Rust Belt Paddling: Chicago River Water Trails

From concrete canyons to wild backwaters

South Branch Chicago River near Ping Tom Park.
South Branch Chicago River near Ping Tom Park.

Chicago River Water Trails

The Midwest isn't known for its canyons, but Chicago has a few. The canyons along the Chicago River aren't made of sandstone like those found on the Colorado River but of steel, stone, and glass. Chicago also offers options beyond the skyscrapers. The North Branch of the river is bucolic, due to Cook County forest preserves. The South Branch bustles with industry and barge and powerboat traffic, if you prefer city action.

Laura Barghusen, Associate Greenways Director of Openlands, has a couple favorite paddles.

"One paddle I really like is on the North Branch between River Park and Clark Park. The times I've been on it, it's been really good for wildlife. We saw baby raccoons looking out of a tree hollow at us. Lots of turtles too. That stretch is great for beginners as there's not much current, so you can even paddle back upriver if you don't want to shuttle."

Barghusen also likes the juxtapositions that await downtown.

"The Main Branch is extremely impressive. It's for more experienced paddlers because of the motorized and barge traffic, but a guided trip eases your way. We launched at Chinatown in voyageur boats. Looking north, you see the big skyscrapers. Looking south, you're looking at these old, mechanical bridges with all their moving parts. It's impressive both ways and really cool."

If you're looking for liveries, there's Chicago Canoe & Kayak with multiple locations and Chicago Kayak, which is good for downtown paddling, as they're right off North Avenue.

Maps can be found here.

More Rust Belt Paddling

Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Water Trail

70 miles of paddling along the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers


Milwaukee Urban Water Trail

Explore Wisconsin's largest city from the water