Nippersink Creek Provides a Great Kayaking or Canoeing Adventure Just an Hour From Chicago

We came, we readied our 10-foot inflatable kayak, we floated placidly at times down the winding creek with the sun shining down on us, we were wowed by the wildlife and wildflowers, we paddled vigorously buffeted by high wind at other times, and we had a lot of fun and faced a few challenges, but ultimately completed a nearly 7-mile canoe trip on Nippersink Creek in Glacial Park, McHenry County Conservation District’s largest property at 3,439 acres. 

With the heavy rains lately, Nippersink Creek was more like a small river than a creek at times when my 9-year-old son and I set out on our kayak trip last week from Keystone Road Landing on the western edge of Glacial Park to Pioneer Road Landing near its eastern edge.

This was my son’s first-ever kayak trip, and my first boat trip in nearly 35 years. I don’t count pleasure cruises or sitting on a pontoon boat drinking beer in the middle of a lake as an actual boat trip. If I could summarize our trip in a few words or phrases, they would be:

  • Fun
  • Peaceful
  • Challenging and tiring at times
  • Wildflowers and birds galore
  • Wide-open spaces
  • An adventure
  • Special
  • A great father-son experience.

Nippersink Creek, which is the largest tributary to the Fox River, is pretty, tree-lined, and narrow at Keystone Landing. But as we rounded bend after bend the creek widened, its banks grew higher and became crowned with 6-foot grasses and a riot of wildflowers (such as purple coneflowers, sunflowers, and pretty pink Joe Pye Weed), the landscape grew more open, and it felt as if we were in the middle of a vast wilderness rather than only 55 miles from the third-largest city in the United States.

Birdsong accompanied us as we paddled, and occasionally floated, down the creek. We spotted herons, red-winged blackbirds, white egrets, and other birds, as well as the occasional turtle and fish in the water. We didn’t see any beavers, river otters, bald eagles, or deer as some paddlers have reported seeing. But that didn’t matter. The sky was a cerulean blue, the sun felt warm (but not too warm) on our backs, and we enjoyed watching wildlife and the puffy clouds as we drifted along

As we rounded bend after bend, we were wowed by several kames, which loomed over the largely flat terrain like massive brontosauri crouched over the lush landscape having lunch. (The kames at Glacial Park are large hills of sand and gravel that were deposited by glaciers about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.) After being surrounded by skyscrapers and neighborhoods of bungalows and two-flats in Chicago, the green uncluttered expanse of Glacial Park was a welcome sight.  

Our kayak trip was not without challenges. The water was fast at times, and the wind seemed to blow constantly. If you canoe or kayak on Nippersink Creek, take the time to check the water conditions (speed, depth, etc.) before you go. If you don’t, the creek may be too shallow for an enjoyable experience or be challenging or unpassable if the water levels are too high. The U.S. Geological Service provides handy real-time water speed (cubic feet per second, CFS) and depth measurements at its website. According to the McHenry County Conservation District, “at least 100 CFS would allow for an enjoyable ride. When waters are moving above 300 CFS, it is considered fast. When levels are above 750 CFS, or 7 feet, all launches will be CLOSED due to lack of clearance under two bridges. All activities in this area are at the user’s own risk.”

At 11 a.m. or so when we started our trip, the river measured 510 CFS (and by 6 p.m. the CFS had dropped to 431). I knew that the water would be fast, but we had driven out from Chicago, we had lifejackets, and my son was lobbying hard for us to try out our new kayak. So, we decided to take the plunge. The water was fast in some areas, and meandering in others. The conditions largely depended on the creek’s topography, the direction we were traveling, and the wind. I believe the wind created more of a challenge than the water speed. At times, we had to fight from being blown toward the creek bank, but it was not a terrible challenge. Our initial plan was to canoe a few miles from Keystone Landing and then turn around and return, but the high winds and fast-moving water in some areas forced us to change our plans and travel to Pioneer Landing.

I presented the change of plans to my son as an opportunity, rather than a problem. We didn’t have a way (yet) to get from Pioneer Landing back to Keystone Landing and there was a lot of paddling remaining, but the creek and its surrounding countryside were beautiful, and we had plenty of food, water, and a cell phone in case we ran into trouble. I was impressed by how my son embraced the additional 4 or so miles of travel. In the course of several hours on the creek, his paddling skills had grown. Although I did most of the paddling, he asked to help out at times, including keeping the kayak straight when I was taking photos or reviewing the map. It was nice to know that I could trust my copilot.  

The day remained sunny and beautiful, and we were rewarded with a stunning view of a group of oak and hickory trees towering above the grassy savannah, wildflowers, and families of geese and ducks that barely gave us a look as we glided by a few away from them.

