SUP Chicago: How to Paddle the Chicago River

Do you love stand up paddle boarding, architecture and exploring beautiful cities?  If so, a paddle down the Chicago River is your dream. If you time your trip just right, it feels like the city is on display just for you!  In fact, it’s number one on my top five places to paddle in Chicago!

I've lived in Chicago for 8 years and just when I thought the city couldn't get any better, the Chicago Riverwalk was developed.  The Chicago Riverwalk is located on the south side of the river from Lake Michigan to the Lake Street Bridge.  You can find food, drinks, gelato, kayak rentals, river cruises and more along this stretch of the riverwalk.  You can also use this space to launch your paddle board.  

Keys to paddling the Chicago River:

View of Navy Pier from the Ogden Slip

View of Navy Pier from the Ogden Slip

  • Launch Spot - I don't advocate swimming in the Chicago River, so it's important to find a launch area where the water is high enough to easily launch and pull your iSUP/SUP board out of the water. Here are three options for launching your board into the river:

    • Clark Street Bridge: There are concrete steps leading into the water just under the west side of the Clark Street bridge that provide easy access off the Chicago Riverwalk.

    • Ogden Slip: The Ogden Slip is located in Streeterville just south of Illinois Street on N McClurg Court. You will walk down steps to a platform to launch your board. Paddle east towards Navy Pier and around to the Lake Shore Drive bridge where you will begin paddling west on the river.

    • Urban Kayaks: Located at the east end of the river on the Riverwalk, Urban Kayaks will allow you to launch from their dock for a small fee.

  • Bring a Dry Bag - I pack my paddle board, iSUP pump and anything non-valuable inside my iSUP backpack and leave it on the steps near the launch area. The dry bag is essential to pack anything of value and secure to your paddle board.

  • Start Early - The best time to paddle the river in the summer is early in the morning - before the boats are humming along the river and the tourists invade the riverwalk. 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 boat traffic and make yourself visible.

  • Life Preserver - This should be a no brainer, but bring a lifejacket. 

Looking towards the Lake Street Bridge and the South Branch of the river

Looking towards the Lake Street Bridge and the South Branch of the river

Paddling towards the Lake Shore Drive Bridge to start my journey west on the Chicago River

Paddling towards the Lake Shore Drive Bridge to start my journey west on the Chicago River

If I launch from the Riverwalk, I paddle east to the Lakeshore Drive Bridge, then west to the split and choose to paddle the North or South Branch.  If you want a long paddle, you can go all the way to Chinatown by way of the South Branch and to Goose Island by way of the North Branch.  Each way from the east end of the river is about 4 Miles one way.

If you decide to paddle the Chicago River, you won’t regret it.  Enjoy the architecture and don’t forget to bring a camera - you’ll want one, trust me. Remember to start early to get the best experience.  Check out my feature in the community section of Red Paddle Co for more details about paddling the Chicago River, recommended inflatable paddle boards and places to stay and eat in the area. Enjoy paddling through the heart of my city!