The Lake Michigan Water Trail is a 1,638-mile water trail tracing the outline of Lake Michigan’s diverse coastline and is managed and maintained by a variety of public agencies and private organizations throughout Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Developed access sites along the trail are equipped with public boat ramps or docks while carry-in sites provide entry to the water from a beach or other shoreline.
The Lake Michigan Water Trail in Illinois offers a diverse paddling experience ranging from the metropolitan shores of Chicago to the secluded beaches of Illinois Beach State Park. Paddlers will enjoy unique views of Chicago's skyline, coastal bluffs, and globally rare dune and swale habitats.
Please be respectful of private property while paddling and only use designated water trail access sites or public boat launches to access the Lake Michigan Water Trail.
For more information on water trails see our Lake Michigan Water Trail Fact Sheet.
Lake Michigan Water Trail Planning
Since 2018, IDNR Coastal Management Program (CMP) has been partnered with Chicago-based Openlands to connect visitors and local communities in Northeastern Illinois to Lake Michigan through the promotion and enhancement of the Lake Michigan Water Trail. A key initiative in this partnership has been the development of a Vision and Action Plan to bring quality of life, economic, and stewardship benefits to communities in Northeastern Illinois through the establishment of a well-used and safe Lake Michigan Water Trail. This planning process was funded by CMP and Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) and led by CMP, Openlands, and the five municipalities in the Northeastern Illinois project area: North Chicago, Village of Beach Park, Waukegan, Winthrop Harbor, and Zion.
The resulting Vision and Action Plan is complete and can be viewed here: Activating the Lake Michigan Water Trail in Northern Illinois, from North Chicago to Winthrop Harbor
Paddling on Lake Michigan can be dangerous and is only recommended for experienced paddlers with the proper equipment and training. See below for key safety tips and links to safety-related materials.
Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (life jacket).
Be sure to check the NOAA Marine Forecast before your trip and be aware of changing conditions.
Be visible - always wear a bright colored and reflective life jacket and clothing.
Leave a detailed plan with someone on shore that says where you're going, who you're with, and when you expect to be back.
Paddle within your limits and abilities, don't put yourself in a situation where you feel uncomfortable!
Watch for boat traffic and avoid shipping lanes - don't assume large vessels can see you.
Learn re-entry techniques BEFORE you need them - take a safety or skills course so you feel confident you know what to do in an emergency situation.
American Canoe Association Safe Boating Brochure
Interested in designating a water trail access site in your community?
Designated water trails provide safe public access for non-motorized watercraft, have publicly available and up-to-date access information (e.g. signs, maps, guidebooks, or websites), and are actively supported and maintained by at least one organization or community.
Designation opens the door for more opportunities to connect with paddling groups and outfitters to increase the recreation offerings for your community members. Designation also increases the visibility of water trails to non-local paddlers and can provide an economic boost to the region.
Increasing the number of people that recreate on the lake can also raise awareness of environmental issues, leading to increased stewardship. People that use Lake Michigan for recreation are often the staunchest supporters of improving water quality and coastal habitats.
For more information and materials related to access site designation, please see the Access Site Amenities Survey below and contact the Illinois Coastal Management Program:
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Coastal Management Program
160 N. LaSalle St., S-703
Chicago, IL 60601
More Lake Michigan Water Trail Information