Places To Kayak In Illinois (10 Surprising Places to Kayak)

When you think of Illinois, what comes to mind? Perhaps its vibrant cities like Chicago, with its towering skyscrapers and bustling streets? Maybe it’s the historical landmarks that have stood as silent witnesses to pivotal moments in America’s story.

Or the vast stretches of corn and soybean fields, painting the landscape with a hue of golden yellow? While all these are intrinsic parts of Illinois’s identity, there’s another facet waiting to be explored – its aquatic wonders.

Amidst the symphony of urban life and the rustle of golden crops, Illinois hides waterways that are a dream for kayaking enthusiasts.

“Places To Kayak In Illinois” isn’t just a guide; it’s an invitation. An invitation to explore the shimmering lakes reflecting the sky’s myriad colors, the rivers that snake through forests and plains, and those secluded oases that remain untouched by time.

For the adventure seeker, the serenity lover, or the nature enthusiast, these waters promise experiences as diverse as the state itself.

So, if you’ve ever felt the urge to paddle away from the known into the embrace of nature, Illinois beckons you. Dive in, paddle on, and let the Waterway Wonderland of the Midwest surprise you!

Overview of The Places to Kayak in Illinois

If you’re looking for the best places to go kayaking in Illinois, you’re certainly not alone. The state of Illinois is home to amazing bodies of water, from freshwater lakes and rivers to a stunning selection of coastal shorelines.

Whether you’re an experienced paddler or just getting started, there are plenty of opportunities for kayaking adventures all over Illinois.

Explore Lake Michigan and paddle through National Wildlife Refuges, including one of the largest inland sand-bottom lakes in the nation, Burning Star State Fish and Wildlife Area.

Check out Springfield Lake for more wildlife spotting, or break away from the crowd and head down to Rend Lake for clear waters and big bass fishing.

Why Scenic Drives Are A Great Way To Explore Illinois

Scenic drives offer travelers the opportunity to experience the breadth of natural beauty, historical landmarks, and local charm that Illinois has to offer. Here are several reasons why taking a scenic drive is a fantastic way to explore the state.

Diverse Landscapes

Illinois is home to a variety of terrains ranging from the flat prairies of Central Illinois to the rolling hills and bluffs along the Mississippi River. The Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois also provides wooded beauty and dramatic rock formations.

Rich History

A drive through Illinois will reveal its rich history. Whether it’s Route 66, which snakes its way from Chicago to St. Louis, the Lincoln Highway, or roads that take you past historic homes, old barns, and antique shops, you’re sure to experience a touch of the past.

Architectural Wonders

Cities like Chicago are known for their architectural gems. Driving through the state, one can witness a range of structures from the skyscrapers of Chicago to the historic homes in Galena.

Charming Small Towns

As you drive across Illinois, you’ll encounter numerous small towns, each with its unique charm and character. Towns like Galena, with its preserved 19th-century buildings, or Nauvoo, known for its historic sites related to the Latter Day Saint movement, offer fascinating glimpses into the past.

Festivals and Seasonal Events

Depending on when you visit, various towns and cities in Illinois hold festivals and events. These can range from fall pumpkin festivals to summer art fairs. A scenic drive can be timed to coincide with these events.

Wineries and Breweries

Southern and Western Illinois, in particular, boast a number of wineries and breweries. A scenic drive can easily be combined with wine-tasting or brewery tours.

Accessible Nature Spots

The scenic byways often lead to state parks, nature preserves, and recreational areas where visitors can stretch their legs, hike, picnic, or simply enjoy the views.


A road trip can be a cost-effective way to explore. You can go at your own pace, choose where to stop and adjust your trip according to your budget.

Photographic Opportunities

From the urban landscape of Chicago to the natural beauty of places like Starved Rock State Park or Garden of the Gods, photographers will find plenty of opportunities to capture stunning images.

Personalized Exploration

One of the best things about a scenic drive is the flexibility it offers. You can tailor your journey based on your interests, whether they are historical, natural, gastronomical, or a mix.

10 kayaking places in Illinois

Lake Michigan

With over 22,000 square miles of water, Lake Michigan offers plenty of opportunities for kayaking, with scenic views of the Chicago skyline.

Lake Michigan is the third largest Great Lake in the United States, spanning nearly 22,000 square miles and encompassing parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. It is the only Great Lake entirely within the boundaries of the United States.

The lake’s surface area is larger than that of Rhode Island or Delaware combined. For kayakers looking for a picturesque view of Chicago, Lake Michigan offers plenty of options along its southern shoreline.

