Chicago River Water Trails
The Chicago River is a long, diverse waterway that begins in Lake County. It includes the Skokie River, Skokie Lagoons, the West and Middle Forks of the North Branch, the North Shore Channel, the North Branch, the North Branch Canal (the east channel around Goose Island), the Main Branch in the downtown area of the city, the South Branch, the South Fork of the South Branch (Bubbly Creek), and the Sanitary and Ship Canal leading to the National Historic Site of the Chicago Portage Area around 47th Street and Harlem Avenue, southwest of the city. Its location between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River watersheds is one reason why Chicago became the second largest non-coastal city in North America.
Boathouses: The City of Chicago has recently completed four boathouses on the Chicago River, aimed at revitalizing the Riverfront. The boathouses are located at River Park and Clark Park on the North Branch, and at Ping Tom Park and Park #571 at the confluence of the South Branch and Bubbly Creek. The boathouses at River Park and Ping Tom Park are geared toward kayaking, and include rental and storage facilities. The boat houses at Clark Park and Park #571 include rowing facilities, and rentals are available at Clark Park. All boathouses include public docks that can be used for launching canoes and kayaks.
Skokie Lagoons: Converted by the Civilian Conservation Corps into a series of hand-dug lagoons in the 1930s, this large wetland area near Wilmette and Glencoe offers nearly seven miles of waterways, which provide a unique refuge for deer, waterfowl, and non-motorized boating. The Chicago River Water Trail begins at a boat ramp into the lagoons just south of Tower Road. Chicago River Canoe and Kayak offers rentals for use on the lagoons.
North Branch: Beginning at the Willow Road Dam that creates the Skokie Lagoons, the Skokie River or East Fork of the North Branch flows south and east toward the city. Almost entirely protected by Cook County Forest Preserves, it provides a quiet opportunity to enjoy nature in an otherwise highly developed suburban and urban area.
At River Park on the city’s north side is the confluence of the North Branch and the North Shore Channel. This is where the North Branch becomes navigable for power boats. The North Branch becomes a wide, highly engineered river flowing southeast through the neighborhoods of the city toward the downtown area. The stretch of water trail between the Chicago Park District’s canoe launch at River Park and their launch at Clark Park, approximately two miles downstream, is a very popular stretch of trail, especially for beginners. Both River Park and Clark Park offer canoe and/or kayak rentals.
North Shore Channel: The North Shore Channel is a man-made waterway that extends northward from River Park, just south of Foster Avenue, to the Wilmette Locks at Lake Michigan near the Baha’i Temple. This straight canal with a slow current and few power boats is ideal for race practice, newer paddlers, and rowing shells. The Skokie Park District has created a boat access in a park on Oakton Street and the City of Chicago has created access at Lincoln Village.
**Paddlers should be aware that approximately two miles south of the Oakton Street access on the North Shore Channel, the Devon aeration station presents a hazard. When operating, three blowers force air into injectors on both sides of the channel. Do not paddle in the aerated water. It reduces the buoyancy of both boats and people and the currents can result in conditions equal to Class 3 whitewater. Paddlers are advised to turn around and head back the way they came before reaching this station.
Main Branch: Some of the tallest buildings in the world line the river in the downtown area. They create canyons of monumental proportions when seen from the water. History, architecture, industry, commerce, civil engineering, and hundreds of thousands of people come together to create an unparalleled paddling experience. Commercial and power boat traffic make this stretch of the river a place for more experienced paddlers.
South Branch: The river continues south from the downtown area toward Cermak Road where it turns southwest to its confluence with Bubbly Creek. From this point downstream, concrete and steel bulkhead walls line much of the riverbank and, along with increased industrial barge and power boat traffic, make this stretch of the river a place for more experienced paddlers. The Chicago Park District has recently completed an access at Ping Tom Park, one at S. Western Avenue, and one at Park #571 (28th & Eleanor).
When paddling this river, keep in mind that although water quality has improved over the last several decades there are still bacteria and other pollution in these rivers. Remember to wash your hands before eating or touching anything that will go in your mouth and to keep open wounds clean and dry.
