Many partners and states are working toward developing a continuous four state water trail that traverses the entire shore line of Lake Michigan. In 2009, a section of the Lake Michigan Water Trail extending from the Chicago Park District’s Leone Beach at Touhy Avenue south along Chicago’s Lakefront and east along the entire shoreline of Indiana was designated a National Recreational Trail. All four states surrounding Lake Michigan shoreline are working to complete and improve the Lake Michigan Water Trail. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program has developed a website with information on the Lake Michigan Water Trail in Illinois. If you are planning a trip that includes another state, see information from the the State of Michigan, the State of Indiana, and the State of Wisconsin.
Please Be Advised: A trail on Lake Michigan presents considerations unlike those of the other water trails. A lake trail is defined only by the location of the access points. The distance paddlers can go from shore, the potential for high wind and waves, and high speed power boat traffic can make paddling on the lake a challenge even for experienced users. For these reasons, paddling on Lake Michigan is recommended only for paddlers with proper boats (sea kayak), equipment, and skills appropriate to the water and weather conditions. Paddling with a group or experienced partner is strongly recommended.
Always check the marine weather forecast before you put in.
Notes: All Lake Michigan trips can be run in either direction so only the access sites and parking is described for each site in a stretch. Sites are not identified as the “put-in” or “take-out.”
The Illinois section of the Lake Michigan Water Trail stretches 68 miles from the Indiana border, at Calumet Park on the south side of Chicago, to the Wisconsin border, north of Winthrop Harbor in Lake County. The 23 miles of Chicago’s Lakefront are almost entirely open to the public thanks to Daniel Burnham’s visionary Chicago Plan of 1909. Boat-friendly sand beaches line its shore at some places on the south side and much of the shoreline on the north side of the city.
In northern Cook County and in southern Lake County, the beaches narrow and give way to high wooded bluffs topped by homes and a few suburban parks. North of the industrial area of Waukegan, the sand beaches return and Illinois Beach State Park protects several miles of shoreline from private development.
Beaches require little or no improvements to provide access for boats of a wide variety of design and materials. While access to and from beaches is important to the creation of a lake trail, harbor access also plays a critical role in Lake Michigan. High waves and the resulting surf in shallow waters can make an unprotected beach a difficult and/or dangerous place to launch from or land on for small boaters. Harbors, ramps, and protected beaches are therefore important design elements for a long lake trail.
Along the lakefront north of Chicago, many municipalities control parking and/or launching by imposing high daily and seasonal fees for non-residents and/or a restricted number of permits for non-residents to launch. Even paddlers who are residents of a lakefront suburb may find it expensive or difficult to access launch sites in other municipalities, limiting their ability to use the north shore as a trail for longer and one-way trips.