Beyond merely kayaking around the lake itself, paddlers can explore over 5,000 miles of rivers and streams that feed into it including the Chicago River with abundant opportunities for sightseeing and fishing.

Wildlife enthusiasts may even spot some of its many aquatic inhabitants, such as salmon or steelhead trout. With dozens of beaches along its shores and islands to explore, this vast body of water provides endless possibilities for exploration for any avid outdoorsman or woman.

Fox River

This river flows from Wisconsin down to Illinois and offers kayakers both calm and rapid sections, depending on where you choose to paddle.

The Fox River is a popular destination for kayakers in the Midwest. The river begins in rural Wisconsin and winds its way through over 190 miles of some of the most scenic countryside before emptying into the Illinois River near Ottawa, Illinois.

Along the journey, kayakers can experience both calm waters and thrilling rapids. The upper section of the river features Class I and Class II rapids, with faster-moving waters near Bortonville, Wisconsin.

Further downstream, around DePere and Green Bay, Wisconsin, kayakers will find a wide variety of calmer sections to explore.

Additionally, many local outfitters offer guided trips along certain stretches of this majestic river. With its abundance of wildlife and natural beauty, it’s no wonder that so many people are drawn to the Fox River for their paddling adventures.

Kankakee River

The Kankakee River is one of the best places to go kayaking in Illinois, with a mix of calm and fast-moving water and scenic views.

The Kankakee River offers a unique and exciting kayaking experience in Illinois. Spanning over 112 miles, the river is fed by several tributaries, creating a mix of fast-moving rapids and slow-moving placid stretches ideal for leisurely paddling.

With its diverse array of habitats, it also provides great opportunities to observe nature in action from bald eagles soaring high above to schools of fish swimming underneath the surface.

Plus, with its scenic backdrop of lush forestland, rolling hills and picturesque wetlands, the Kankakee River is an unbeatable spot for recreational boaters looking for some time in the wild.

Des Plaines River

This river runs through the northern suburbs of Chicago and offers kayakers a peaceful journey through lush forests, marshes, and prairies.

The Des Plaines River is a major tributary of the Chicago River that begins in southeastern Wisconsin and flows more than 130 miles through the state, eventually meeting Lake Michigan.

Running through the northern suburbs of Chicago, this river offers kayakers a unique journey through some of the region’s most beautiful natural landscapes.

Along its course, paddlers travel past lush forests, vibrant marshes, and expansive prairies that come alive with wildlife.

The Des Plaines also serve as a key habitat for migratory birds, such as bald eagles and sandhill cranes. With ample opportunities for fishing and camping, this river provides an unforgettable experience for outdoor enthusiasts.

Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is one of the largest and most popular rivers in the United States and offers kayakers a variety of scenic views and wildlife.

The mighty Mississippi River is the second-longest river in the United States and is the largest river system in North America.

It flows from its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota down to its termination point at the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River offers kayakers a truly unique experience, with its meandering course providing a variety of scenic views and wildlife.

Along the Mississippi, you can see soaring bald eagles, colorfully painted turtles, and graceful herons. You may even come across playful river otters or majestic beavers building their dams.

Not only that, but you can witness an array of breathtaking landscapes – from lush forests to wide-open prairies – as you travel down this grand body of water. The Mississippi River is truly a sight to behold!

Lake Springfield

This lake offers kayakers a peaceful and serene environment to paddle, surrounded by stunning views of nature and wildlife.

Lake Springfield is an idyllic destination for kayaking that offers paddlers an unparalleled opportunity to connect with nature.

The lake is surrounded by lush rolling hills, lush forests filled with a variety of wildlife, and majestic mountaintops that provide breathtaking views.

As you paddle through the calm waters of the lake you will be rewarded with calming sights and sounds of nature such as vibrant birdsong, rustling trees, and gentle waves lapping against the shoreline.

Kayakers can take in the peaceful atmosphere as they explore the lake at their leisure and enjoy the beauty of this tranquil environment.

Mackinaw River

This river is a hidden gem in Central Illinois, with calm waters that make it perfect for kayaking and exploring wildlife.

The Mackinaw River is a breathtaking sight located in Central Illinois, offering travelers a unique and peaceful experience.

Its crystal-clear waters are ideal for kayaking and canoeing, while its calm surface makes it an excellent spot for wildlife observation.

The river’s abundant fish population entices anglers from all around, making it an angler’s paradise.

Visitors can also witness the many different species of birds that inhabit the area. Soaring eagles, graceful blue herons, lively sparrows and much more make this area a birder’s delight.

