Calumet Area Water Trails
Water Trails in Calumet comprise a number of connected natural and man-made waterways, including both rivers and lakes. Calumet waterways offer a variety of experiences. Thorn Creek and the Upper Little Calumet River are shallow streams with wooded banks, perfect for beginners. The Cal-Sag Channel, Lower Little Calumet, and Calumet Rivers are deep, engineered channels with barge and powerboat traffic, appropriate for experts. Calumet also offers paddling on Wolf Lake and Powderhorn Lake.
The Upper Little Calumet River begins in Indiana and crosses the Illinois border just south of 173rd Street, in Lansing. It meanders generally in a northwest direction through wooded areas and neighborhoods to its confluence with the Cal-Sag Channel, between Calumet Park and Riverdale. At that point, the river becomes a wide industrial waterway that continues east and north to its confluence with the Grand Calumet (at which point it becomes the historic Calumet River). Just north of 130th Street, the river branches, leading west into Lake Calumet and northeast to its mouth at Lake Michigan. The man-made Cal-Sag Channel runs mostly west from the Little Calumet to its confluence with the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in Lemont.
African American Heritage Water Trail: This heritage water trail stretches from Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Beaubien Woods to the Village of Robbins, approximately 7 miles to the west. It traverses the Little Calumet River and the Cal-Sag Channel. Paddlers can also take a shorter, 4.7 mile, version of this trail by following the left fork of the river after crossing under the Halsted St. Bridge to the Little Calumet Boat Launch. This corridor is home to many nationally significant sites in African-American history, including the river crossing at present day Indiana Avenue, which was traversed by thousands fleeing slavery via the Underground Railroad, to the Village of Robbins, governed by African Americans since its incorporation in 1917.
Upper Little Calumet River: Shallow water and a prohibition against powered boat use make this stretch ideal for use by less-experienced paddlers. Canoe and kayak access at Calumet Memorial Park District’s Riverfront Park in South Holland begins this water trail in Illinois. An access at the Village of South Holland’s Gouwen’s Park, one and a half miles downstream of Riverfront Park, creates a short stretch for paddling. It is then approximately five miles from Gouwen’s Park to The Forest Preserves of Cook County’s access site at Kickapoo Woods in Riverdale. The Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Little Calumet Boat Launch is two miles downstream of Kickapoo Woods, and near the confluence with the Cal-Sag Channel.
Lower Little Calumet River and Calumet River: Between the confluence with the Cal-Sag Channel and mouth of the river at Lake Michigan, industrial traffic, concrete and steel vertical bulkhead walls, and powered boats make this stretch a place for expert paddlers. However, the O’Brien Locks at 134th Street, Lake Calumet, and the monumental, hulking, and rusting relics of the river’s industrial past, create a unique experience in this section. The Little Calumet Boat Launch and the boat ramp in Beaubien Woods create the water trail on this stretch.
The Cal-Sag Channel: The banks of this man-made canal are lined along much of its western third with large stone rip rap, making access either to or from the water difficult, especially while carrying a boat. For this reason, the west end of the publicly accessible water trail on this stretch of river currently ends (or begins) at the Worth Village Boat Ramp in Worth on 115th Street, two blocks west of Harlem Avenue. It is a little over two miles from Worth to Howe’s Landing boat launch (also called Alsip), north of 127th Street at Laramie Avenue, and another six miles to the access at Little Calumet Boat Launch. Between the confluence with the Little Calumet River and Worth Village Boat Ramp, concrete and steel vertical bulkhead walls, industrial traffic, jetskis, and powered boats make this stretch a place for expert paddlers.
Saganashkee Slough is a large lake along the Cal-Sag channel, within the Palos Preserves of the Forest Preserves of Cook County. REI offers rentals of canoes and kayaks, and it is a great place to see birds and other wildlife!
