IL Nippersink Creek

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Nippersink Creek Canoe Routes

McHenry County and Lake County, Illinois

Nippersink Creek Nippersink Creek

Nippersink is a scenic prairie stream that meanders through protected prairie and woodland areas as well as private lands. Slow to moderate current and even some small sections of easy rapids/riffles makes this a great paddle for paddlers of all levels provided you catch the right water levels.

  • Terrain / Scenery: Slow to moderate moving prairie stream meandering through scenic prairies and woodlands
  • Fees / Permits: Canoes need to be registered in Illinois unless you have an out of state registration.
  • Trail Conditions: Mix of slow moving meandering sections with faster moving areas with riffles and small rapids..
  • Trail Markings: Unmarked
  • Facilities: All launches have toilets..
  • Official Web Page: No official page, but Openlands Project and more specifically, is a good place to start. Map is available there for download.
  • Getting There: See launch points.

Overview of All Routes and General Information

Map of Nippersink Creek

Download High Resolution PDF version of Nippersink Creek Overview Map

Nippersink Creek runs about 18 miles starting at Wonder Lake in McHenry County and running to Pistakee Lake (Part of Chain O' Lakes State Park) in Lake County. With the exception of the area near the dam (at Wonder Lake), the entire length can be paddled. There are four developed canoe landings located along the creek providing easy access to the various sections.

Nippersink Creek barbed wire fence

The creek is a mix of deeper muddy bottom sections and shallower gravel/sand bottom sections that provide riffles at normal to low water levels. There are also several very brief sections of easy rapids. It's important to catch the right water levels here since the shallower gravel/sand bottom sections and rapids can become problematic at low water levels and some sections can become fast at very high water levels making it tricky to negotiate the downed trees and low hanging branches that you are likely to encounter. The first section, running 6.5 miles from Keystone Landing to the Pioneer Road Landing, is in my opinion the most scenic and also the best choice for beginners. It runs primarily through protected prairies (public land) with some woodland sections further downstream and has several brief but fun easy rapids. The second section, running 4.45 miles from the Pioneer Road Landing to Lyle C. Thomas Park is also a very scenic and interesting paddle with several brief easy rapids/riffles. This section runs mainly through private lands and unfortunately you will encounter some barbed wire fences (see photo on the right) crossing the river here. The third section, running 3.9 miles from Lyle C. Thomas Park to the Canoe Base Landing is on mainly private lands and runs a little slower with fewer rapids/riffles than the previous sections. You can continue paddling below the Canoe Base Landing to Pistakee Lake but you will find this section much more developed and not as enjoyable as the others.

Water Level Notes

It's important to catch the right water levels when paddling Nippersink. Though I don't paddle here that often, I have assembled some notes on water levels. You can check current water levels through the following link:,00060 I've found that levels at the gauging station of 4.50 ft. or a little higher to be great for paddling all sections. I would consider this to be "slightly high" water levels. Below 4.00 ft. you begin to have problems with shallow sections. I consider this to be normal to slightly low water levels. I have never paddled Nippersink at very high water levels. I would suspect that as levels get beyond 5.00 ft you may start to encounter some rather swift sections where it starts to get a little tricky avoiding low hanging branches and downed trees.

I have paddled the entire river both upstream and downstream at normal to slightly high water levels. Paddling upstream is not very difficult through most sections; however, you may need to walk up some of the rapids/riffles (I've never had to actually portage on Nippersink). I haven't tried paddling Nippersink at very high water levels because I suspect some sections would just be too fast to paddle upstream and I don't like arranging shuttles (for just a downstream paddle).

Keystone Landing to the Pioneer Road Landing - 6.50 Miles

Map of Nippersink Creek - Keystone Landing to Pioneer Road Landing

Running almost entirely on public lands, I find this to be the most enjoyable and scenic section (the two photos at the top of this page were taken on this section). This route is mostly open prairie with some woodland sections. The prairie is most scenic from mid May through mid June when the prairie grasses are a lush deep green and the wildflowers are in full bloom. In late summer, the prairie begins to turn brown.

The Keystone Landing is located on Keystone Road just off of Barnard Mill Road north of Wonder Lake. There is a small parking area here and restrooms. You can also access a group of hiking trails here that are part of Glacial Park. Nice developed put-in with no mud.

Immediately out of the put-in you will catch a swift shallow section that runs for about a quarter mile or so. This section can be a little challenging when paddling upstream. About three-quarters of a mile from the landing you will encounter a pedestrian bridge that is fine at normal to slightly high water levels but could become an obstacle at very high levels.

