An Urban Canyon: Kayaking the Chicago River

One of my favorite summer activities is paddling down a river.  Growing up in Michigan and later living in Tennessee, these experiences were typically very rural.  That changed when I moved to Chicago and came to realize there are many opportunities to enjoy the Chicago River.  Summer is officially over, but there's a little warm weather left... so if you've been thinking about enjoying the outdoors, now is your time.  Get out there!

Fun fact: The flow of the Chicago River was reversed in 1871, one of the greatest engineering feats of the time.

With the recent expansion of the Chicago Riverwalk, the river is attracting more visitors than ever before.  The canyon-like views from the river itself are stunning.  Architecture fans shouldn't miss enjoying a cruise down the river on one of the city's many architecture boat tours.  But for the more adventurous, I recommend renting a kayak and paddling through the urban canyons of the Chicago River.  Here are some tips.

Photo By Jake Bartlett

Photo By Jake Bartlett

Is the water safe/clean?

Probably not.  The Chicago River isn't going to be winning any awards for cleanliness in the near future, but the city is working to improve this. There are many kayak rentals along the river, you won't be the alone one out there.  Just don't drink or swim in the water.

Where can you rent kayaks in Chicago?

1) Kayak Chicago
1501 N Magnolia Ave, Chicago, IL
(630) 336-7245

2) Wateriders
950 N. Kingsbury St, Chicago, IL
(312) 953-9287

3) Urban Kayaks Riverwalk
435 E. Riverwalk South, Chicago, IL
(312) 965-0035

4) Urban Kayaks The Cove
71 West Riverwalk South
(312) 965-0035

5) Urban Kayaks Chinatown
300 West 19th St, Chicago, IL
(312) 965-2113

The locations above are located within the city and offer great views of the skyscrapers.  For calmer waters along a more natural stretch of the Chicago River, check out

How long does it take?

Kayaks are rented by the hour and you can take them out as long as you want - just return the kayak before the rental place closes.  Some places offer guided tours.  If it's your first time, you might enjoy this.  The guides are very knowledgeable about the city and it's architecture.


The river is yours to explore!  But be aware of your surroundings.  There are a lot of big boats out there (water taxis, tour boats, yachts).  When you cross the river, cross under a bridge at a 90 degree angle; angled crossings are discouraged as they take longer and you want to stay out of the way of traffic.  Bring sun screen and water, it can be a work out!

Now, get out there before you find yourself sitting in your living room sipping hot coco and saying "damn it's cold, I can't wait for summer."  Because, lets be honest, that will happen.