Paddle the Upper Fox River

By James Tracy

The Fox River is a 202 mile river, spanning from Menomonee Falls WI, to Ottawa, IL. It is a river that helped form the community of the Fox River valley, and Tri-cities of Elgin, St. Charles, and Aurora. Today, I’d like to discuss the upper portion of the Fox River, which I consider to be from Algonquin to Yorkville. This stretch is roughly 46 miles long, and currently has 10 dams. Because of the close proximity to many towns, it is popular for paddlers, looking to do shorter trips on a weekend afternoon.

I consider this “Upper Fox” stretch to start in Algonquin, just downriver of the dam. North of the dam, you need to have a water usage sticker, covering the Fox Lake areas. South of the dam, it is free to paddle. This section features launch points in the towns of:

  • Algonquin
  • Carpentersville
  • West Dundee
  • Elgin
  • South Elgin
  • St. Charles
  • Geneva
  • Batavia
  • North Aurora
  • Aurora
  • Montgomery
  • Oswego
  • Yorkville

There are also dams in many of the above listed towns. Most of which are simple portages, but there are extended portages in Elgin, St. Charles and Aurora. There are typically good boat launches both above and below each dam, with certain exceptions.

Speedboat traffic is not generally a concern for this stretch of the river. There can be boats upriver of the St. Charles dam Elgin, and South Elgin dam, as those are the three widest and deepest sections of the river. The rest of the river is typically waist deep, and not really suitable for anything besides paddlers.

I consider the upper part of the Fox River to end in Yorkville, by the Marge Cline Whitewater course. Once you get downriver from here, the amount of towns and boat launches plummet, and it becomes a river in nature, instead of a suburban river.

My favorite river trips on this section include:

  • Algonquin to Elgin: Algonquin dam to Voyagers landing
    • A simple 9 mile paddle with 1 portage, and generally little boat traffic until the end
  • St. Charles: Upriver of the dam to Duerr forest preserve and back.
    • 9 miles roundtrip, and it’s a popular racing spot for the St. Charles Canoe Club.
  • St. Charles to North Aurora
    • Depending on exactly where you put in and take out, it can be 10 miles, with 2 easy portages: Geneva and Batavia. There’s lots of launch points for a customizable trip.
  • Montgomery to Yorkville
    • A 10 mile trip with 0 portages. Takes you through a couple cool sets of islands, and Oswego is the halfway point.

If you are in the area, plan a trip using our paddling map!

On June 3rd 2023, 158 miles of the Fox River was designated as a national recreation trail by Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland. The Fox River is officially a national water trail. This historic designation was largely due to the efforts of Karen Ann Miller of the Fox River Ecosystem Partnership. The full project can be seen here. You’ll find maps, trip itineraries, and access point details. 

I once met someone who paddled the entirety of the Fox River, in a single trip. Jenni Kempf completed this trip in 10 days in 2022. Her story is really cool, and I won’t spoil it, but you can check that out here.