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)
Calumet Area Descriptions
African American Heritage Water Trail: From Beaubien Woods to Robbins
Skill Level: Expert paddlers or beginning paddlers with an experienced guide. Check the events tab on this website for information about upcoming tours or events on this water trail
Length: Approximately 7 miles
Directions: the African American Heritage Water Trail begins at the boat ramp to the Little Calumet River at the Cook County Forest Preserves’ Beaubien Woods. It ends at Robbins, approximately 7 miles west. A paddling access is planned for construction in 2020-2021 near Kedzie in the Village of Robbins. In the interim, put in at Beaubien Woods and take out at the Alsip Boat Launch, a few miles west of Robbins. To paddle just half of the trail, put in at Beaubien Woods and take out at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Little Calumet Boat Ramp. This ramp is on the Upper Little Calumet River and can be reached by paddling into the south side channel that confluences with the main trail 0.5 miles west of the Halsted Street bridge. Once you have paddled onto the Upper Little Calumet River, the concrete boat ramp will be visible on the west side in 0.5 miles. You can also put in at the Little Calumet Boat Ramp and take out at Alsip Boat Launch, paddling the other half of the trail.
Historical Importance: This stretch of the river flows through several south-side Chicago neighborhoods and nearly two centuries of African American history—sites and figures who whose impact remains with us today. The Heritage Water Trail honors this history by tracing the remarkable stories of African Americans who settled along the river: freedom seekers who traveled the Underground Railroad, trailblazers who defied discrimination and achieved great feats in their fields, and pioneers in the struggle for civil rights and environmental justice. These acts of courage and fortitude have shaped our nation and left their mark on significant events in African American history, including:
- Underground Railroad: Before the Civil War, thousands of people fleeing slavery passed through Chicago or its south suburbs where they found a supportive community willing to hide, feed and help them on their way. Ton Farm was a well-documented stop on the Underground Railroad; and Dolton Ferry and Bridge provided an important passage for hundreds of freedom seekers crossing the river on their way to Canada via Chicago or Detroit.
- Civil Rights: Many important pioneers in the struggle for civil rights left their mark here and across the nation. Especially notable people and sites include Bishop Louis Henry Ford, the minister and advocate for whom the freeway was named; Larry Hawkins, the teacher, mentor, and coach; Marshall “Major” Taylor, the first African American international sports star and a world champion bicycle rider; Chicago’s Finest Marina, the oldest black-owned marina in the Chicago region; and the Village of Robbins, unique in its support of African American entrepreneurs and wealth creation.
- The Birth of Environmental Justice: Environmental justice is a civil rights movement demanding reforms to protect people of color who are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards where they live and work. Altgeld Gardens, one of the first public housing developments in the U.S., is where it all began, under the leadership of local resident Hazel Johnson.
- Welcoming Communities: Altgeld Gardens was originally designed as a model “Garden City”—a self-contained community of residences and green space. In the segregated landscape of Chicago, it attracted the settlement of other black families into surrounding neighborhoods like Golden Gate, Riverside Village, Pangea Lakes and Concordia Place. A bit further down the river is the Village of Robbins, one of the very few towns in the United States governed at its incorporation by African Americans. It attracted black Chicagoans seeking economic opportunities and leisure activities free of white harassment.
For a complete guide to the sites and landmarks along the river, visit the African-American Heritage Water Trail Storymap which you can print and take on your excursion. You can also download the brochure.
Beaubien Woods to Calumet Park Boat Launch: Lower Little Calumet & Calumet Rivers
Skill Level: Expert
Length: Approximately 11 miles
Directions: Put-in at the launch ramp at Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve, owned by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, south of 130th Street, between the I-94 Bishop Ford Freeway and Altgeld Gardens. At Carver Military Academy, located at 13100 S. Doty Avenue, turn west onto 132nd Street. Cross the railroad tracks, and then almost immediately turn south on the Forest Preserve Drive and follow it to its end at the boat ramps.
Notes: This trip is for expert paddlers due to heavy barge traffic and large motor craft in the channel. This trip provides access to views of a giant industrial complex, including cranes, factories, conveyor belts, and ocean-going ships along the Calumet River. Pass through the O’Brien Locks at about 134th Street. Approximately six miles north are dry-docks on the right bank, just before passing under the enormous Chicago Skyway Bridge. The mouth of the river at Lake Michigan is approximately 1.5 miles downstream. Check the weather and waves before entering the lake. The take-out, at the Calumet Park Boat Launch, is approximately 0.5 miles south of the mouth of the river.
While most paddlers look for river trips away from urban areas, the Calumet River and the O’Brien Locks provide access to views of a giant industrial complex. The colossal sculpture of cranes, factories, huge conveyor belts, and ocean-going ships display interesting scenery along the Calumet River.
