Graue Mill to Plank Road Meadow:
A very convenient paddle on a small creek in west suburban Chicago that flows through an oak forest nature preserve into the much larger Des Plaines River near the historic “Chicago Portage.” For a suburban waterway in the middle of a heavily populated metropolis, this creek is fairly secluded and natural with very good launches, rare downfall and occasionally good current that makes it a desirable destination (not to mention offering a good bike shuttle, and nearby nature preserve hike, remnant prairie, historic landmarks and local breweries). This can be shortened to six miles by using alternate landings.
By Zack Nauth
A New Miles Paddled contributor & Illinois Stringer
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: March 1, 2023
Skill Level: Intermediate (at high water flow). Beginner at lower levels around 100-200 cfs.
Class Difficulty: Riffles
≈ 3′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Salt Creek @ Western Springs: ht/ft: 5.7 | cfs: 854
Salt Creek @ Western Springs: ht/ft: 4.82 | cfs: 649
You’ll need a minimum of 100 CFS to avoid numerous low spots, but 150 and above is much better. During our trip, the level was a muscular 850 cfs following heavy rains, which required more maneuvering past sweepers, and through some bends. The creek was below flood stage, and not unsafe, but best for intermediate paddlers under these conditions. At lower flows of 100-200, it is suitable for accompanied beginners.
Graue Mill museum parking lot, Oak Brook, Illinois
GPS: 41.82035, -87.92662
Des Plaines confluence at Plank Road Meadow boat launch, Lyons, Illinois
GPS: 41.81786, -87.83158
Time: Put in at 2:20p. Out at 4:40p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 10.5
Sandhill cranes, mergansers, red tailed hawks, woodpeckers and blue jays.
A straight, short shuttle of about 5 1/2 miles.
I’ve done this trip several times, and it is well-known in the paddling community, but this was the fastest water I’ve had. Not to mention that the day was 57 degrees and sunny on March 1, so this trip was a no-brainer.
As we prepared our gear for launch, we heard first, and saw later, flocks of sandhill cranes circling overhead on their northward migration. It seemed a little early this year, but it felt like spring. Bird calls and songs were audible throughout the trip, a big change from just a month ago when we paddled the Des Plaines River. For most birds, migration hasn’t begun yet, or reached northern Illinois, but there was plenty of activity for those woodpeckers, raptors, blue jays and others who stayed the winter. We saw a number of red-tailed hawks, at times circling overhead in twos, in what may have been a courting ritual, according to the guidebooks. A gang of blue jays were going off with scolding calls, inviting us to scan the surrounding oak trees for the unmistakable silhouette of an owl. I’ve seen a barred owl in these woods during the day on a previous trip; the best clue is the jays, crows and other birds trying to scare them off! Besides the unwary geese and mallard ducks, we saw a male and female merganser; the large white body of the male caught our attention, and then we saw the swept back hairdo of the female. Beavers are very active along Salt Creek, as evidenced by the gnawed and downed trees. A few landowners have put wire cages around the trunks. We’ve seen beavers swimming and beavering on other trips, even though they are mostly nocturnal. They sometimes live in dens dug into the banks rather than the recognizable wood lodge.
This was my first time using the Graue Mill museum parking lot, and it was a very good launch. It’s on the east side of York Road, opposite the mill. There is ample parking and bathrooms. You can visit the museum and the 1852 mill, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and is now part of lovely Fullersburg Woods. The dam that was built to power the mill is still there, but is scheduled to be dismantled at some point to improve overall stream quality, and allow a wide variety of fish to move upstream. The water quality in this heavily developed area with 40 municipalities has improved dramatically over the years, as Clean Water Act standards were raised for treatment plants and industries. Runoff from the 152-mile watershed is still a work in progress but groups like the DuPage Salt Creek Work Group are tackling the problem areas. A couple years ago, I saw an angler pull a large northern pike out of the creek, something I did not expect to see.
The Graue launch is unimproved, but there is a grassy area leading to a convenient open bank at water level for launching. It’s a very short walk. There isn’t any signage advertising the canoe launch. Most parking lots in Cook County close at sunset.
About a mile and a half downstream of the 35-foot-wide creek, there’s another launch at Dean Nature Sanctuary, but it’s a much further walk from the small parking lot. There is a gazebo but no bathrooms. The nature sanctuary itself is worth a look, and sits right across from some of the imposing old-money mansions in and around the village of Hinsdale.
