IL Des Plaines River
Upper Des Plaines River Canoe Routes
Kenosha County, Wisconsin and Lake County, Illinois
Paddling the Des Plaines River
A surprisingly wild feeling river running through the heavily developed corridor north and west of Chicago. The scenic Des Plaines River starts in the farmlands of Kenosha County in Wisconsin and meanders its way through Lake County, Cook County, and Will County in Illinois. The Lake County Forest Preserve and Cook County Forest Preserve systems own a significant portion of the land along the river which contributes to its wild feel. Most of the northern sections of the Des Plaines River are free flowing (no dams) and are not accessible to motorized watercraft.
- Terrain / Scenery: Slow moving river meandering through woodlands, prairies, and wetlands.
- Fees / Permits: Fees as some launch points.
- Trail Conditions: Slow moving current with frequent log jambs, low hanging branches, fallen trees, low bridges, dams further south.
- Trail Markings: Unmarked
- Facilities: Depends upon launch point.
- Official Web Page: No official page, but Openlands Project and more specifically, http://www.openlands.org/watertrails_map.asp?pgid=118 is a good place to start. Maps are available there for download.
- Getting There: See launch points.
The upper portions of the Des Plaines River overflow their banks regularly resulting in the surrounding lowlands filling up with water. This flood plain is why the Des Plaines River has a maintained a wild feel to it even though it is flowing through heavily developed areas. So unlike other rivers in the area, there are very few houses or other structures visible from the Des Plaines river in much of Kenosha County and Lake County. Instead, you have miles of mostly wooded natural wetlands. When the water levels are high, some portions of the river spread out well into the woodlands providing for some interesting tree canoeing (weaving your canoe through the now flooded forest).
The heavily wooded wetlands along the river also result in frequent downed or low hanging trees and many many log jambs. Though I'll admit there have been occasions on long trips when the frequent obstacles started to wear out their welcome, the reality is these obstacles are a big part of why I paddle this river. The generally slow current means that rather than dangerous strainers, these downed trees and log jambs are simply obstacles that you need to negotiate. And in most cases this can be done without portaging by either ducking under, shimmying over, or, if the water is over its banks, paddling around it.
The wild and remote feel and the challenges of the frequent obstacles are what make this a great place to paddle, but there is a down side. This is a very dirty muddy-bottom river running very close to populated areas. The river can smell very bad at times (mainly during low water levels at mid-summer) and you can expect to see quite a bit of trash in the river. This is most evident at some of the log jambs where you may encounter piles of litter. In addition I have seen furniture, appliances, and even an automobile frame in the river. Some of this bigger stuff may have been grabbed by the river from people's yards when the river floods and a lot of the litter just blows in or flows in from nearby roads, but unfortunately there still are morons out there that will just dump garbage from a bridge. It has gotten better over the years, but be aware that even though this river provides a wild feel to it, it is not exactly pristine. I was reminded of this once when while paddling and feeling like I had "gotten away from it all" I saw a seagull fly by carrying a partially eaten doughnut.
Most sections of the Upper Des Plaines River are best paddled at higher water levels. Though many sections can be paddled at lower levels, higher water levels allow you more options in getting over or around the many obstacles in the river, keep you out of the muddy banks, and just plain helps to keep the stink down. The river can be very interesting when it is flooded (overtopped it's banks) because you can canoe the floodplain that in many cases means you are canoeing through a forest. Because of the wide floodplain, the current is usually no faster (and may even be slower) when the river is flooded than it is at normal water levels. At very high flood levels, you do need to be concerned with bridges and I strongly recommend driving the bridges first during flooded conditions to make sure you can safely get under. Most bridges have plenty of clearance for what I would call "normal flood conditions" that occur every spring, however, at unusually high flood conditions (that occur every few years) some bridges can become extremely dangerous and there are a few low private bridges than could be problematic at even moderately high water levels.
