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Kayaking in Illinois: 19 amazing kayaking spots

Looking for spots for kayaking in Illinois? You have come to the right place.

There’re no qualms about Illinois being among the most beautiful places in the US when talking about the richness of ecology.

As a result, kayaking in Illinois is a raging recreational activity in the state.

Here is our list of best kayaking places spots:

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Best Illinois kayaking spots

Here is our overview of the best spots in Illinois for kayaking.

Best Kayaking in Chicago

The Navy Pier in Chicago
The Navy Pier in Chicago

Lake Michigan

Paddle down to the Navy Pier descent in the friendly waters of Chicago’s iconic lake Michigan to watch the fireworks.

Or, you and your valentine can step up your romance by adding a night kayaking trip after a few drinks and good food.

One of the best Illinois kayaking spots, you’ll find plenty of safe beaches and spots like the North Avenue Beach at Lincoln Park to launch into the waters.

Highlights

With 1638 miles of shoreline, and countless boat ramps and kayak spots, kayaking in Lake Michigan will probably never be repetitive.

Those who want to encircle the whole lake can use the facilities of the Lake Michigan Water Trail.

The Chicago River is a great place for kayaking
Kayaking on the Chicago River

Chicago River

Chicago’s skyline cannot be appreciated well if not witnessed paddling in the best kayaking river in Illinois, the Chicago River.

The sheer magnificence of the skyline is overwhelmingly inspiring while the river’s calm and fresh waters add more dynamism to your kayaking experience.

You’ll easily find genuine kayaking rentals in Illinois that provide guided tours and all the training for a safe kayaking trip.

Highlights

Fascinating tales of the natives who paddled the river centuries ago will give you a beautiful perspective of the city.

Also, the modern architecture of stunning buildings like the Willis Tower will add more magnificence to your kayaking experience.

Montrose Beach is a good place for kayaking in Chicago
Montrose Beach near Chicago

Montrose Beach

Enjoy the summer breeze alone or with loved ones at one of the best Illinois kayaking spots located at 200 W. Montrose Harbor in Chicago.

Also called the “Mondog”, Montrose Beach is a dog-friendly spot, away from the busy stretches of Chicago.

Kayakers won’t have to research extensively for rentals, plenty of kayak rental services offering guided tours and training lessons are located near the beach.

Highlights

Paddle to Montrose beach and stop here to enjoy bird watching, swimming, and the appetizing seafood.

Here is a list of more great beaches in Illinois.

Kayakers at Skokie Lagoons

Kayaking Near Chicago

Skokie Lagoons

Another paddling spot in Chicago, Illinois is the Skokie Lagoons which is situated in the suburbs.

These lagoons are perfect for kayakers of any skill to relax and explore the natural beauty.

About 30 minutes southwards of Chicago Botanic Garden, the Skokie Lagoons are interconnected and full of local wildlife such as muskrats, waterfowl, etc.

Moreover, the spellbinding fall between the lagoons adds a tinge of red, yellow, and orange to the nearby greenery.

This is surely a must-visit place on the Illinois kayak map where you can lazily paddle all day long and enjoy nature in its truest form.

This is also a great place for hiking. Check out the Skokie lagoon inner trail.

Highlights

Fishing and relaxing all day in the lagoons would be a great climax to your kayaking journey.

Independence Grove is one of the best for kayaking in Illinois.
Sunrise at the Elk Grove in Busse Woods

Busse Woods

If you are going kayaking in Illinois, the Busse Woods should be on your itinerary.

A paradise for kayakers, this 3,558-acre location has marshes and woodlands with rich wildlife and vegetation.

Just 30 minutes away from the city of Chicago, you can plan a perfect weekend getaway.

The best time to go kayaking would be in the morning after which you can move to the quiet woodlands or go for a hike on the trails that provide enough shade to keep you cool during a hot summer day.

You can contact the boating and kayaking centers at Busse Woods for a safe trailed launch of your kayak.

Hiking lovers should check out the Busse woods Loop trail.

Highlights

Elk are often spotted in the forest so you might spot some from the water as well. Cormorants and bald eagles also call this place home. The wildlife sightings would no doubt enrich your paddling journey.

Here is an overview of the best places to see bald eagles in Illinois.

