Illinois has an abundance of rivers, lakes, and waterways ideal for kayakers of all levels. The type of watercraft you use will help you decide which location is best. From inflatable to touring, whitewater and recreational kayaks are making their way into the water. For anyone kayaking in Illinois, planning is critical to ensure you have a positive experience on the water.
The 9 Best Places to go Kayaking in Illinois
Illinois has some of the best waterways for paddlers of all levels. Kayaking in Illinois consists of many calm areas for beginners and houses several locations with whitewater and strong currents for the experienced.
This list includes the best places to go kayaking in Illinois, even with little to no experience with paddling.
- Mississippi River
No kayaking excursion in Illinois is complete without spending some time paddling on the Mississippi River. One of the longest rivers in the United States, this body of water stretches 2,350 miles in total. The area within Illinois has a slow current, making it a terrific spot to paddle even upstream if you wish.
Navigating along the Mississippi in Illinois can take approximately three hours, but many will stop to enjoy the scenery and fish while resting. Be sure to bring along your fishing gear and try your chance at some fresh walleye, catfish, bass, and crappie.
Many beautiful sandbars and islands along the Mississippi River give kayakers a place to camp or relax during their paddling trip. This stretch of water can be a pleasant afternoon paddle, or you can extend it over a few days if you enjoy camping and fishing as well.
- Skokie Lagoons
You will find the Skokie Lagoons only a short distance north of Chicago. These seven lagoons on the Skokie River are a man-made 894-acre wooded preserve created back between 1933 and 1942. It is still an ideal place to slip away from the city’s noise and be with nature.
It is a terrific place for paddlers of all ages, being kid and pet friendly. The intertwining canals of the lagoons with abundant trees and wildlife make this location a must for all kayaking in Illinois bucket lists.
You can access the water by the Tower Road Boat Launch on Tower Road, west of Forestway Drive, near Winnetka. Take a break from paddling at one of the many picnic sites before carrying on with your kayak trip.
- Kankakee River
This body of water starts in Indiana, coming down through Illinois to join Des Plaines, and forms the Illinois River. As one of the cleanest rivers in the midwest, the Kankakee River carries a designation of a National Water Trail that ensures its preservation.
The Kankakee River is very calm, making it suitable for beginner paddlers. If you are looking for breathtaking kayaking in Illinois spots, this destination should be on your list. The water routes can take you through a limestone canyon, a wetland, a wooded channel, or the grand waterway.
Beginners will do well kayaking at Bird Park or the Chippewa Boat Launch with its serene waters and exceptional landscapes. There are several spots to launch within Illinois to explore all that the Kankakee River has to offer.
- Cache River
In the southern area of Illinois lies the Cache River, also known as one of the 10 Best Hidden Gems of America. This body of water extends 92 miles over six counties. It includes several boat launches throughout the cypress-tupelo swamp, making it ideal for kayaking in Illinois. The Cache River wetlands are home to many types of vegetation and wildlife, giving paddlers an exceptional experience.
The scenery surrounding this river is majestic and will give paddlers a unique experience they will not find kayaking in the state’s northern area. You can access the launch in the Cache River State Natural Area in Vienna, Illinois.
The calm waters vary between a golden brown color from the tannins of the 1,000-year-old trees to murky green from the duckweed that helps purify the waters and provides an abundant food source. It is easy to paddle through, and working your way along Cache River can be an experience to remember.
- Starved Rock State Park
For individuals kayaking in Illinois who want to stay in the north or central region, the Illinois River travels through Starved Rock State Park, giving some of the best views from the water. You will want to paddle west and south downriver from the drop-in within the park.
Here you can use your kayak or rent one right in the park. The Illinois River running through the landscape meets up with the Mississippi River north of St. Louis. Only a few miles south of this junction, paddlers will run into the Vermillion River.
It is a fun smaller river for many kayakers throughout the year. During the spring and early summer, you can find whitewater, giving a bit of variety to the trip. The landscape of Starved Rock combines sandstone overhangs with lush vegetation and abundant wildlife. You can find Starved Rock State Park at 2668 E 875th Road, Oglesby.
- Lake Michigan
What trip for kayaking in Illinois would be complete without taking on Lake Michigan? As one of the Great Lakes, this body of water gives experienced kayakers a taste of other boat traffic, varying wind conditions, and currents.
You can access Lake Michigan from several drop-in points along the Chicago coastline and paddle through the lagoons and harbors or head across to the other side for a change of scenery. This location gives kayakers a chance to enjoy the city skyline while relaxing on the water, making it a popular excursion for dusk.
Lake Michigan can provide a city view like no other while keeping you in touch with nature. The water can get cold and choppy with other watercraft traffic and weather changes. If you are contemplating this destination, we recommend using a sit-in kayak rather than a sit-on recreational kayak. These styles are more equipped to handle the waters away from the shore.
- Chicago River
A kayaking list in Illinois is not complete without including the Chicago River as a top location. Chicago is a sight to see, especially from the waterfront. Stretching across 156 miles through the city center, the Chicago River consists of many waterways and canals to explore for all kayaking levels.
One notorious element of the Chicago River is how it flows in reverse due to man-made intervention. Using strategically placed canal locks, it takes water from Lake Michigan and flows into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. This procedure helps decrease any risk from natural disasters that can threaten Chicago’s water supply.
Paddling through the Chicago River will take you through the North Branch, Main Stem, and South Branch. Not all waterway areas are popular kayaking sections, and some locations are only for the experienced paddler. Before setting out on the Chicago River, ensure you know the weather conditions and what to expect from the water while there.
- Middle Fork of the Vermillion River
There is much to see when paddling through the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River in Illinois. This body of water, measuring over 17 miles, flows between the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area and the Kennekuk Cove County Park. The water flows from the State Fish and Wildlife Area downstream approximately 10 miles to the Kickapoo State Recreation Area.
With more than 1,000 feet of scenic landscape to kayak and fish, these local parks are ideal spots to have a picnic onshore and rest or spend some time camping. Middle Fork is a perfect spot for leisurely paddling through nature without worrying about rough waters or rough terrain.
The Middle Fork Fish and Wildlife Area consists of over 2,700 acres of land, home to various wildlife species to enjoy while you kayak through. Take a lunch and stop at one of the many sandbars to relax and enjoy the natural habitat that surrounds you.
- Kishwaukee River
One of the diverse waterways for kayaking in Illinois, the Kishwaukee River has something for everyone. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced paddler, you are sure to enjoy time spent on this waterway in Illinois.
The Kishwaukee River https://www.kayakingnear.me/state/illinois/chicago/stretches approximately 60 miles and is home to over 59 species of fish and thousands of plant life, making it a diverse experience for anyone who enjoys nature. It is a calm and quiet river that flows through the state from Woodstock into Rockford’s Rock River.
From agricultural land and forests to small towns, the Kishwaukee River gives paddlers a change of scenery as they progress. If you are an avid fisherman, this waterway is a terrific place to try catching a bite while out kayaking in Illinois.
Kayaking in Illinois
Before you launch your kayak, ensure you follow all state guidelines concerning non-powered watercraft. Check the weather forecast, so you are ready for any changes along your route, and remember to pack enough water and snacks for your trip.
Do not try to tackle waters that you may not be ready to try. Stick with manageable flowing waterways if you are a beginner, and even expert paddlers should not paddle alone. Be sure to let someone know of your paddle plan and take precautions when out on the water.
Photo Credit: Jaysin Trevino via Flickr CC2.0