The slow current (between 1 and 2 miles per hour) also means you can easily (with a little effort) paddle upstream. Since I like to paddle alone, this means I never have to arrange a shuttle. I will generally paddle round trips of between eight and fifteen miles. Despite the obvious drawback (you know, that whole against the current thing) paddling upstream actually has some advantages. First, you know you'll make it back because you'll see everything you'll encounter going downstream on your upstream paddle. If things start to look too tough (too many obstacles or annoying low water levels), you can simply turn around and head back. Second, as you're going upstream, you approach the obstacles at a much slower pace allowing you plenty of time to figure out the best way to get through. And third, when you finally turn around to head back downstream, you really feel like you are cruising. Plus, since you already negotiated the obstacles once, you already know how to get by them so you can make some good time heading back.
I generally find that a 6-mile section (most sections are approximately this length between landings) takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours paddling downstream and 2.5 to 3 hours paddling upriver.
Below are my descriptions of the various sections. The Illinois sections range from 5 to 7 miles each. The Kenosha sections are a bit more informal. Though there are some minor differences from one section to another, I have to say that all sections listed will give you a good feel for the Des Plaines River. Detailed maps of specific Illinois sections can be downloaded from the Openlands Project at http://www.openlands.org/watertrails_map.asp?pgid=118 Also download my High Resolution PDF version of Des Plaines River Overview Map of Kenosha and Lake County. Media:Map_IL_Lake_County_Des_Plaines_River.pdf
Kenosha County Section
Flowing through mostly private lands, the river as it flows through Kenosha County is a little trickier to access but makes for some interesting paddling. Since there seems to be a general lack of information on this portion of the river I decided to create a separate page for it so I could provide greater detail and a separate map.
Click Des Plaines River - Kenosha for more information.
Russel Road Landing to Wadsworth Landing - 5.90 Miles
Starting in Van Patten Woods Forest Preserve this section runs almost entirely through public lands and is best paddled at normal to moderately high water levels. The landing is located on the east side of the river on Russel Road about a mile east of I94. There is generally ample parking here even on weekends. There is an unusual horse bridge that runs across the river here (you can paddle around it at high water levels, otherwise it requires a portage), if you're going downriver, put in on the south side of the horse bridge. The put-in can be muddy at low water levels.
The current is rather slow through most of this section so paddling upriver is no problem. This section passes through mostly prairie and wetlands, however much of the river has trees growing along the banks so you'll get a bit of a woodlands feel. With the exception of a few bridges and one small section of private land with a house on it (just south of the highway 173 bridge) this entire 5.90-mile length of river is free of buildings and other reminders of the outside world. You will encounter occasional log jambs and low hanging branches, though not as many as in some of the other sections.
After a little over a mile from the Russel Road launch you'll pass under a pedestrian bridge and a park road bridge as you paddle through Van Patten Woods Forest Preserve. There is plenty of clearance under both these park bridges. Shortly after passing under the Highway 173 bridge you'll pass by a home on your left, then it's just river, prairie, and trees for the remaining 3.5 miles to the Wadsworth landing. There are some sections of the river where it comes pretty close to the Des Plaines River Bike Trail so you may occasionally hear voices, but thanks to heavy vegetation you and the trail users are unlikely to see each other.
The takeout is on your left just after you pass under Wadsworth Road (see next section for more details).
Map available at http://www.openlands.org/watertrails_map.asp?pgid=118#1
Wadsworth Landing to Gowe Park - 6.25 Miles
This section passes through a wetlands restoration area and then through a heavily wooded wetlands area as you progress further south and is best paddled at moderately high water levels. As with the previous section, this section is almost entirely on public land and provides a very secluded feel. The Wadsworth Landing is located on the east side of the river on the south side of Wadsworth Road just east of Highway 41. Because the canoe launch parking area also provides access to the Des Plaines River Trail (bike trail) and is a popular spot with fishermen, you may have trouble finding parking here on a weekend. You can launch from the shore or use the wooden pier (can be tricky at low water levels).
