Our Pledge To You


Paddle on: Updated comprehensive guide out on NE Illinois water trails

Scenic beauty varies from the urban to the decidedly urban--such as this shot up the South Branch of the Chicago River--along the water trails of northeast Illinois.
Credit: Dale Bowman

It’s alive.

Openlands not only launched a comprehensive online paddling guide for the key 10 water trails in northeastern Illinois, but set it up to be interactive so the guide can change and update with reader interactions.

And Paddle Illinois Water Trails is now a stand-alone site.

Laura Barghusen, associate greenways director, said the idea was to take paddler input, there is a comment button with each water trail, so that the site would “become a living, evolving guide.”

I like that idea.

“People can report log jams, what they saw, new launch sites,” she said. “We can keep it up to date.”

In quick run through of the three water trails I know the best, I think I got the hang of the site pretty quickly, both on my phone and my laptop.

On a whim, I asked Barghusen what trail she liked best.

“I really like the Upper Little Calumet River,” she said. “You see turtles and birds. There’s no dams, no portages. It’s very beginner appropriate.”

The site also contains connections to other primary water trails in Illinois.

Here is the word from Openlands:


*** Online Guidebook is First Comprehensive Resource for Paddling in the Region ***

(Chicago – July 10, 2017) Openlands announces the launch of an online paddling guide for the Water Trails of Northeastern Illinois. The website provides detailed information on over 500 miles of water trails for non-motorized boating on 10 of the region’s waterways, and promotes paddling as an inclusive activity for local tourism and outdoor recreation. The free guide is available at paddleillinoiswatertrails.org.

“For more than 50 years, Openlands has partnered with many organizations to ensure our waterways are clean, safe, and accessible to the public” said Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann. “Friends of the Chicago River was founded as a project of Openlands, we facilitate annual river cleanups around the region, and we host regular paddling events to foster greater appreciation for nature from the Calumet to the Kishwaukee.”

“This resource makes the region’s waterways more accessible to everyone, even individuals new to paddling who might not own their own equipment,” explained Laura Barghusen, Openlands Associate Greenways Director. “This builds upon our work and the work of our partners to make water trails inclusive and to allow people to explore some of the most diverse habitats in Illinois.”

The online guide contains detailed, step-by-step descriptions for over 50 trips throughout the region, with information on skill levels, trail length, directions, and equipment rental locations. Interactive maps are available for each waterway, indicating launch sites, dams, and the paddling difficulty along the trail. Paddlers are also encouraged to help keep the site up-to-date by reporting log jams, unexpected water traffic, wildlife sightings, and other significant observations via the comments for each trail.

About the Water Trails:

  • Calumet Area Water Trails: These water trails connect paddlers to waterways of globally significant ecology while exploring the area’s industrial past. Open paddling is an option on Wolf Lake and Powderhorn Lake.
  • Chicago River Water Trails: From Skokie Lagoons or Evanston on the Northshore Channel, through downtown Chicago to Portage Park on the southwest side, paddlers can experience wooded areas, huge skyscrapers, and areas of historical significance on the Chicago River. The Chicago Park District’s new boathouses enhance access to these trails.
  • Des Plaines River Water Trails: The 95-mile long Des Plaines River begins in Racine County, Wisconsin and flows south through four Illinois counties. With multiple boat launches available in Lake, Cook, and Will counties, the river changes in character from a prairie stream to a large urban river, and then to a major industrial waterway.
  • DuPage River Water Trails: The DuPage River is a small-to-medium sized stream flowing through DuPage and Will counties, with east and west branches that meet south of Naperville. The trails include peaceful, scenic trips for beginner paddlers and rapids for whitewater enthusiasts.
  • Fox River Water Trails: The Fox River Water Trails begin at the Illinois-Wisconsin border, traveling south from the Chain O’Lakes into highly urbanized areas including Elgin and Aurora, giving way to more natural settings and many islands downstream in Kendall County. These water trails, which include multiple dams and power boat traffic, are trips suitable for all skill levels.
  • Kankakee River Water Trails: The Kankakee River provides great opportunities for paddlers to experience high quality aquatic habitat. Many sections have a gentle current and wide, shallow stretches. The water trail begins just east of the Illinois-Indiana border and flows west to the Kankakee’s confluence with the Des Plaines River.
  • Kishwaukee River Water Trails: This river’s watershed covers 1,257 square miles across six counties in northern Illinois. The Kishwaukee has some of the highest quality aquatic habitat of the 10 trails, offering chances for paddlers of all skill levels to view wildlife.
  • Lake Michigan Water Trails: Approximately 23 miles of Chicago’s Lakefront are almost entirely open, with many boat-friendly sand beaches throughout the city. This trail is for advanced paddlers, and part of the multi-state Lake Michigan Water Trail.
  • Nippersink Creek Water Trail: This water trail is an excellent way to experience the landscapes of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge in McHenry County. With high quality wetlands and gentle waters, the Nippersink offers an easy and scenic trail.
  • Salt Creek Water Trails: Salt Creek Water Trails connect DuPage and Cook counties. Open paddling is available on Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Busse Lake, and the water trail begins below the lake’s dam, passing through high quality natural areas such as the Dorothy and Sam Dean Nature Sanctuary.


Openlands developed the Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Trail Plan in 1999 in partnership with Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, Illinois Paddling Council, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and multiple local government agencies. Grand Victoria Foundation provided essential support for the implementation of the Plan.

About Openlands

Founded in 1963, Openlands is one of the nation’s oldest and most successful metropolitan conservation organizations, having helped secure, protect, and provide public access to more than 55,000 acres of land for parks, forest preserves, wildlife refuges, land and water greenway corridors, and urban gardens. For more information, please visit www.openlands.org.