scenic trails, and a variety of conditions to paddle, the Fox River is a great out-of-city spot to take the boat. The Fox River region hosts a range of community events and festivals throughout the year, many of which revolve around the river and water activities. It is worth keeping a lookout for these events and maybe even joining in with the kayak races or guided tours!

The Fox River offers various rental options for canoes and kayaks, making it easily accessible for those who do not own their own equipment. Rental services in the area provide kayaks, paddles, and safety gear, allowing you to embark on your kayaking adventure without the need for extensive planning or equipment investments.

Wisconsin River

Wisconsin River, from Chicago, promises an unforgettable adventure through stunning landscapes, encounters with wildlife, and opportunities to connect with nature. Whether you seek thrilling rapids, peaceful stretches, or a combination of both, the Wisconsin River offers a diverse and rewarding kayaking experience for all levels of paddlers.

If you are new to kayaking or prefer a guided experience, there are various tour operators that offer guided kayaking trips on the Wisconsin River. They provide equipment, instruction, and local knowledge, ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience. Alternatively, kayak rentals are available for independent adventurers who want to explore the river at their own pace.

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🏆 Do you need a permit to kayak in Chicago?

You are not required to register or hold a permit to kayak in Chicago Illinois. Unpowered vessels, like kayaks, canoes, and stand up paddle boards are exempt from boating registration.

👍 Can you kayak the entire Chicago River?

Yes, it is possible to kayak the entire Chicago River. The Chicago River stretches approximately 156 miles in total, flowing through various neighborhoods and areas of the city. It offers a unique and scenic kayaking experience, allowing you to explore both the downtown area and the more natural and less developed sections of the river.

It's important to note that kayaking the Chicago River requires careful consideration of safety, navigation, and water conditions. Some sections of the river have stronger currents or commercial boat traffic, which may require extra caution. It is recommended to be an experienced kayaker or to join a guided tour that provides expertise and guidance along the way.

🏝️ Can I use my kayak anywhere in Chicago?

While kayaking is generally permitted on many of Chicago's waterways, including the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, it is important to be aware of any specific regulations and restrictions that may apply. Private property is obviously off-limits. 

Many parks in Chicago have designated areas where kayaking is allowed. However, there may be specific launch points or restrictions in place to protect natural habitats or ensure safety. Be sure to familiarize yourself with park rules and regulations, and use designated launch areas when available.

❓ Is Chicago a good place for beginners to learn how to kayak?

Yes, Chicago can be a good place for beginners to learn how to kayak. Chicago offers several locations with calm water options, such as lagoons, ponds, and protected areas, where beginners can practice their kayaking skills in a more controlled environment. Places like Skokie Lagoons, Busse Lake, or the various lagoons in the city's parks provide calm waters that are ideal for beginners to get comfortable with kayaking.

There are kayak rental services and instructional programs available in Chicago that cater to beginners. These services often provide beginner-friendly kayaks, safety gear, and basic instruction to help newcomers get started. Renting a kayak and receiving guidance from experienced instructors can give beginners the confidence and knowledge they need to begin their kayaking journey.

Jay Regan
Jay Regan

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