Explore our interactive map!
Using the interactive map below you have the ability to:
-Zoom in and out using the + and – buttons
-View the water trails through Google maps or satellite image
-Click on a launch site (blue teardrop) for more information on its location and possible trips
-Click on a dam (red diamond) for portage information
-Determine the paddling difficulty of a water trail (Green = Beginner; Yellow = Intermediate; Red = Expert)
Chicago River Descriptions
Linne Woods to Bunker Hill
Skill level: Beginner to intermediate (depending on water level & obstructions)
Length: 4.4 miles
Directions: Enter Linne Woods Forest Preserve on the north side of Dempster Road. (Route 58) 0.2 miles east of Lehigh Ave. in Morton Grove. Park near the shelter on the west side of the parking lot. The put-in is by the outfall behind the shelter.
Notes: Just downstream of the Howard St. Bridge is a small sheet piling dam. Portage is accessible on the right when the dam is visible. The North Branch is thickly forested through the next few miles of industrial & residential areas before entering Bunker Hill Forest Preserve.
The take-out is on river left either upstream or downstream of the first footbridge.
Bunker Hill to River Park
Skill level: Beginner to intermediate (depending on water level & obstructions)
Length: 6.55 miles
Directions: Enter Bunker Hill Forest Preserve on the west side of Caldwell Avenue (Route 14) at Tonty Street in Chicago. Make the first left turn into the south parking lot and go to the end of the lot. Follow the path at the south end of the turnaround to the footbridge over the North Branch. The put-in is on either side of the footbridge.
The take-out is on river right just upstream of the control dam that marks the end of the natural section of the North Branch in River Park.
Notes: A longer trip can be had by portaging around the dam and continuing 2.28 miles downstream to the Clark Park Canoe Launch. River Park offers kayak and stand up paddle board rentals.
The first section of this trip passes through the 160 acres granted to Billy Caldwell, also known as Sauganash. Caldwell was one of the three Pottawatomi signers of the 1835 Treaty of Chicago which removed all local indigenous tribes to west of the Mississippi River.
Clark Park to Ping Tom Memorial Park
Skill level: Expert
Length: 8 Miles
Directions: Clark Park is located on the west side of Rockwell Street (2600 W), half a block south of Addison Street (3600 N) in Chicago. There is a small parking lot at the south end of the playing field. Follow the path from the parking lot to the river and canoe launch.
Notes: Chicago River Canoe and Kayak rents canoes and kayaks at Clark Park. Clark Park is also home to one of four city of Chicago boathouses designed to help revitalize Chicago’s riverfront.
Just past the Ashland Avenue bridge, on both sides of the Webster Street Bridge, is the Webster Street Aeration Station. Use caution when approaching and passing through the Aeration Station. Do not paddle in the aerated water. Aerated water can affect the buoyancy of both boats and people passing through it (for example boats can float lower in the water).
Just past the North Avenue Bridge, the river broadens into the North Avenue Turning Basin. Turn left (east) and enter the North Branch Canal (the channel on the east side of Goose Island). The Canal turns south. At the confluence of the North Branch, South Branch and Main Stem, follow the South Branch through the downtown area.
Just south of the 18th Street Bridge is the take out at Ping Tom Memorial Park, located at 300 W. 19th Street in Chicago’s Chinatown. The 12-acre Ping Tom Memorial Park offers many amenities including a playground and community gathering areas. REI rents kayaks from the boathouse at Ping Tom Memorial Park.
If you’re looking for a shorter trip along this section of the river, Kayak Chicago allows paddlers to launch and take out from their dock for a small fee. Kayak Chicago is located at 1501 N. Magnolia with a dock on the North Avenue Turning Basin.
Ping Tom Memorial Park to S. Western Avenue
Skill level: Expert
Length: 4.0 miles
Directions: Ping Tom Memorial Park, located at 300 W. 19th Street in Chicago’s Chinatown provides access to the South Branch Chicago River. The 12-acre Ping Tom Memorial Park also offers many amenities including a playground and community gathering areas. REI rents kayaks from the boathouse at Ping Tom Memorial Park. Access into and out of Ping Tom Park is by footpath only and parking near the park is limited. Be prepared to carry your boat for several blocks if you are using your own at Ping Tom.