The stunning views of wildflowers along the banks of the river add to its beauty, as do the tall trees that line its shoreline. All in all, the Mackinaw River is an unforgettable natural wonder that offers something special for every type of traveler.

Vermilion River

The Vermilion River offers kayakers a mix of calm and fast-moving water, with scenic views of waterfalls and wildlife along the way.

The Vermilion River is a beautiful and unique kayaking destination located in the Midwest United States.

This river offers those who enjoy paddling and outdoor adventure an opportunity to experience stunning scenery, exciting rapids and thrilling wildlife sightings.

Kayakers will be surrounded by lush trees and wildflowers that line the banks of the river as they take in spectacular views of waterfalls cascading over rocks and boulders.

Along the way, they may spot turtles, deer, beavers, eagles and other wildlife. While some sections feature slower-moving waters ideal for leisurely paddling, others bring more fast-moving rapids offering an adrenaline-filled challenge for more experienced kayakers.

And no matter your experience level, all can appreciate the beauty of this natural landscape while experiencing a one-of-a-kind adventure on the Vermilion River.

Chicago River

Paddle through the heart of Chicago on the Chicago River, taking in views of the city’s famous architecture and bustling energy.

The iconic Chicago River is a must-see for anyone visiting the Windy City. Paddle through the heart of the city and take in views of some of the world’s most famous architecture, including the Willis Tower, the John Hancock Center, and Marina City.

Enjoy the lively atmosphere as you float by bustling restaurants and shops. You’ll also see evidence of Chicago’s history along your route, from 19th-century bridges to towering public artworks. It’s an experience that no visitor should miss!

Clinton Lake

This lake is located in central Illinois and offers kayakers a peaceful environment with calm waters and scenic views of nature.

Clinton Lake is a beautiful lake located in central Illinois, situated near the town of Decatur. It’s an ideal spot for kayakers looking for a tranquil setting with crystal-clear waters and lush scenery.

Nature lovers will appreciate the abundance of wildlife that can be found here including various species of fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

The lake has several small coves and bays which provide plenty of opportunities for exploring and discovering its beauty.

There is also plenty of space to picnic, camp, or just relax in the sun on its many sandy beaches. Clinton Lake is surrounded by gently rolling hills, giving visitors stunning views that extend far beyond the lake’s shoreline.

Tips for Safely Enjoying the Drive

Best Time to Visit Illinois for a Drive

The best time to visit Illinois for a drive can depend on what you’re looking for out of your trip. If you’re looking to take in the sights and sounds of the region, then Spring and Fall are the best times to visit, as the temperatures remain moderate and there’s an abundance of colorful foliage during these seasons.

If you’re an adventure seeker or outdoors enthusiast, then Summer is the perfect time to explore, as many of Illinois’ parks feature plenty of activities such as kayaking and hiking.

Preparing for Kayaking in Illinois

When preparing to go kayaking in Illinois, it’s important that you research any rules or regulations that might be in effect so that your experience goes off without a hitch.

Additionally, familiarize yourself with the types of water features available near where you’ll be paddling, especially if you’ll be taking a guided tour; doing so will allow you to better determine which type of vessel may work best for navigating those particular areas.

Lastly, make sure to bring along all necessary safety equipment and supplies like life jackets and whistles before embarking on your journey!

Must-Have Supplies for Kayaking in Illinois

If you plan on going kayaking while visiting Illinois, then it’s essential that you bring along some key items before setting out on the water:

Life jackets (must be approved by the U.S Coast Guard), oar or paddle (depending on the type of vessel), whistle (to alert others nearby in case of emergency), first aid kit (in case someone gets injured), dry bags/containers (for storing food/electronics), sunscreen/bug spray (to protect against sunburns/insects), hat/sunglasses (for extra protection from UV radiation).

Kayaking Laws in Illinois

Kayakers must adhere to certain regulations while paddling within state boundaries; these laws vary slightly depending on location but generally require all vessels operating above navigable waters must display an illumination system at night time, including navigation lights and reflective tape when applicable.

All boats must also have at least one personal flotation device per person onboard – children under 13 must wear their devices at all times when out on open water – and operators should remain aware of local no-wake zones that may apply near certain shorelines or other designated areas.


Overall, Illinois has plenty of excellent options for kayaking enthusiasts. From quiet spots along the Illinois River to larger lakes such as Lake Michigan and Lake McLain, there are opportunities for all levels of experience and interests.

Additionally, the numerous schools, shops, and other organizations around the state provide additional resources for those interested in learning kayaking techniques or advancing their skills to the next level. With its varied landscape and a good range of kayak-friendly areas, Illinois is a great place to explore by water.