Places Covered in this Article
When we think of beach towns or new places to go paddle boarding, one can be forgiven for not having Chicago spring immediately to mind. But when you consider that water is the lifeblood of this vibrant city, you’ll be quick to rethink the Windy City as your new prime paddle boarding destination.
Chicago’s vast stretches of waterfront are prominent, as the city hugs the shores of Lake Michigan and sees the Chicago River snaking for miles through the heart of the city. The city’s easy accessibility to water and countless launch points make it easy for urban dwellers to find SUP adventures. Considering the close proximity to many other great spots to get out on the water that are just a short drive from the city center, Chicago IL is a paddle boarder’s paradise, whatever your SUP style.
You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to finding your perfect stand up paddle boarding spot in Chicago. There are plenty of options for a picturesque, peaceful paddle through some natural hideaways. If you want to get the blood pumping, you might want to paddle right through the center of this action-packed city. No matter the outdoor experience you want, Chicago should be at the top of your list of must-visit paddle boarding places.
So, pick your perfect paddle boarding vibe, grab your inflatable SUP, and let’s go paddle Chicago!
Here’s our guide for The Top Places to Paddle Board in Chicago!
For a picturesque stand up paddle in a protected area, Lincoln Park’s South Lagoon has calm waters, tree-lined banks and pretty Chicago skyline views to enjoy while taking in the chill vibe of the park. Connected to the southern end of Diversey Harbor, and located a stone’s throw from the zoo, the South Lagoon is great for inexperienced stand up paddle boarding beginners. It’s also a great alternative for seasoned paddlers if the waves on Lake Michigan are a bit too gnarly!
You can launch from Diversey Harbor Boat Ramp or Lincoln Park Boat Club.
In the downtown epicenter of ChiTown, you can people-watch and marvel at the city’s architecture as you paddle alongside the 1.25 mile stretch of the Chicago River that makes up the Chicago Riverwalk enclave. Soak up some serious buzz in the atmosphere as you paddle around the riverside promenade of The Loop, which is lined with restaurants, parks and outdoor hangouts. There are plenty of street level access points you can launch into the Chicago River from, at each major intersection.
After paddling alongside the frenetic tourist activity of the Loop, keep on paddling inland along the Chicago River past the River North enclave, until the river splits into two... And you’ll have cruised into the more low-key vibe that is Goose Island. Once an island that was heavily industrialized in its heyday, the factories and warehouses along these banks of the Chicago River are now making way to a floating city wetland ecosystem being developed, called the “Wild Mile”. Here, you can drift and explore the floating gardens along the banks of this new Chicago River eco-park, and watch the progress of the boardwalk and green zone developments. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a playful river otter! Just don’t let your eyes stray off your paddle boarding trajectory for too long.
Even though the water feels peaceful out here, this is still the Chicago River! It’s a busy area with lots of water traffic, so be sure to keep your wits about you and brace for the wake of passing boats. The water temperatures stay quite cool throughout the year, so make sure you are dressed appropriately for the water.
Updated July 2021 – We recently learned that the Forest Preserve District conducted an SUP feasibility study and the results indicated that the water quality in Skokie Lagoons Forest Preserve — which is man-made — is currently not high enough for activities that involve a high likelihood of entering the water. So, keep hold of your fishing gear for now! Once the water quality improves, you’ll be ready to hit Skokie Lagoons.
Forest Preserves of Cook County is a governmental commission to manage and maintain open natural spaces. In total, the Forest Preserves handles approximately 70,000 acres in the Chicago state area.
Located an easy 30 minute drive outside of the City of Chicago, this expansive wetland wilderness is a bird-watching and paddle board fisher’s wonderland. The chain of waterways is made up of seven lagoons, all linked together by meandering channels and river systems that are dotted with lush islands. Exploring the 11 miles of shoreline at Skokie Lagoons is a beautifully nature-oriented way to take in a tranquil exploration of Chicago’s river wilds at your own speed. Don’t forget to pack your fishing tackle to enjoy a spot of SUP Fishing, as Skokie Lagoons boasts some of the best fishing in the area, with plentifully restocked species that are jumping for hooks.
Updated July 2021 – We recently learned that the Forest Preserve District conducted an SUP feasibility study and the results indicated that the water quality in Big Bend Lake Forest Preserve — which is man-made — is currently not high enough for activities that involve a high likelihood of entering the water. So, keep your yoga vibes on hold for now! Once the water quality improves, you’ll be ready to hit Big Bend Lake.
To get far from the mad crowds without the lengthy drive, head inland to paddle on Big Bend Lake. While it’s only a quick, half-hour jaunt from the center of Chicago, the chill vibe you’ll feel here will fool you into thinking you’re a world away. At Big Bend Lake, you’ll enjoy calm and protected water that’s perfect for Chicago paddle board beginners. You’ll be able to hone your skills on the lake shore without having to worry about any wake from passing water traffic, as outboard motors are prohibited at this quiet oasis. The glassy, deep waters are crystal clear, providing a perfectly meditative backdrop for a peaceful day’s paddling.
