Things to Do Along the Des Plaines River

When it comes to bodies of water near Chicago, Lake Michigan gets all the glory. But the Des Plaines River is worth your time and attention, too.


The Des Plaines flows 133 miles southward from Kenosha County in southern Wisconsin into Northern Illinois. For those curious, the Des Plaines River watershed includes the DuPage River, Salt Creek, the Chicago River and its Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, then feeds the Kankakee River, the Illinois River, and finally the mighty Mississippi River, before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.


The Des Plaines River is the longest in the Chicago area, with no shortage of fun activities along its wetlands and shores.


Whether you’re an avid hiker, a casual fisher, a history buff trying to imagine the days of the Potawatomi tribes who lived here, or simply someone who likes to commune with nature, here are five ways to spend a day along the Des Plaines River.


View the Trail Map

1. Go for a stroll or hike
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The Des Plaines River Trail stretches over 30 miles and snakes its way through more than 12 forest preserves — a true nature preserve. It spans almost the entirety of Lake County and eventually connects to the Cook County Forest Preserve trail system. You can find a variety of walks and hikes providing river access along the gravel trail, depending on your taste and comfort level.


Looking for some simple hikes?


  • Hike from Beck Lake, which is near Des Plaines, to River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook and back — a 5.2-mile journey on flat terrain. If you have time to spare, spend an hour or two meandering around the River Trail Nature Center, which has free exhibits and nature educators who are happy to describe the plant and animal life created by the Des Plaines River.

  • If you’re craving a more challenging hike, travel roundtrip from Big Bend Lake in Des Plaines to Dam No. 4 Woods-East in Park Ridge and back. The 11-mile trip is mostly flat. Keep your eyes peeled for warblers in the spring and squirrels and chipmunks collecting acorns in fall.

  • Yet another option is to begin in Rosemont at the Catherine Chevalier Woods and hike to Sunset Bridge Meadow in River Grove, then back to Rosemont. The route is also little over 11 miles roundtrip.

2. Catch some fish
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Fishing on the Des Plaines River is a breeze. Cast your net from the shore, or fish from a canoe or kayak.

Boats and rods are available for hire if you haven’t packed your own. Just make sure you pick up a fishing license from the Independence Grove Forest Preserve District.


You might reel in largemouth bass, northern pike, bluegill and rock bass and sauger in the river’s waters. If you’re angling to fish from a canoe or kayak, there’s a boat launch at Plank Road Meadow in Riverside.


Taking a boat or canoe lets you channel your inner Hemingway. The young Ernest Hemingway was land-locked in Oak Park, yearning for a water route to freedom. This explains his devotion to the Des Plaines River, where he fished and canoed all along the waterway.

3. Explore Thatcher Woods
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Bathe yourself in nature at this 245-acre preserve in River Forest. Thatcher Woods is home to more than 250 native plant species. Wildflowers and native grasses abound, including spring beauty, yellow pimpernel, bloodroot, white trout lily and wild coffee.


As you walk amid the floodplain forest and oak woodlands, keep your eyes trained on the sky. More than 40 bird species reside at Thatcher Woods. Birdwatchers should be on the lookout for the great crested flycatcher, wood thrush, broad-winged hawk, wood duck, scarlet tanager, Baltimore oriole, kingfisher and more. Some endangered bird species, including the sharp-shinned hawk, have also been spotted in the woods.


4. Go cross-country skiing

Even when the weather’s cold, you’ll still find plenty of riverside fun. Enjoy a day of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing on the Des Plaines River Trail.


Typically two days after a big snow, skiers can find a groomed trails along the equestrian routes at Lakewood and Raven Glen. For a little extra illumination on those darker winter days, you can ski solar-lighted tracks on the Des Plaines Trail between Old School and the Wright Woods canoe launch on Route 60.

5. Traverse the trail on wheels—or hooves
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Biking and horseback riding are both encouraged along the Des Plaines River Trail. With so many options and miles of trails, the opportunities for recreation are endless.


If you plan on riding your horse along one of the trails, make sure you’ve picked up your permit from Lake County Forest Preserves. You can also pay for and collect a daily permit from one of the horse-trailer parking lots.


To ensure that the trail is accessible and optimal for years to come, the Forest Preserves of Cook County embarked on a project to improve several parts of the trail. As that work proceeds, the Des Plaines River Trail should become even more accessible and enjoyable for Illinois residents and tourists.


Plan a day of fun on the Des Plaines River Trail. From hiking, biking to horseback riding, explore the many activities on offer and set a date with the outdoors.