Where to Go Kayaking in Chicagoland with Kids

Enjoy the tranquility of nature by riding a kayak.

While there are tons of hiking trails to get (proverbially) lost in, don’t overlook the other fun way to unplug and explore the ins and outs of Chicagoland — by kayak!

Spend just a few hours out on the water, and we guarantee that your kids won’t even mind that they had to put their phones and iPads down for a family water adventure.

Quick Tips

Before you go, make sure you’re packed up and ensure that your family knows water safety. Here are a few things to know:

  • Don’t skimp on safety. Ensure that everyone has a properly fitting life jacket (including you) and remind your kids that it needs to stay on for the duration of the ride.
  • Pack the essentials. Water, sunscreen, snacks and a first-aid kit are MUST haves, no matter how long or short your kayak adventure is. It is fun for kids to have a sketch book along for the ride so that they can draw and write about their aquatic journey.
  • Do your research. In addition to checking the weather forecast to ensure that you have clear skies for your boat ride, you might also want to watch a few videos online to see what to do in the event of an overturned kayak or canoe.
  • Choose the right boat. If you are venturing out with little ones under 7, try a canoe since it is larger and tends to be more stable than a kayak. If a kayak is your only option, put your kiddo in the bow and let him or her enjoy a free ride while you paddle.

Where to Go Kayaking

Photo Credit: Margie Walsh

Busse Lake, Elk Grove Village

This large lake has calm and open waters perfect for paddling, fishing or simply observing wildlife. When you travel past the small islands, you will definitely feel surrounded by nature thanks to the sounds of the creatures in the Ned Brown Forest Preserve. After kayaking, enjoy a hike or bike ride on the paths and visit the elk—yes, that’s right, elk—that live there all year long.

Chicago River, North Branch

Once you have gotten your kayaking “sea legs” under you, try out the North Branch of the Chicago River. It is calmer than downtown, but can have a stronger current on a windy day, so be sure to check weather conditions before you launch.

Des Plaines River, Libertyville

The Des Plaines River, meandering through several forest preserves, presents an enchanting fall paddling experience. The surrounding forests erupt in a medley of colors, best viewed from the peaceful solitude of a kayak or canoe. Launch from Libertyville for a particularly scenic stretch of the river. Independence Grove Marina is a great spot to rent your boat, but be sure to check out their hours of operation first.

Fox River, Algonquin

With its calm current and scenic surroundings, the Fox River, just an hour northwest of Chicago, provides an ideal setting for a relaxing family paddle. Launch from Algonquin’s Cornish Park and drift down the river, soaking in the vibrant fall foliage on the banks. 

Nippersink Creek, McHenry County

Nippersink Creek is a hidden gem. This slow, winding waterway travels through beautiful nature preserves, where the fall foliage reflects vividly off the clear waters. Enjoy the quiet beauty of this paddling route.

Skokie Lagoons, Winnetka

Don’t be fooled by the name, the Skokie Lagoons are located just off Willow Road and stretch as far north as the Chicago Botanic Garden. It is a great spot for rookie paddlers because of the calm waters and its variety of pools and channels. The Skokie Lagoons are very buggy, so pack lots of insect repellent and wear appropriate clothing.

Worth the drive

Now that you’ve mastered the basics, venture to these drive-worthy destinations to test your family’s skills and explore the state’s diverse ecosystems. 

Cache River, Belknap

Head to southern Illinois to explore the Cache River by canoe or kayak. The cypress and tupelo swamps, unique to this region and located about six hours from Chicago, give way to brilliant color displays. You won’t feel like you are in Illinois on this paddle, but rather a hidden swamp in South Carolina. The diverse ecosystem also offers a chance to spot a variety of wildlife, adding an educational twist to the adventure. Cache Bayou Outfitters can help book a family excursion; if you are new to the area or to kayaking, consider signing up for one of the guided excursions, which is only a little bit more money than renting the kayak on its own.

Kankakee River, Kankakee

The Kankakee River, with its gentle current and abundant sandbars perfect for a picnic, makes an ideal location for a family kayaking or canoeing trip. Paddlers can enjoy the changing colors of the woodland and wetlands, particularly in the Kankakee River State Park, about one hour south of Chicago. 

Monee Reservoir, Monee

This 46-acre lake provides ample room for the youngest kayakers to work on their paddling skills, as well as observe more than 120 species of birds. You can bring your own boat (with permit) or rent one for both exploring and fishing. After your ride, head to dry land for a picnic or a game of bags, badminton or volleyball.


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Chicago Parent Editorial Team
Chicago Parent Editorial Team
Since 1984, the Chicago Parent editorial team is trained to be the go-to source for Chicagoland families, offering a rich blend of expert advice, compelling stories, and the top local activities for kids. Renowned for their award-winning content, the team of editors and writers are dedicated to enriching family life by connecting parents with the finest resources and experiences our community has to offer.
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