Paddle Chicago: Stand Up Paddle Boarding in Monroe Harbor

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Chicago is an amazing city full of culture, museums, architecture, parks, amazing restaurants, unique music venues, sports - I could go on and on.  However, the proximity to Lake Michigan is my favorite aspect of the city.  I feel like I live on the lake - and not the dirt water lakes I grew up near in Oklahoma - a gorgeous lake that provides outdoor adventures for city dwellers.  After the Chicago River, Monroe Harbor is my second favorite place to take my inflatable paddle board - it's literally in my backyard.  The views of the Chicago skyline are breathtaking. 

Keys to paddle boarding Monroe Harbor:

  • Location: Monroe Harbor is directly east of Grant Park. You can access Monroe Harbor by the Lakefront Trail. Grant Park has many underground parking garages if you are driving and it's short walk to Monroe Harbor. If you are staying near the Riverwalk, you can walk east towards Lake Michigan and follow the lakefront path south to Monroe Harbor.

  • Launch Spot: It's best to launch your paddle board on the north or south ends of Monroe Harbor. The north end of the harbor will have more foot traffic and you will need to be aware of the areas where boats can dock which are clearly marked by yellow lines. There is one ladder that goes into the water near the boat docks that can be used to launch and secure your bag. The south end of the harbor has more space to inflate your paddle board on the large concrete area near the water, so the foot traffic is lighter.

  • Bring a Dry Bag - I pack my iSUP pump and anything non-valuable inside my iSUP backpack and leave it on the concrete area by the ladders that lead into the water. The dry bag is essential to pack anything of value and secure to your paddle board.

  • Start Early - The best time to paddle Lake Michigan is early in the morning before the boats and jet skis have time to churn up the water! If you just want to stay in the harbor area to paddle, you can go any time of the day. If you plan to paddle out further, I recommend starting by 8:00 am, at the latest.

  • Be Aware - Even if you start early, you might encounter a boat or two. Be aware of the boats coming in and out of the harbor and try to avoid their path.

  • Life Preserver - This should be a no brainer, but bring a life preserver. Pack a whistle, as well.

Launch Spot located at the North end of Monroe Harbor

Launch Spot located at the North end of Monroe Harbor

Launch Spot Locations in Monroe Harbor

Launch Spot Locations in Monroe Harbor

Where to explore after you launch:

  • Monroe Harbor - There is plenty of space in the harbor to get in a nice paddle, admire the boats and be mesmerized by the Chicago skyline.  The water is normally calm inside the harbor walls with occasional waves from the boats.  It’s a great place to try SUP yoga or rest and have a picnic on the water!

  • Museum Campus - In addition to the skyline, Monroe Harbor is located just north of the Museum Campus.  If you paddle to the southern end, you can exit the harbor between the edge of the harbor wall and the Shedd aquarium.  The water gets a little choppy here and watch out for the water taxi that runs from the Museum Campus to Navy Pier.  Paddle along the shore wall around the Shedd aquarium and you’ll end up in a nice calm area between the aquarium and the Adler Planetarium.  

  • Harbor Wall - I like to paddle out to the harbor wall and float with the current listening to the sea gulls perched on the wall - they are very talkative!  If I want a challenging paddle, I’ll exit the harbor on the south side of the wall and paddle north to the next break in the wall at about the halfway point of the harbor.  The water gets very choppy and there are huge chunks of concrete under water near the wall, so be very careful.  I wouldn’t recommend this for beginners. 

Calm waters between the Shedd aquarium and Adler Planetarium

Calm waters between the Shedd aquarium and Adler Planetarium

Watching the Blue Angels from my iSUP in Monroe Harbor

Watching the Blue Angels from my iSUP in Monroe Harbor

Monroe Harbor is a great place for beginner stand up paddle boarders, but challenging waters can be found for the experts just outside the harbor walls.  It’s also an excellent place to watch the Blue Angels fly overhead during the Chicago Air & Water Show!  If you have some time for breakfast or lunch, I recommend Cafe Michelle located at DuSable Harbor just north of Monroe Harbor. 

Happy paddling!