By the time we reached Pioneer Landing, we were ready for dry land. We pulled the kayak out of the water and carried it up the embankment. My phone’s connection was not working as well as expected (and its battery strength was only 50 or so percent), I asked my cousin to arrange an Uber pickup, which she kindly did. While we waited, we deflated and dried out the kayak, disassembled the oars and seats, tasted some terrible well-water (my son had pitched it to me as tasting “very good!”), had a snack of pretzels and brownie bars on the park bench, and watched other kayakers return from their trips and pack up their cars. Within an hour or so, our Uber arrived, and we headed back to our car 6.5 miles away. I had a great conversation with our driver, who’d left the Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago 30 years ago for the beautiful rolling hills of McHenry County when he got married. He extolled the virtues of Glacial Park and asked if we’d visited the nature center or hiked its vast system of trails. I said we hadn’t yet, but we’d definitely return to experience more of this beautiful gem in McHenry County.

Here are a few other facts and tips about Glacial Park and boating on Nippersink Creek.

Nature Facts:

  • Other plants and grasses you might see include tall bright yellow prairie coreopsis, purple prairie blazing star, blue spiderwort, red cardinal flower, big bluestem, beautiful Virginia wild rye, switchgrass. bottle brush grass, and bright white boneset, as well as hazelnut, wild plum, and hawthorn bushes.  
  • Additional birds that frequent Glacial Park include red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers, chickadees, wood ducks, black and white bobolinks, yellow cheeked dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, and many others, of course.
  • Much of Nippersink Creek and its ecosystem has been laboriously and lovingly restored by conservationists and volunteers.

Canoeing/Kayaking Facts and Tips:

  • Paddlers can launch from four locations: Keystone Road Landing (6500 Keystone Road, Richmond), Pioneer Road Landing (7049 Pioneer Road, Richmond), Lyle C. Thomas Memorial Park (7816 Blivin Street, Spring Grove), and Nippersink Canoe Base (400 East US Highway 12, Spring Grove).
  • The MCDD says that the “estimated travel time along the longest stretch from Keystone Road to Nippersink Canoe Base can be up to four hours, while other stretches are estimated as two-hour paddles. Canoeing is also permitted on the 22-acre Lake Atwood at the Hollows in Cary.”
  • If you use an inflatable kayak such as we did, be sure to bring the air pump and patching material with you on your trip in case you run into troubles. We loved our Intex Explorer K2 Kayak, which I purchased for about $70 on Amazon. It’s a good buy for those who’d like to try out kayaking, but don’t want to invest hundreds of dollars for a regular kayak. The kayak took about 10 minutes to inflate and deflate and folds up to a manageable storage size. (It’s sitting folded and bagged up on my bedroom floor, and it’s hard to believe this pile of fabric and rubber was our water lifeline for about 4 hours.) We did not move through the water as fluidly as those with plastic kayaks, but our kayak worked fine on this small waterway.  
  • If you don’t want to own a kayak or canoe, you can rent them from the following outfitters: Ed’s Rental, McHenry, 815/385-3232 (canoes and kayaks); Main St. Outfitters, Wauconda, 847/526-7433 (kayaks only); Scull and Oars, Wonder Lake, 815/790-4249; Tip-A-Canoe, Burlington, WI, 262/342-1012 (canoes and kayaks). I notice that Scull and Oars also has a pickup service, which would have come in handy for us.
  • Be sure to place your phone, wallet, lunch, etc. in waterproof bags that you secure to your kayak or canoe.
  • Bring a battery backup for your phone (this would have helped me at the end of the trip).
  • My 9-year-old described our trip as “fun, gross (mud), beautiful, longggggg, and exciting.”
  • Print out a map of the Nippersink Creek Trail and place it in a plastic bag with cardboard backing so that you reference it as you paddle.
  • Don’t rush down the creek. Take the time, as we did, to pull off at the occasional sandbar or creek bank to enjoy nature, enjoy a snack, snap some photographs, and splash in the water.
  • Tell someone where you’re going before your trip and set up a check-in time (or times) so that you remain safe on the water.
  • Be very cognizant of the weather forecast for the day of your trip. 
  • Wear sunscreen and bug repellant, as appropriate.
  • Always wear a lifejacket. One couple who were fishing on the banks of the creek yelled out kudos to us about wearing our lifejackets. Many boaters we met did not wear them. 
  • Leave no trace. Keep Nippersink Creek beautiful by packing out all of your garbage. 
  • Click here for a float guide.
  • Click here for Glacial Park Trail Guides.

Copyright (text/photos) Andrew Morkes


When I’m not kayaking with my son, I write books and newsletters about careers for teens and adults who want to change occupations. I also write college-planning books and newsletters, including They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, 3rd Edition. You can learn more about my newsletters and books by clicking here.

Good news. My new book, Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit, will be published on June 29, 2021.

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