About 3/4 mile from the launch, you'll pass under a small bridge. This bridge is part of the Des Plaines River Trail. Though you won't really notice it from the river, the area to the west of the first couple of miles of this section is part of a wetlands restoration and research area. They basically took farmland and turned it back into wetlands. What's unusual here is that they actually installed plumbing below the wetlands that I'm assuming allows them to manage water levels in specific areas. If you ride the bike trail you'll occasionally see stuff sticking up out of the wetlands that ain't exactly natural. If you're interested you can get more info at http://www.lcfpd.org/preserves/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.view&object_id=217&type=P
The first couple of miles generally doesn't have that many log jambs but you may encounter some low hanging branches or downed trees. Approximately 2 miles from the launch you'll encounter a small lake (actually just a widening of the river). Stay to the right (west) shore and follow it until you see the river flow out. The remaining 4 miles to the Gowe Park run through a very heavily wooded wetlands area. You can expect frequent log jambs in this stretch. At higher water levels, you have a much better chance of getting around or over these obstacles without having to step out of the boat.
You'll pass under the Highway 41 bridge, then the Grand Avenue Bridge before entering Gowe Park. The takeout is on the left, you'll see a wooden fencelike handrail and some stonework that provide a small protected takeout since the current here can get a little quick at high water levels. See the next section for more details on the launch.
Map available at http://www.openlands.org/watertrails_map.asp?pgid=118#2
Gowe Park to Independence Grove Forest Preserve - 5.40 Miles
If I had to pick one section as being the "most scenic" I guess I would have to pick this one, although I'll again mention that all sections mentioned here are scenic and come in a very close second. Because there are a couple of low clearance bridges on this section, I don't recommend paddling it at high water. Normal to slightly high water conditions would be best.
Gowe Park is located on the east side of the river, south of Grand Avenue. Take OPlaine Road south from Grand Ave and turn right at the first road (McClure Road). Gowe Park has a fairly large parking lot (for a city park) so you probably won't have a problem with parking, however there are a lot of activities available at Gowe Park so I can't be certain the lot doesn't occasionally fill up. The landing is west of the lot.
The first 3/4 mile from the landing to Washington Street tends to be the most difficult due to frequent log jambs. The rest of this route tends to have fewer log jambs (it's evident that someone is clearing them). Over the next 2 miles you'll pass under Interstate 94 and Route 120 (both major roadways). 1.3 miles past Route 120 you'll encounter the 1st of 2 small private bridges. Clearance under these bridges should be adequate at normal to slightly above normal water conditions, however, very high water conditions could make these bridges dangerous (the 2nd bridge is lower than the first).
This area has more hills than areas further north and the occasional higher wooded banks that you see here are what give it a slight "scenic" edge over the other routes. You will also encounter some short faster sections here that actually have a gravel bottom and even a couple of big rocks. No, I'm not talking about rapids here, but these sections do provide a little more interest. I didn't have any problem paddling up these faster sections in normal to slightly above normal water conditions.
The takeout at Independence Grove is on the left just after you pass under the bike trail bridge (a large steel bridge). See the next section for more details on the launch.
Map available at http://www.openlands.org/watertrails_map.asp?pgid=118#3 Also see File:Map IL Lake County Des Plaines River.pdf for locations of low bridges.
Independence Grove Forest Preserve to Route 60 Launch - 7.10 Miles
This is the longest route but there is another launch located at Oak Spring Road about 2.5 river miles south of the Independence Grove launch. Best paddled at higher (not necessarily flooded) water levels to get over the dam). I see this route as a transition between the wild more natural floodplain sections of the north and the more developed dammed sections of the south. The launch is located in the Independence Grove Forest Preserve. From Route 137 just east of Route 21 go north into the main forest preserve entrance and follow the roads left to the launch parking area. There is plenty of parking here (fee may be required). The launch is down a moderately steep embankment and may be muddy at low water levels.
As I mentioned, this route marks a transition point. The river north of the Route 176 bridge (located halfway through this route) is very much like the section just north of the Independence Grove launch, however south of Rte 176 you start to encounter more houses, office buildings, industrial buildings, and the first dam on the river. This is more representative of what lies further south along the river. These more developed sections can still make for an enjoyable paddle and offer a more wild feel (are still less developed) than most of the large rivers in this region, however, given the choice I'll take the routes north of 176 over those south.