Yes! You can definitely paddle Lake Michigan! And checking it out by stand up paddle board is one of the most unique ways you can experience this enormous body of water.
As it’s such a monster of a lake, Lake Michigan actually behaves a bit like the ocean; this place has crashing waves on several of the beaches, gravitational tides governed by the moon, and strong ocean-like currents in the water. So if you’re planning on a mellow lake paddle, this Great Lake might not be the one for you.
You can’t miss going out past the sailboats on the iconic Monroe Harbor if you want a stellar view of the Chicago skyline as the backdrop of your Lake Michigan stand up paddle boarding adventure.
Bordering on Lake Michigan, the water at Monroe Harbor will give you a bit of extra rock and roll as you paddle on the chop of the lake, so be sure to check the wind conditions before you head out. Launch from the harbor, or put in down at 12th Street Beach and paddle around the Planetarium to get to the harbor for extra scenic views.
If quintessential summertime vibes are your jam, head down to North Avenue Beach for your Lake Michigan SUP adventure. A bustling beach with a high-energy party atmosphere, you’ll be able to explore by paddle board along the vast waterfront, then come in onto the sand to join the fun, and take your pick from all the North Avenue beach front snack vendors when it’s time for a refresher.
No trip to North Avenue Beach would be complete without Clifford Jordan’s saxophone blasting “Dr. Chicago” in your headphones too!
Take a quick 15 minute detour out to escape the city’s busy pace, at this local favorite oasis. Montrose Beach is a unique spot on Lake Michigan, as it offers up some interesting sand dunes and diverse birdlife to discover when you come into shore.
Located within Lincoln Park, Montrose Beach allows you to paddle along the expansive Lake Michigan beachfront and dip your toe into some relaxing paddle board yoga.
The Montrose Beach Dunes are home to several endangered species of plant life that thrive in this serene place, and it all comes together to set the scene for some peaceful SUP yoga. Montrose Beach provides a perfectly protected cove for practicing your downward dog on the water!
Fancy a bit more stand up paddle boarding in Lincoln Park? Consider your Chicago SUP dreams realized at Kathy Osterman Beach. Located in the northern tip of the park, just above Montrose beach, you’ll get away from the hordes of people flocking to other busier places like Montrose Beach that’s more accessible from the city of Chicago, as this gem is a little further out of the way.
Head south from Montrose Beach if you’re planning on getting there on your paddle board. It makes for an exciting day’s adventuring around the shore of Lincoln Park if you explore the Montrose Beach Dunes and then take to the water to get down to Kathy Osterman Beach.
Despite how serene and peaceful it is, Kathy Osterman Beach has all the Lake Michigan conveniences a paddler needs, as it’s a designated launch point with a lake shore that’s well maintained by the good folks of the Lake Michigan Water Trail.
Soak up some relaxing atmosphere on the calm waters of Lake Michigan, and then if you’re feeling like a touch more adrenaline, paddle out around the break wall toward Foster Beach to feel the magnitude of the lake and build your bracing skills!
Once you’ve got your fill of action in the bustling city of ChiTown, take a daytrip off the beaten path and launch your paddle board in one of the nearby waterways of natural delights, to reconnect with some earth vibes and experience a natural Chicago paddle. A treasure trove of natural wonder, we know you’ll love exploring the State and National Parks in the outlying areas surrounding Chicago too.
Take a forest and meadow backdrop on your stand up paddle boarding journey by driving an hour from Chicago city and exploring Independence Grove. Its inland location means a glassy top and super gentle currents, so you can confidently launch here for a relaxing paddle, even if you’re just getting started at SUP.
For your whistle-stop tour exploring all the amazing waterways on your Chicago paddle, you’ll want a solid SUP that’ll stand up to any environment you find yourself discovering.
You can’t go wrong with a good all-rounder paddle board, like the GILI Sports Meno Inflatable SUP. This high achiever has a wide deck, is super stable, plus it’s cleverly designed with maximum glide in mind, so you can do more boarding and less paddling. The GILI Meno will open up a world of paddling possibilities for you... So you can try your hand at SUP yoga, paddle board fishing, and even take along your furry four-legged friend on your Chicago sup paddling adventure!
In case you’re taking a friend on your SUP expedition in Chicago and they don’t have their own board yet, you can rent an extra board for them from one of the following locations:
Chicago SUP - Multiple locations in: Diversey Harbor, Hollywood Beach, North Avenue Beach & Ohio Street Beach
Chicago Water Sport Rentals - 31st Street Harbor
Urban Kayaks - Monroe Harbor
Kayak Chicago - Montrose Beach
Paddle boarding adventures abound in the Windy City. Despite its reputation as a center for commerce, arts, and professional sports; Chicago has a lot to offer for nature lovers that want to get outside. You just need to know where to look and make sure you have the right equipment to enjoy a paddle board adventure. See you out there on the water in Chicago, IL!
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