Jack Hughes
Back April 22, 2008
Trip Ideas

Paddling the Blackhawk Waterways

Rock River, a national treasure


Just a handful of American rivers and streams earn the designation as a National Water Trail. The Rock River, which flows through the heart of the Blackhawk Waterways region, was named a National Water Trail in April 2013.

“Settlers called the Rock River the ‘Hudson of the Midwest,’ and it has wildlife like you cannot believe,” said Debbie Thompson, an avid paddler and a member of the Rock River Trail Initiative, the group that lobbied for the designation. “It gets to be a pretty wide and mighty river.”

The Rock River Trail traverses two states, 11 counties and 41 communities on its 320-mile route from Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin to the Mississippi River near Rock Island, Ill. A young Abraham Lincoln and Chief Black Hawk once traveled this waterway, and you can, too. Paddle it, drive it, bike it or hike it. The trail website, rockrivertrail.com, will guide you to access points, historic sites and designated trails for hiking and biking.

The National Water Trail program, administered by the National Park Service, includes only 20 U.S. waterways. A designation means that the river meets high standards in recreation, conservation efforts, trail maintenance and community support. This also means that the Rock River will be preserved and protected for years to come, so that your children and grandchildren will be able to paddle its peaceful waters and see the same beauty we see today.

Other Waters: Hennepin Canal

The Hennepin Canal is one of northwestern Illinois’ most historic waterways. The canal, originally known as the Illinois and Mississippi Canal, was built to reduce the distance from Chicago to Rock Island by 419 miles. It was conceived in 1834, and construction finally began in 1892. The first boat went through in 1907. It was mainly used by small barges hauling coal and grain. An account made by the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society said that canal use peaked in 1927 when 30,000 tons of freight moved down her calm waters. From that point on, she saw a steady decline in use, as railroads and trucking companies took over the freight industry.

This, however, was a blessing for the Illinois sportsman. The canal is home to 78 miles of canoeing and kayaking opportunities and is snaked by parks and a beautiful walking path. This waterway is perfect for beginners, because the waters are very calm, there are no obstructions and wildlife is abundant.

Paddler Debbie Thompson said, “Of all the northern Illinois canoe trips I have taken I saw more wildlife on the Hennepin than any other waterway. Beaver, cranes, muskrat, giant ancient turtles, ducks and geese are among the many creatures I’ve spotted on the canal.”

There is a boat landing south of Rock Falls off Route 40, providing access and many take-out places along the way.

There are many other creeks and small rivers running through the Blackhawk Waterways Region, just waiting to be explored. Speak to your outfitter about other canoeing or kayaking opportunities and examine local maps to find the trip that’s perfect for you, your family and your skill level. Now, throw on that life jacket, grab those paddles and go!



Going with an outfitter for a run down the Rock River or other waterways is an excellent choice for a family outing. They take care of all the busy work, send you on your way for a river adventure and pick you up! Below are some options:

Crystal Lake Recreation Park

The park, adjacent to the Hennepin Canal Parkway, offers 70 miles of canoeing and kayaking in a slow current. Crystal Lake Recreation Park rents canoes and kayaks, and offers a shuttle service to the launch site.

Fin & Feather Resort

Located on the Mississippi River at 6284 Riverview Rd in rural Thomson, Fin & Feather Resort offers boat and canoe rentals with on-site access to the Mississippi River. 

White Pelican Canoe Rental

White Pelican offers canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and tube rentals and three unique trips along the beautiful Rock River which is now a National Trail

 cSavanna Kayak & Tubing Rental

 CSavanna Kayak & Tubing Rental, located in Savanna, IL, offers everything you need for the perfect getaway. From cozy lodging full of amenities to make you feel like home, adventure rentals for you to cSavanna from the water or land, and even personalized chauffeur service in our one-of-a-kind bus – book your stay and cSavanna in a new light. 

Regulations/Safety Tips:


With any boating excursion, it is always a must to plan ahead. Purchase a detailed map of the area you plan to boat, or download a quality map off of the Internet, and keep it in a water-tight bag for viewing, large zip-locking bags work very well.

Always make sure you are putting your craft in the water at a legal location. A handful of the small waterways run through private farmland, making it a trespassing violation to be on the water. Just be wary of this and watch for signs. Also, watch for electric fences, as some pasture parameters cross the waterway. These will be nearly invisible and will most likely have a yellow plastic connector on them that will catch your eye. They are usually located under bridges.

Be very cautious of Poison Ivy, Stinging Nettle, and Wild Parsnip. Carry a First Aid kit with you at all times, and familiarize yourself and your family with what these plants look like. Showing images of each plant to your children is a great way to keep them on the lookout. The Parsnip is especially dangerous as it produces burns on the skin, which can be minor to severe, and very painful. If you come into contact with any of these plants, a good precaution is to take some of the muddy clay from the water’s edge and apply it to the area you think may have been exposed.

Note: All persons and watercraft must stay 50 feet away from the Oregon, Illinois dam. The waters just below the dam can be very unpredictable and dangerous, so be sure you’re in compliance with this regulation.

If you plan on doing any fishing you must have a current Illinois Department of Natural Resources Fishing License. You can purchase a license at a variety of locations, including Wal-Mart, or online by clicking here.

Children age 13 and under are required to wear a life preserver at all times. There must be a life preserver for each individual aboard a craft, and everyone is encouraged to wear them at all times. All personal watercraft must meet license and registration requirements if providing your own vessel.

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