Independence Grove is a great lake for kayaking in Illinois
Independence Grove

Independence Grove

Take a one-hour ride out of Chicago to reach Independence Grove, one of the best places to go kayaking in Illinois.

With its picturesque landscape featuring a 115-acre tree-lined lake, you have the perfect spot for a lazy weekend picnic with friends and family.

Since the lake is located inland, you won’t get many currents to paddle against which makes it much more pleasant than other lakes in Illinois.

You can rent a kayak or canoe and launch it from the Des Plaines River located close to the North Bay Pavilion.

At the launch, you get the shoreline fishing option, a trail that connects to the Des Plains River Trail, and a car parking facility.

Another launch which is 2.7 miles down the river trail is the Oak Spring Road Canoe Launch.

Highlights

Independence Groove is a scenic place to start your paddling adventure.

You can follow the river downstream for 2.7 miles or 7.2 miles to the next boat ramps or you can stay at Independence Groove and combine your paddling excursion with a hike, some fishing, or a refreshing beer at the beer garden.

Independence Groove is a regular scene for concerts in summer and is also ideal for hosting a picnic after paddling through the pristine waters.

Ceder Lake is a good place for Kayaking in Illinois
Kayakers on Cedar Lake (photo credits: Granger Meador)

Kayaking in Southern Illinois

Cedar Lake

This huge lake in Jackson County, Carbondale, IL is one of the most beloved destinations for kayaking in Southern Illinois.

With a total area of 1,750-acre, Cedar Lake is surrounded by limestone bluffs, hardwood forests, and huge cedar trees that are perfect locations for your weekend getaway kayaking and hiking trip.

In the north, lies the city of Carbondale while in the south of the lake is encompassed by the magnificent Shawnee National Forest.

Take along or rent out a kayak that you can either launch from the north or south end where the forest lies.  

Highlights

Residents of Carbondale love to come down to the lake to cool down during hot summer days.

It’s a family-friendly spot and in addition to kayaking also great for swimming.

The area encompassing the lake is also known for its abundant wildlife. White-tailed deer are sometimes spotted.

At Shawnee, you can kayak through mangroves

Shawnee National Forest

If you move further down south to the Shawnee National Forest you will get to see diverse natural vegetation along with majestic recreational lakes that are excellent for kayakers to spend their summer time.

With miles and miles of shoreline and varied boating attractions, Shawnee National Forest is without a doubt the best for kayaking in Southern Illinois.

The marinas at every location in the Shawnee National Forest offer ideal summertime conditions to organize a family picnic.

Spend the day catching largemouth bass and other native species at Kincaid Lake or the Lake of Egypt.

An overnight trip to Rend Lake Marina would bring magic to the already fascinating holiday while paddling in the large 1,000-acre Little Grassy Lake for a whole day of goodness on the water is what every family trip needs.

Highlights

If you’re going to Shawnee National forest to kayak you should also explore some of the other areas of the forest. Stop by at the Garden of the Gods to enjoy the scenic views and hike on those stunning trails or camp at night with your posse.

If you plan on spending the weekend in Shawnee National Forest, check out this post in which we share a list of the best cabins in Shawnee. 

These Cypress Swamps are on of the most idyllic places to Kayak in Illinois
A Cypress Swamp in the Cache River State Natural Area

Cache River System

Kayaking in Southern Illinois and its Marinas unfold unprecedented natural beauty that you must witness.

The Cache River System is a river system with slow-moving waterways and wetlands that offer kayakers an exciting opportunity to explore nature and unwind.

Take along your family and kids so they can learn about the geological and natural history of the Cache River System.

Filled with Cypress trees that are at least 1000 years in age, this river system attracts migratory birds and is on the Ramsar Convention’s list of Wetlands of International Importance.

More than 100 endangered or threatened plant and animal species can be found in this river system.

For a more immersive Cache River kayaking experience, you can hire local guides who will give you a detailed tour of the wetlands and river systems.

Highlights

Take a tour on a full moon evening to witness the fascinating wilderness filled with native flora and fauna.

Little Grassy Lake, a good place to go kayaking
Little Grassy Lake (photo credits: Darius Norvilas)

Little Grassy Lake

Little only in its name, the Little Grassy Lake in the Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge is a 1,000-acre recreational water body that is famous among campers, fishing enthusiasts, and kayakers.