Underground Railroad Connection
As an alternative to this trip, or in conjunction with this trip, you can also head upstream from the Beaubien Woods Boat Ramp for a short distance and pass historic Underground Railroad sites. Although the buildings, bridge, and ferry that were stops on the Underground Railroad no longer stand, you can use this map to understand where they were and get a sense of the history of this stretch of the river. Download the Underground Railroad map.
Always check United States Geological Survey (USGS) water data before your trip.
Gouwens Park to Little Calumet Boat Launch: Upper Little Calumet River
Skill Level: Beginner
Length: Approximately 7 miles
Directions: The put-in at Gouwens Park, owned by the Village of South Holland, is located at 16170 Seton Drive in South Holland, Illinois. The take-out is at the Little Calumet Boat Launch, owned by Cook County Forest Preserves, and located just east of Ashland Avenue, north of Jackson Street, in Riverdale. Jackson and Ashland Streets do not connect, so you must use a small connector street on the east side of Ashland, just south of Broadway Street and north of 138th Street. Take the connector to Jackson, turn left, and then turn left again into the preserve.
Notes: This is an excellent trip for beginners and families with children, and it follows a beautiful stretch of the river. Although the river runs through populated urban areas, its banks are mostly wooded and wildlife is abundant, with common sightings of blue herons, American egrets, beavers, and deer. The last third of the trip is almost completely within Forest Preserves of Cook County land, and the stream bottom is composed of cobble, making good habitat for aquatic life. This stretch is approximately 7 miles in length and does not usually have obstructions that completely block passage. This is a shallow stretch with no powerboat use and no obstacles to portage around. It’s also one of the least-traveled waterways of the region. Please respect the privacy of riparian landowners—no landing on private property.
For a shorter trip, you can take out after five miles on river right at the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s new launch at Kickapoo Woods. Kickapoo Woods is located on the west side of Halsted Street south of 144th Street in Riverdale.
This route is the focus of an annual cleanup open to the public, for which people clean trash out of the river by canoe and kayak. It takes place annually on the first Saturday of June. To see a video featuring Michael Taylor, Water TrailKeeper for the Little Calumet River, and an organizer of this clean up, click here.
Always check United States Geological Survey (USGS) water data before your trip.
Riverfront Park to Gouwens Park: Upper Little Calumet River
Skill level: Beginner
Length: 1.35 miles
Directions: From 170th Street in South Holland, drive north on either Paxton or Merrill Avenues. At East 166th Place turn west and drive to the end of the street and enter the small parking lot in Riverfront Park. The launch site is directly north of the parking lot.
The take-out is on the left in Gouwens Park just past the I-94 Bishop Ford Freeway. Gouwens Park is located at the north end of Seton Drive in South Holland. From the Bishop Ford Freeway exit at 159th Street, and drive west on 159th to the first stoplight at Woodlawn Ave. Turn north on Woodlawn and immediately turn east onto Seton Drive. Follow Seton Dr. east and north past Seton High School into Gouwens Park. Park in the lot and take the foot path to the river. The canoe launch is at the end of the path.
Notes: This short trip can be an easy round trip in low flow conditions. The banks are wooded and the confluence with Thorn Creek is less than ½ mile from the put in at Riverfront Park, so this is also a trip from which to explore Thorn Creek. Thorn Creek may be affected by log jams.
Always check United States Geological Survey (USGS) water data before your trip.
Wolf Lake is part of the Calumet water trails system and connects to the Calumet River through Indian Creek. Wolf Lake is comprised of 804 acres spanning the Illinois-Indiana border. The Illinois side of the lake is within William W. Powers State Recreation Area, located at 12949 S. Avenue O, Chicago, IL 60633 and is managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Notes: Wolf Lake is a startling juxtaposition of industry and nature. Paddling the Illinois side and looking east offers views of industry, including tank farms containing fuel, oil, and solvents, and the railroad tracks that run through the Illinois side of the lake. Looking north yields wooded surrounding scenery.
Before settlement and industrialization, Wolf Lake was significantly larger, part of a vast complex of prairies, wetlands, and savanna that made up the Calumet area. The lake was particularly rich in plant and animal life, some unique to the area. Despite heavy industrial impact, Wolf Lake still supports more plant and animal species than almost anywhere else in the Chicago area and remains globally significant for its ecology.
