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Kayaking in Chicago: The Best Places and Tours in the Windy City

Creative Commons "Kayakers at Wolf Point, IL" by Jrrugg94 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Towering skylines, hidden lagoons and serene inland reservoirs — when it comes to kayaking in Chicago, the Windy City might just be a paddler’s paradise.

Oh, and did we mention it sits on a Great Lake, too?

America’s third-largest city offers just about any kayaking atmosphere imaginable for those looking to test their skills and stretch their imaginations. From a plethora of options for tours, rentals and themed excursions to secluded rivers and woodland riches, Chicagoland should definitely be on your list of kayaking adventures.

Here are American Paddler’s top five picks for the best places for kayaking in Chicago, along with companies offering kayak tours, lessons and rentals in and around the Windy City.

The Best Places for Kayaking in Chicago

Photo courtesy of AdventureJay

Kayaking the Chicago River Downtown

There aren’t many places in America where you can plop your kayak in the water and paddle through the heart of a major metropolis. Chicago’s breathtaking skyline, with its stunning Riverwalk and historic iron bridges, is a treat for anyone looking for a break from the normal paddling routes.

Although anyone can kayak on the normally calm public waterway, be advised that on most days there is a fair amount of boat traffic, so experience is necessary. If you’re more comfortable paddling in a group, try a guided tour company like Kayak Chicago, Wateriders or Urban Kayaks, all of which offer stunning kayaking architecture tours of Chicago’s skyline as well as sunset and night paddling experiences. If you really want an unforgettable experience, kayak the Chicago fireworks at Navy Pier — another tour option.

Best for: Experienced paddlers or those looking for a guided big-city experience

Tours and rentals: Kayak Chicago, Wateriders or Urban Kayaks

Public access point: Ping Tom Park near Chinatown, 1700 S. Wentworth Ave.

Kayaking Chicago on Lake Michigan

If you’re up for more of a challenge, Lake Michigan offers gorgeous views of the Chicago skyline without the crowds from the comfort of a kayak. If you’ve never kayaked the Great Lakes, though, be aware — there’s no “lake” about it. Lake Michigan is an inland sea, and experience —  and a sea or touring kayak — is highly advisable. On calm days, the water can be pleasant and accessible, but be prepared for rougher waves and whitecaps, which can crop up unexpectedly. They don’t call it the “Windy City” for nothing.

Accessing Lake Michigan is the biggest challenge, given Chicago’s crowded lakefront. You can launch a kayak from most public beaches along the shore, but be prepared to carry your kayak from the parking lot, as boat accesses are few and far between. Renting a kayak is also a possibility.

Best for: Sea kayakers who want views of the Chicago skyline

Tours and rentals: Kayak Chicago or Chicago Water Sport Rentals

Public access point: North Avenue Beach, 1600 N. Lake Shore Drive

Kayaking the Skokie Lagoons

If city paddling isn’t quite your thing, about 30 minutes north of downtown lies the Skokie Lagoons, a chain of seven connected lakes, marshes, channels and islands. Managed by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the lagoons are among the best places in Chicago for bird-watching, fishing and wildlife spotting — as well as a relaxing paddle. Explore the Chicago Botanic Gardens at the northern edge of the preserve or take a guided sunset dinner paddle during the summer months.

For those who love exploring, the lagoons also offer plenty of twists, turns and hidden channels to keep a curious kayaker busy for hours. Be advised, however, that bugs are frequently a problem — so bring the bugspray or long sleeves!

The Skokie Lagoons offer many public access points, and kayak rentals are also available.

Best for: Casual, recreational paddlers looking for a secluded park atmosphere

Tours and rentals: Chicago River Canoe and Kayak

Public access point: Tower Road Boat Launch, Tower Road, Northfield, IL 60093 (just south of Tower Road, east of I-94)

Kayaking the Des Plaines River

The 95-mile Des Plaines River, which runs from Racine County, Wis., and continues south through Illinois, offers a wide range of options for kayakers looking for a challenging river paddling experience. Its upper, middle and lower sections each provide various access points, scenery and possible trips, making it possible to paddle for an hour, five hours or even a whole day, depending on your preferences. Stop at Big Bend Lake near the city of Des Plaines for serene and clear waters, an abundance of wildlife and a decided under-abundance of people-life.

While the northern section of the Des Plaines River offers a more scenic, rural paddling experience through undeveloped waterways, more access locations can be found in the middle and southern sections. Make sure to consult the Lake County Forest Preserve District for maps of navigable sections, launch locations and trail information before you head out.

Best for: Mid-range to longer river paddling trips in an undeveloped setting

Tour and rentals: Rent from the Chicagoland Canoe Base, but you’ll need to transport it yourself to the river

Public access point: There are various public access points in each of the river’s sections. Consult the Lake County Forest Preserve District for launch locations and safety information.

Kayaking Busse Woods

Lake Michigan might be the most famous lake for kayaking near Chicago, but it’s certainly not the only one. For paddlers and families looking for a relaxing day to take in the sights, sounds and smells of nature, there’s the 3,558-acre Ned Brown Preserve in northwest Cook County — popularly known as the Busse Woods.

A highlight of the preserve is its 460-acre lake, which features an abundance of tiny islands and calm waterways for kayakers and boaters to explore. Though Busse Woods receives more than 1 million visitors each year, you’ll still feel secluded in this expansive park, which features spots for fishing, picnics and wildlife spotting — including egrets, elk and various fish and birds.

Best for: Families looking for a calm day paddling on a lake, with options for picnics and other activities

Tours and rentals: Busse Woods Boat Rentals, Chicago River Canoe and Kayak

Public access point: Ned Brown Preserve (Busse Woods), Elk Grove Village, IL 60007 (boat launches at the park’s main pool and south pool)

Of course, these are just some of the great spots for kayaking in the Chicago area and its suburbs. We’re sure you have more ideas. If so, let us know! Visit our Contact page and drop us a line. Until then, happy (water) trails!

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