Kayaking in Illinois feels truly fascinating when you pay a visit to Little Grassy Lake which has a variety of fish species.

You only have to shell out a minimum rental fee of $20 for a kayak or canoe.

Renting a 9-16 person pontoon can also be a great option if you are with your family and friends.

Since this is a recreational lake, you will get all the amenities including indoor restrooms, bathrooms with hot showers, a bait shop, camping supplies, and a dump station.

You can even carry your pet along to this place. 

Highlights

If you’re tired of paddling you can spend the rest of the day catching crappie, catfish, and bass and camp at the waterfront at night.

Lake Springfield, one of the best lakes to Kayak in Illinois
Lake Springfield (photo credits: straightedge217)

Kayaking in Central Illinois

Lake Springfield

Lake Springfield is a 4260-acre reservoir which makes it the largest lake owned by the Illinois municipality. It was created between 1931-1935 after a dam was built across Sugar Creek.

This massive water body in Central Illinois is a kayaking heaven that witnesses about 6000,000 recreational visits annually.

With its 57 miles of shoreline, you have plenty of stuff to explore and lots of spots from where you can launch your kayak. 

Kayaks and canoes can be rented together with a wide selection of other paddle products and boats.

Highlights

Relax in the calm waters and try catching at least one of the 15 sport fish species for a complete experience.

Lake Decatur, one of the best lakes to Kayak in Illinois
Lake Decatur

Lake Decatur

This majestic water body is located in the city of Decatur, IL.

A prominent spot for Kayaking in Central Illinois, Lake Decatur is 2,800 acres in size and was named after Commodore Stephan Decatur of the U.S. Navy.  

You need registration from the city to take your boat on the water.

Moreover, you can purchase day passes from the Lake Patrol office at Nelson Park.

You can ask for maps, fishing regulations, and other information at the Lake Patrol office without hesitation. 

The office is open from Monday to Friday during regular business hours and is staffed 24/7, especially during summer.

Highlights

Explore the 30 miles long shoreline and stop by at shoreline locations such as the historic Nelson Park. This is one of the oldest and most beautiful parks in Central Illinois.

It is also a great place to admire the fall colors. Here is an overview of more great places for fall colors in Illinois.

The boat dock in Moraine View State Park

Moraine View State Park

Convenient and accessible to locals for recreational activities and relaxation, the Moraine View State Park is the perfect example of a Central Illinois kayaking spot that one can visit on a weekend holiday trip.

The 158-acre lake is part of the entire landscape consisting of irregular crest-like formations called moraines with various other tree species like elm, hickory, ash, etc spread in the broad valleys and swells.  

Kayakers should be at least 16 years of age and carry a driving license or an ID issued by the state to rent a kayak. A minimum cash deposit of $20 would be required for every kayak or boat you rent.

Highlights

Soak in the tranquility of the Midwestern woodland and the refreshing waterways.

Also, if you’re in the mood, cast the pole in the calm waters and if luck is in your favor, you might catch a northern pike, bullhead, yellow perch, or any other species found there.

Aerial photo of Lake Shelbyville

Lake Shelbyville

Being the 4th largest lake in Illinois, Lake Shelbyville has been strategically developed as a recreational area with many launching ramps and three marinas.

Iconic as an Illinois kayaking spot, Lake Shelbyville’s 250 miles shoreline can be explored all day long on a weekend trip into this Midwestern wilderness.

Enjoyable cruising in the countless coves will give you the relaxing time you need from your busy life.

Highlights

Paddle through the beautiful calm waters of Findlay Marina, catch your favorite fish at the Lithia Springs Marina, and camp on the campground at Sullivan Marina. Afterward, you can relax on the beach.

Here is a list with more amazing things to do in central Illinois. 

Kayaking on the Vermilion River (photo credits: Eco-Justice Collaborative)

Kayaking in Northern Illinois

Starved Rock (Illinois and Vermillion River)

Attracting around 2 million visitors every year, the Starved Rock State Park is an exceptional spot for all kinds of recreational activities.

The 18 canyons, impressive rock formations, and waterfalls are some of the most fascinating scenic delights you can witness on your trip.

The Vermillion River has class III rapids while the Illinois River is a lounging place for baiters who like to make short weekend fishing trips.

Taking a 2-hour Vermillion and Illinois River kayaking tour at a leisurely pace is the best thing to do for a relaxing experience.