Another half mile or so and you'll cross a road and move into the Nippersink Re-Meandering Project area. In the 1990s the McHenry County Conservation District started returning Nippersink Creek to its original meandering channel, which over the years had been straightened in the name of "progress". They essentially came in with thoughtful planning and heavy equipment and recreated the channel. And did a helluva job if you ask me. With a lot of work and a little help from nature, you would never know that backhoes and dump trucks were used here. The tight meanders make this a lot of fun to paddle since around every bend is another bend. About three-quarters of a mile past the road you will encounter the first of several short rapids spread over the next half mile (see photo at top of page). I'll admit these man-made rapids do not look quite right, but it's got to be tough to try to recreate nature. For more information on the restoration project, check the following link:

Another half-mile and you'll encounter another low bridge, which should not pose a problem at normal to moderately high water levels. After this the prairie continues for a while but will gradually start turning into woodlands. This section of the creek did not have to be "recreated" though I think most of us would be hard pressed to be able to tell the difference between this area and the man-made section. Many more meanders and some low hanging trees to negotiate and you'll come to the bike trail bridge. You are now about 1.5 miles from the Pioneer Road Landing. This next stretch is mostly wooded with an impressive area of oak trees on the right bank. You'll cross under the Highway 31 bridge about three-quarters of a mile before the take-out. The Pioneer Road Landing is located on the right bank just before the Pioneer Road Bridge. Paddling this section takes about 1.5 to 2 hours going downstream. A round trip (upriver and back) takes me somewhere between 4 and 5 hours.

Pioneer Road Landing to Lyle C. Thomas Park - 4.45 Miles

Map of Nippersink Creek - Pioneer Road Landing to Lyle C. Thomas Park

This route is made up of mostly wooded banks with some farmland and areas with homes and commercial structures. There are several short easy sections of rapids and many shallow stretches with gravel/sand bottom. There are several narrow sections with higher banks that could produce some swift currents at high water levels (I've never paddled at high water). You can also expect many low hanging branches (which again could be challenging at high water levels).

The biggest downside to this route is the sections of barbed wire fence crossing the channel (see photo further up this page). These sections have 2 or 3 separate strands of barbed wire spaced about a foot apart. At normal water levels (about 4.0 ft. or slightly higher on the upstream gauge), you should be able to get under the barbed wire near the right bank (heading downstream) and I recall reading a post on another site that you can paddle over the barbed wire at high water levels (it would have to be pretty high). It's the levels in between where getting by these fences could get tricky. Fortunately, the current at normal to slightly high water levels is pretty slow near these sections of fence.

The Pioneer Road Landing is located on Pioneer Road east of West Solon Road. There is a nice parking area a restrooms here.

Right after you pass under the Pioneer Road bridge, you'll encounter your first short set of easy rapids. There is a small island here and the rapids are on both sides of the island. The left channel is a little more fun than the right because it is very narrow and has a slight bend to it. About three-quarters of a mile from the Pioneer Road Landing you'll encounter the first barbed wire fence. Under normal to low water levels, you should be able to get under the right side. A little way further and you'll encounter another easy short rapid, then the creek widens into a shallow muddy area where you may encounter cows wading in the creek. The next fence is located at the end of this area and again, you should be able to get under near the right bank at lower water levels. Another quarter mile and you may encounter another fence. There is a sign on the right bank warning of the fence and I could see where it use to cross the river (you can see the fence on either side of the river), but it was not there the last time I paddled here (May, 2006). The current here is a little quicker, so a fence crossing here would be more challenging than the previous two fences.

Just past this last fence you'll cross under the Highway 12 Bridge and encounter another brief set of easy rapids. About another mile and you'll cross under a railroad bridge. About a half mile past the railroad bridge you'll encounter another brief set of rapids and then a small covered private bridge. Soon after, you cross Winn Road. You are now about a mile from the take-out. The take-out is located on the left bank immediately after you pass under Bliven Road. Watch close because if you miss this you will hit a brief fast section that could be challenging to get back up through.

Paddling this section takes about 1 to 1.5 hours going downstream. A round trip (upriver and back) takes me about 3 hours.

Lyle C. Thomas Park to Canoe Base Landing - 3.90 Miles

It's been quite a few years since I paddled this section (I only paddled it once) and I'm stretching a bit trying to remember details. As I recall there were fewer rapids/riffles than on the other sections. I believe there was one very short but swift rapid that I had to walk my canoe through going upstream. Other than that I was able to paddle the rest upstream. I also remember encountering cows standing in the creek in one section so I suspect that there may also be some fences here though I don't specifically remember them. As a sidenote, paddling between cows standing in the creek was a bit unnerving to say the least since they seemed to be towering over me. It probably would have been smarter to get out and walk the canoe through this section (I think it had a hard bottom). I do recall that I enjoyed paddling this route and had every intention of coming back, but after paddling the other routes further upriver, I found that I preferred them and never got back to this section. My overview map shows this section, but does not provide any detail other than the location of the river and road crossings.


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This page is authored and maintained by Dave Piasecki