To get to the Western Avenue boat ramp from the Stevenson Expressway (I-55), exit at Damen. Drive south on Damen to Archer Avenue and make a right turn onto Archer. Drive southwest on Archer about one block to 35th Street. Turn right onto 35th Street and drive west past South Western Boulevard to the next intersection of South Western Avenue. Turn right (north) onto South Western Avenue and drive nearly three blocks north to where S. Western Avenue forks. Stay to the left and take the frontage road (which is also called S. Western Ave.) north under the Stevenson Expressway to the end of the street just past the railroad underpass. Turn left (west) into the Boat Ramp parking lot.
Notes: Just downstream of Ping Tom Park and the Canal Street Bridge, on the river left (the southeast side of the river) you will pass Lawrence Fisheries, a restaurant located at 2120 S Canal Street in Chicago, that has made their dock available to the public for canoeing and kayaking.
Just east of the confluence of the South Branch Chicago River and Bubbly Creek, you will pass Park #571, and the boathouse and dock that have recently been completed there, on river left. The take-out at S. Western Avenue is on river left just past the Western Avenue Bridge.
This trip is rated for expert paddlers with good balance, boat control, and bracing skills. It is not recommended for beginner paddlers due to the amount of commercial and industrial traffic in the downtown area. This trip passes the confluence with the South Fork of the South Branch, better known as “Bubbly Creek”.
Skokie Lagoons Control Dam to Blue Star Memorial Woods
Skill level: beginner to intermediate (depending on water level & obstructions)
Length: 2.54 miles
Directions: Put-in on the downstream side of the Skokie Lagoons Control Dam on the west side of Forest Preserve Drive, just north of Willow Road in Winnetka. Park on the west side of Forest Preserve Drive and follow the path to the dam.
Notes: Approximately half a mile downstream from the put-in is the Winnetka Road dam. Portage on the right using the wood planks strapped to the dam abutment. The river passes under the Edens Expressway and by the confluence of the Middle Fork of the North Branch before passing under E. Lake Street in Glenview. The take-out is on river left just past the bridge in Blue Star Memorial Woods.
This entire trip is through Cook County Forest Preserves and is paralleled by the North Shore Bike Path. The combination of the water trail and bike path makes this day trip an easy self-shuttle trip.
Directions: The Skokie Lagoons water trail can be accessed from Tower Road in Winnetka, just east of I-94. Exit I-94 at Tower Road and head east on Tower. The parking lots with boat access appear almost immediately on the south side of Tower Road. The lot closest to I-94 has a concrete boat ramp and the lot next to it is where the rental facility is located. There is a gently sloping bank to the water there where canoes and kayaks put in.
Notes: Skokie Lagoons is one of the Chicago River water trail system’s most popular and accessible segments. Managed by Cook County Forest Preserves, the nature preserve includes seven interconnected lagoons, totaling 190 acres. Water flows gently southward from the Chicago Botanic Garden through the lagoons to the Skokie River. Three low dams keep the water levels below the inner islands.
The inner islands are home to dozens of native species of wildflowers and plants, and hundreds of species of birds including seventy species that breed and feed in the area during the summer months, such as night herons and red-headed woodpeckers to wood ducks and red-tailed hawks. The presence of the islands adds a varied paddling experience, including narrower passageways to explore.
The lagoons were originally dug by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) between 1933 and 1942. The lagoons comprise a magnificent scenic area for recreation and a place for the public to partake of the area’s natural beauty. Besides birding and paddling, other popular activities include biking, hiking, and fishing. For paddlers who do not own their own boats, there is a canoe and kayak rental concession operated by Chicago River Canoe and Kayak. They offer tips for paddling to beginners to whom they rent boats.
DO NOT PADDLE OVER DAMS. They are easy to avoid at Skokie Lagoons, but can be hard to recognize if you are upstream from them and unfamiliar with their appearance. Look for the walls on either side and a line across the water stretching from wall to wall.
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Categories: Cook County