Highlights

After your kayak adventure, you can stop by Starved Rock State Park to see the Tonty Canyon Falls, Wildcat Canyon Falls, and St Louis Canyon Falls to make your trip truly spectacular.

Here you can find all our Starved Rock posts. 

The beautiful Kankakee river in Kankakee River State Park

Kankakee River

Termed the cleanest river in the midwest, The Kankakee River joins with Des Plaines to form the Illinois River.

The National Water Trail was designated for the preservation and sustenance of the river’s natural beauty.

Because of its calmly flowing water, the Kankakee River which is part of the Kankakee River State Park is one of the best kayaking rivers in Illinois for beginners.

Explore the stunning Indian Caves route along with the stretch from Momence Wetlands to Aroma Park.

Use the launches at the south side Area 9 parking and the Warner Bridge Day Use Area.

Highlights

Stop at the Perry Farm Park and explore the stunning Indian Caves. A beautiful stretch to paddle is the one from Momence Wetlands to Aroma Park.

The Kishwaukee River in Illinois

Kishwaukee River

Kishwaukee River is one the most suited river for kayakers and canoers because of the calm waters and its small size.

A pleasant paddle on a weekend trip to this river will be a tranquil experience for you. You might see otters, bald eagles, soft-shelled turtles, and many other species on its banks.

More than 299 bird species can be spotted while paddling through the waters.

Making short halts at the Kishwaukee River Forest Preserve and Espenscheid Memorial Forest Preserve to have a picnic can be a great idea.

Look for kayak rentals in Illinois offering guided tour packages that don’t burn a hole in your pocket.

Highlights

Go fall birding or relax in the waters after you throw in the bait in the hope to find healthy smallmouth bass.

Hennepin Canal in Illinois

Hennepin Canal

If kayaking thrills and relaxes you, then come prepared as the clear & calm waters of the Hennepin Canal will need muscle power.

With 21 Locks and exciting aqueducts, paddling through this Illinois kayaking spot will be a thrill. You can begin at Rock Falls and continue paddling till you reach the Visitor Center.

Also, going through the Hennepin Canal Recreational Guide will give you much more clarity about portaging. At just 6 feet deep, it is also safe for beginners to train.

Highlights

Make a stop to walk the old towing trail for a thrilling one-foot-after-the-other experience and a great view of the aqueducts and the locks.  

Kayaking on the Galena River (photo credits: Richie Diesterheft)

Galena River

Also called the Fever River, this Illinois Kayaking river meanders calmly through Northern Illinois’ lush wilderness before reaching downtown Galena.

You can launch your kayak at the Main Street in Galena.

You can join a tour from a local professional outfitter to enrich your excursion that will include wooded hills, cow pastures, and mesmerizing rock outcroppings.

Highlights

Launch at the Main Street in Galena, one of the best small towns in Illinois, to explore the clean waters that give a birdseye view of the aquatic life including Longnose Gor and stunning flora like Purple-stemmed Angelica. 

Wine lovers should check out these amazing Galena wineries.

FAQs About Kayaking in Illinois

Is There a Minimum Age for Renting a Kayak?

There are rental companies that set a minimum age bar for kayakers but the kayaking laws in Illinois do not mention any age limit.

Do You Need a License to Kayak in Illinois?

The kayaking law in Illinois restricts children aged 10 years or below from operating a motorized vessel.

  • Children 10-12 years old are allowed to operate a motorized vessel under the direct supervision of a guardian or parent.
  • Those between 12-17 years of age are allowed to operate a motorized vessel with more than 10hp only if they acquire the Boating Safety Certificate after clearing the Boating Safety Course that’s validated by the Department of Natural Resources, IL.
  • Also, parental or guardian supervision is still required for children between 12-17 years of age.

Can You Drink on a Kayak in Illinois?

The Kayaking BUI Law prohibits kayakers from being in control of or operating any vessel within Illinois while under the influence of alcohol or any form of drugs.

The law covers both non-motorized and motorized vessels.

Conclusion

Illinois is a great place for kayaking.

Here we shared an overview of the best kayaking spots in Illinois. From the best lakes for kayaking in Illinois to amazing rivers to kayak on.

Which one is your favorite?

For an overview of more things to see in Illinois, click here.

See the web story that accompanies this post.