The Illinois side of the lake is divided into a north, middle, south, and east region by levees, created when Wolf Lake was dredged to provide fill for the Indiana Toll Road and railroad tracks. There are two established launch sites on the Illinois side within William W. Powers Recreation Area: one on the northwest side of the lake, which includes two boat ramps, one leading to the north region of the lake and one leading to the middle. The other launch site, located on the northern shore near the Illinois-Indiana border, leads to the east region of the lake.
There are no boat rentals available at this time on the Illinois side, but you can bring your own canoe or kayak. Rentals are available on the Indiana side of Wolf Lake.
Once on the lake, waters are typically calm, but do not paddle after heavy rains or in strong winds. Water depth is an average of 8.5 feet, with depths reaching up to 20 feet in some areas. Prior to dredging, the lake was much shallower. Since 2000, much restoration work has been done to recreate shallows and wetland habitat on the Indiana side of the lake.
While paddling the lake, be sure to keep an eye out for fish. Wolf Lake is home to many kinds of fish, including some that require clear water and native vegetation, such as the Iowa darters and banded killfish. Also look for turtles including painted turtles, spiny softshell turtles, and snapping turtles. You can also find flowering plants along the shores and levees such as asters and milkweed. One hundred and seventy species of bird, including rare and endangered species including yellow-headed blackbirds and black-crowned night herons have been recorded at Wolf Lake.
The 192-acre Powderhorn Lake Preserve is located in the Village of Burnham. The preserve is owned and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and 130 acres have been designated as a state nature preserve to protect its diverse plant and wildlife habitat.
To get to Powderhorn Lake, take the I-94 Bishop Ford Freeway and exit at 130th Street. Then head east for 1.5 miles to Brainard Avenue (also called Saginaw) and turn right. Take Brainard 1.8 miles to the preserve entrance on the left side of the street.
Notes: On the north and northwest side of the preserve, remnant dune and swale habitat, including prairie, marsh, and savanna can be seen. Thousands of years ago, Lake Michigan completely covered the area, and as it shrunk over time, drifting sands were deposited, creating sandy soil and low swampy areas that support a great diversity of species.
Industrialization of the Calumet area has destroyed much of the vast complexes of wetlands, lakes, and prairies that used to concentrate along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, but remnants such as the habitat preserved at Powderhorn remain, and the Calumet area is still globally significant for its ecology.
The 48-acre Powderhorn Lake itself did not exist until the 1950s, when it was dug as a borrow pit for the sand needed to construct the Indiana Toll Road and Chicago Skyway.
Paddling Powderhorn Lake is appropriate for beginners and families. There is one established boat launch on the west side of the lake, which can be reached by following the right branch of the parking lot from the preserve entrance. Once on the lake, water depth can reach 20 feet near the center and is surrounded by a shallow, marshy shoreline.
Powderhorn Lake sits in one of the most biodiverse areas in the Chicago region. The dune and swale habitats host a variety of plant life such as prickly pear cactus. Paddlers can further explore the natural areas surrounding the lake such as Burnham Woods and Burnham Prairie Nature Preserve.
While paddling, keep an eye out for Osprey. These birds are known for catching fish “on the wing,” or while flying. The Forest Preserves of Cook County installed two Osprey nesting platforms 40-60 feet off the ground, where Osprey can nest and remain safe from predators such as raccoons. You may see the birds flying above the lake, and if you look west from the water, you can see the tall poles that hold platforms. Osprey, once declared extirpated from Illinois, began to recover in the 1970s as water quality improved and DDT, a notoriously harmful pesticide, was banned. High nesting platforms that keep the birds safe from predators give the population an extra boost.
Depending on the season, anywhere from 40-100 bird species can be found near Powderhorn Lake, including blue jays, great egrets, and the black-capped chickadee. The lake itself is home to an abundance of fish species including largemouth bass, blue gill, northern pike, bullhead, and many more.
Sections of wetland, prairie, and savanna surrounding Powderhorn Lake are currently ecological restoration sites. Friends of the Forest Preserves and Calumet Stewardship Initiative hold regular volunteer events.
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