Starting at the Independence Grove launch, the next few miles are a little narrower and faster (at higher water levels) than sections before or after this stretch. This stretch is very scenic and may have a few log jambs or other obstacles though not as many as you may have encountered in previous routes. 2.5 miles from Independence Grove you'll pas the Oak Spring Road canoe launch on your right (west side of river). The launch and parking area are very easy to spot. Another 1.4 miles and you'll cross under the Rte 176 bridge, the river starts to widen and slow down a bit here. Though you will likely still encounter some downed trees and log jambs, the wider channel usually prevents them from spanning the entire river therefore you can just find the open spot and paddle through.
There are a fair amount of structures in this section including scattered houses, office buildings, industrial facilities, golf course, and water treatment plant but it still had enough natural sections to make it enjoyable. Approximately 3/4 of a mile before the Route 60 launch you'll encounter Holister Dam. Look for it when you see the large office building on your right. At moderately high water levels, the dam is nothing more than a line of ripples in the water. Even going upstream I had no problem just paddling over the dam. I believe the dam is notched to allow canoes to paddle through at normal water levels. I had read a report on another site that there are a couple more dams on this section that you may encounter at low water levels, but I couldn't see any sign of them (not even a ripple) at the higher water levels (I generally avoid paddling any sections of the Des Plaines River at low water levels).
The Route 60 takeout can be a bit difficult to spot if you're not familiar with it. The launch is actually located on a small pond adjacent to the river. After passing under the Rte 60 bridge you'll encounter the bike trail bridge. You'll see a small opening on the right side (west side) of the river shortly after the bike trail bridge. The opens up into the small pond where the canoe launch is located (northwest shore of the pond).
Map available at http://www.openlands.org/watertrails_map.asp?pgid=118#3
Route 60 Launch to points south
I haven't paddled below the Route 60 Launch but I have used the launch to paddle upriver to points north. I've also viewed portions of this route from the bike trail. The launch is located on the south side of Route 60 just east of Route 120 on the west side of the river. There is a small parking lot here that also provides access to the bike trail. Because of this I would assume the lot frequently fills up on weekends so go during the week or get up really early on the weekends to make sure you can park.
The WaterTrails map (link below) shows several dams on this route, but I am aware of at least one more dam (shown in photo below) located about a mile south of Route 60 that is not shown on their map. The dams are the main reason I haven't tried this route. Though many of the dams can be paddled over or through at slightly high or higher water levels (many have notch cut in them) when paddling downstream, paddling upriver is a different story. You may be able to paddle over them if the water is very high, but a lot depends on the specific dam.
Map available at http://www.openlands.org/watertrails_map.asp?pgid=118#4
Water level notes
There are various stations along the river where water levels are monitored and data is provided online. USGS Water Data - DPR Gurnee links you to a station near Gurnee Illinois. I use this station as a point of reference for my paddles since it is located near the center of the upper portion of the Des Plaines River. I consider a gauge level (at the Gurnee Station) of 3.0 feet to be slightly high water levels (slightly above normal levels). Levels above 4.0 feet (at the Gurnee Station) I consider as moderately high water levels. Levels above 6.0 or 7.0 feet I would call very high levels and some bridges could become dangerous under these conditions.
Levels around 4.0 to 5.0 feet are real nice for paddling most sections in Lake County and should be high enough to allow you to paddle over Holister dam and some others going upriver. Levels of 5.0 to 7.0 feet make for some great paddling in the northernmost sections in Kenosha County (be aware the bridge at County Road ML in Kenosha County can become dangerous at around 7.0 ft).
The Video on the right is in Kenosha County with water levels around 6 feet. You can see how there is no longer a clearly visible channel. Instead you are paddling the floodplain itself.
Portions of Des Plaines River are maintained by The Illinois Water Trailkeepers. If you'd like to get involved or report a problem on the river, you can contact them through their web site.
- High Resolution PDF version of Des Plaines River Overview Map
- Des Plaines River - Kenosha
- Des Plaines River Trail Multi-use Trail
- Van Patten Woods Forest Preserve
- More Kenosha Area Trails
- Openlands Project Water Trails
- Chicago Area Paddling Guide - Des Plaines River
- USGS Water Gauging Station - Des Plaines River Near Gurnee, IL
- Illinois Paddling Council
- Illinois Water Trailkeepers
- Wikipedia Des Plaines River Page
This page is authored and maintained by Dave Piasecki