Paddling The Fox River

By James Tracy

The Fox River is one of the crown jewels of the state of Illinois. Spanning 202 miles from Menomonee Falls, WI to Ottawa IL, the Fox River unites many of the western Chicago suburbs. This river forms the tri-cities area and Fox River Valley. It is well known to Chicago-area residents, but has also been featured in Hollywood movies as well. If you haven’t visited it before, it should go on your list!

Wisconsin has roughly 80 miles of the Fox. The river backwaters begin in a swampy area by Menomonee Falls. The Fox quickly grows and helped form the waterside communities of Waukesha, Tichigan, and Burlington. It should also be mentioned that there is a Wisconsin Fox River up near Lake Winnebago and Green Bay. This is a different Fox River altogether.

Shortly after crossing over the Illinois border, the IL Fox River forms the Chain O’ Lakes, consisting of Channel Lake, Lake Marie, Bluff Lake, Fox Lake, Grass Lake, and Pistakee Lake. The river exits the chain by Johnsburg, and starts to move south. It is a popular stretch for power boats. The lakes and river maintains their depth yearound, largely built up due to dams in McHenry and Algonquin. This section requires a water usage sticker, even for paddled boats. It is managed by the Fox Waterway Agency.

Once you get downriver of the chain of lakes, there’s a south-flowing stretch that takes you through Algonquin, Dundee, Elgin, St. Charles, Geneva, and Aurora. This stretch can be difficult due to frequent dams. 12 dams total in roughly 60 miles, essentially one every 5 miles. Fortunately, most of these dams have well established portage trails that help encourage paddling the stretch. A few towns have very long and challenging portages, including Elgin, South Elgin, St. Charles, and Aurora.

In Yorkville, there used to be a notorious dam, upriver from IL-47. It was rebuilt to still have a dam on the right side of the river, an island in the middle, and a whitewater course on the left. It now has better boat launches and a good portage path on river left. The whitewater course is called the Marge Cline Whitewater Course, and is maintained by the City of Yorkville

The lower Fox begins after Yorkville. It is a 36 mile stretch to Ottawa, with just one dam in Dayton. This stretch also features the Dells, the most scenic 4 miles on the entire river. This section has a few public boat launches early on, but after Millbrook, all launches are private and paid until you get towards Ottawa. The water level is lower here, so there isn’t much in the way of power boats, just the occasional fishing boat.

Fox River Bluffs

The Fox River ends when it merges with the Illinois river in the waterside town of Ottawa. The Illinois River goes on to flow over 200 more miles, and joins the Mississippi near St. Louis.

On the Fox River that consists of this many miles, you can bet there are many great paddling trips. My favorites include:

  • Algonquin to Elgin: 11 miles/3-4 hours
  • Montgomery to Yorkville: 10 miles/3 hours
  • Yorkville to Wedron: 26 Miles/5-9 hours, but there are shorter, more manageable sections of this stretch.

I personally know of just one person who has paddled the entire Fox River. Jenni Schiavone (of Friends of the Fox River) completed a 10 day trip from start to finish in September of 2022. As the river has many dams and speedboats, I don’t necessarily recommend a trip of that nature to most.

The Fox River is a gem for paddling. Whether enjoying the suburbia of the tri-cities, the nature of the dells, or the bars of the Chain O’ Lakes, the river is a fantastic opportunity for recreation. I highly recommend that you check it out!