Chicago is a city where you’re never far from the water between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. Activities like kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and boat rentals are popular. Kayaking in Chicago is a unique experience because of the mix of urban and natural settings you will discover. Here are some of the best spots for kayaking in Chicago.
The Chicago River includes 156 miles of rivers and canals. It flows through the city from North to South, and there are 45 bridges along the way. Kayaking on the Chicago River is a unique experience because you can see well-known landmarks and skyscrapers.
It’s ideal for beginners because there are spots with shelter from the wind and high currents you can experience on Lake Michigan. You can also find several guided tours that will take you through different neighborhoods.
Here are some of the most popular spots for kayaking on the Chicago River.
The Riverwalk is a scenic walkway that boards the Loop to the North. It’s bustling with life, and you will find many hotels in restaurants in that area.
The Chicago Riverwalk connects the North Branch of the Chicago River to Lake Michigan. You can follow it if you want to paddle from the river to the lake, but most beginners turn around once they reach the Outer Drive Bridge.
The Cove section has docking amenities for kayaks if you want to stop and enjoy one of the restaurants. The Riverwalk offers a mix of urban and outdoor areas. There are plenty of bars and restaurants in the area, and you can paddle past busy patios for a truly unique experience.
You will find famous landmarks in that area, including the Millenium Park with the Cloud Gate sculpture and the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s one of the best spots for history and architecture tours.
The North Branch is less busy compared to other waterways. You will see plenty of greenery with Clark Park, Horner Park, and River Park, and you can even see a small waterfall if you head toward the Foster Avenue Bridge.
Kayaking along the North Branch of the Chicago River is a more relaxing and laid-back experience. You will discover the quiet River North neighborhood and see some old factories as you go through former industrial areas.
You will also go by Rockwell on the River, a unique event venue that hosts different artisanal merchants and activities. There is a marina, a micro-brewery, roasterie, distillery, and taproom.
Goose Island is a 160-acre island in the middle of the city between the North Branch of Chicago River and the North Branch Canal. It gave its name to the famous beer brand.
Goose Island is a quiet area. You can see Wicker Park and the Old Town neighborhoods by kayaking around the island. If you head to the east side of the island, you will see Wild Mile Park. The park is still in development, but it’s a project that will include canoe launching amenities in the future.
The South Branch of the Chicago River will take you through some busy areas. There is more boat traffic on this waterway, and it’s best to have some kayaking experience.
You can paddle past Chinatown on the east bank of the South Branch. Highlights include the Halsted Street Bridge, the Cermak Bridge, the Ping Tom Memorial park, and the Canalport Riverwalk Park. If you keep heading south, you will reach the forest preserve of Portage Woods.
Bubbly Creek is a smaller waterway connected to the South Branch. You can take it to visit a former industrial area and get away from the busier urban areas.
Paddling on Lake Michigan is a different experience compared to exploring the waterways of the Chicago River. You can run into stronger winds and currents and will need a sea kayak. The lake is also a popular spot for boating, and it’s best to have some kayaking experience.
The Chicago lakefront is 23 miles long, and it’s easy to access, with many launching points for kayaks. You can find sandy beaches toward the South of the shoreline and North of the city. These beaches make accessing the lake easier.
While you will see people canoeing anywhere on the lake, there are popular water trails with guided tours to see landmarks.
Here are some of the different highlights of kayaking Chicago on the lake.
The Navy Pier is a favorite spot among Chicagoans. It’s a popular area for dining and entertainment, and it’s always busy. Kayaking around the Navy Pier is a unique way of discovering the area.
The Navy Pier fireworks are a popular activity, and there is a guided kayak tour to see these fireworks from the water on Saturday nights.
North Avenue Beach
North Avenue Beach is one of the most popular beaches. It’s easy to access thanks to public transit options.
Monroe Harbor boards the heart of downtown Chicago. Kayaking in that area allows you to admire the skyline from the water. You can see the Millenium Park and Museum Campus from Monroe Harbor.
Des Plaines River
The state of Illinois has been removing the dams that used to segment the Des Plaines River, making it an ideal spot for kayakers. The current can be strong for beginners, but the Des Plaines River is an excellent option if you want to get away from the city and enjoy the outdoors.
Follow the river to Romeoville, where you will find the Isle a la Cache. The island has a museum as well as canoe landing amenities.
Winnetka is a village that is only 30 minutes away from Chicago. It’s home to the Skokie Lagoons, and the Botanic Garden isn’t far.
The Skokie Lagoons are the perfect spot for seeing waterfowl and other wildlife in their natural habitat. Explore a series of connected lagoons in a quiet and relaxing environment.
Tips for Kayaking Chicago
Kayaking in an urban environment can be challenging if you lack experience. Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your canoeing experience in Chicago.
Chicago is home to several kayak rental businesses. The following businesses have an excellent reputation:
- Urban Kayaks. This business has two locations on the Riverwalk and Lakefront. Urban Kayaks offers guided tours and equipment rental.
- Wateriders. You will find Wateriders at the East Bank Club. This business offers private tours, a popular architecture tour, sunset tours, and more.
- Chicago River Canoe & Kayak. This kayak rental business has a total of five locations. It’s a popular option for classes and affordable rentals.
- Kayak Chicago. This business has a location on the lakefront. You can rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard, sign up for a lesson, or go on a guided tour.
When Is the Best Time to Go Kayaking in Chicago?
Even though COVID-19 resulted in a short kayaking season in 2020, the season typically lasts from April to October. It’s best to go paddling on Lake Michigan in the late Spring or Summer since the water takes a while to warm up. If you visit Chicago later in the kayaking season, opt for a tour on the Chicago River, where you will get shelter from the wind.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind during your kayaking experience in Chicago:
- Sign up for a class if you’re new to paddling. There are plenty of options available in Chicago, and you will learn proper paddling techniques as well as water safety.
- ·Invest in quality equipment or rent the equipment you need. You shouldn’t go kayaking without weather-appropriate clothing.
- Watch out for strong winds and currents that can push you away from the shore. It’s best to stick to the Riverwalk and other waterways of the Chicago River if you lack experience.
- A double kayak can be a great learning experience. You will get to share your kayak with an instructor or someone who is more experienced.
- Chicago is a popular spot for boaters. Be aware of your surroundings and get out of the way if you see a boat heading in your direction.
- A guided tour is a safer option compared to exploring the lake or the Chicago River on your own. If you decide to head out on the water by yourself, give someone a copy of your itinerary.
Kayaking among skyscrapers and busy restaurant patios is a unique experience that you shouldn’t miss if you plan on visiting Chicago. If you have some experience with paddling, heading out on the open waters of Lake Michigan makes for a thrilling experience. We recommend contacting one of the kayak rental businesses listed above to find out more about rentals, tours, and classes ahead of your trip to Chicago.