There is an asphalt bike and walking path starting at Dean, going about 8 miles through the Salt Creek forest preserve and almost all the way to Plank Road. So a bike shuttle is possible, especially if you use some of the other launches to make a shorter trip—say, between Dean and Brookfield, which is about eight miles. The Brookfield launch, which is new, is part of a recreation area with good parking and bathrooms facilities.
This first stretch of this 42-mile creek between launches is surrounded by commercial buildings, apartment complexes and houses common to the western suburbs. After passing the launch at Dean — where I went the first time I ever paddled my own kayak in 2019 — we floated under the massive eight-lane tollway of Interstate 294. The super-structure is less impressive than you would think given all the traffic overhead. We entered the Cook County Forest Preserve’s Salt Creek unit, which will envelope us for most of the remaining trip. It is one of the country’s oldest “greenways” according to the fine conservation group Openlands, which works to create and publicize water trails in Illinois.
The creek appears to follow a mostly natural stream-bed throughout, working its way east to west in the shape of the greek letter omega. During much of the trip, paddlers find themselves surrounded by forests and floodplains, with little commerce to disturb them. After you cross under Wolf Road, you enter the Salt Creek nature preserve. Salt Creek contains a well preserved and maintained example of rare Black Oak savannah, including a designated Illinois nature preserve, which signifies a high quality area of native plants in a restored landscape. In the winter, signs of charred plants and tree bark is evidence of the restoration work done by citizens and groups in partnership with the Cook County forest preserve district. A hike through the nature preserve on the grass footpaths is joy in any season. Also nearby is another gem, the Wolf Road Prairie, and the mid-nineteenth century restored Franzosenbusch house, maintained by a dedicated volunteer group.
Most of the familiar riffle features of this creek were washed out at this high flow, but there were several constricted areas pushing up waves, and old concrete structures and numerous bends to maneuver around. Next up was a former small dam at Possum Hollow Woods, which we didn’t even notice in high water. The dam has been mostly broken up, but in lower water, paddlers should steer river-right to go through a cut-out chute. An old bridge abutment soon follows with swirling waters and some rubble to navigate, then LaGrange Road (U.S. Highway 45, or “US Grant Highway”) crosses above. A mile further, at about the halfway point of the trip, is a gravel beach suitable for a lunch stop.
A couple miles downstream is an unimproved landing with signage at the creatively named 26th Street Woods. This is more of an emergency takeout, or if a place to shorten the trip considerably. The launch, parking lot and portable bathrooms are on the south side of the creek, river right. A small tributary, Addison Creek, enters from river left.
About three quarters of the way through the trip, you’ll hear the unmistakeable sound of rushing water, and be confronted by a large concrete structure straight ahead with the creek forking off to the right. You’re looking at the entrance to a spillway that drains to the Des Plaines River, designed to reduce flooding downstream of Salt Creek in residential neighborhoods. On river right, framed by two concrete walls, is the actual creek. Be aware, as it would be difficult but not impossible to steer your boat to the edge of the spillway (where it would probably get stuck on the knee-wall).
From here, you will pass through the property of the world famous Brookfield Zoo, with most of the facilities on river left (there is no zoo access.) I strain to hear the sounds of monkeys and lions but it is usually quiet, and you can’t see any animals. The creek is small and narrow again, with houses popping up here and there. When there is deadfall logjams, they are usually in this area. On this trip, there were no blockages. The two small wooden bridges are leftover from a defunct miniature railroad at the zoo, according to Mike Svob’s guidebook. Even at high water, there was plenty of headroom.
Shortly before passing under 31st Street again is a new launch at the Brookfield Village Hall and Kiwanis Park on river left. A long, concrete ramp doubles back to make for a soft incline to and from the parking lot. The launch was dedicated with a flowering crabapple to Kendra K., Brookfield’s 27-year-old village planner who was fatally struck by a train crossing a nearby street. One mile further, and the Des Plaines River comes into view. If you look closely across to the opposite bank, you’ll see Scout’s Cabin, a replica of an 1800s log cabin. A short distance from the cabin was Lawton’s Tavern in Riverside, a trading post and way station for fur traders and other European travelers. Prior to European settlement, Potawatomi and other Indian tribes from the “Council of Three Fires” Anishinaabe alliance, made camps at this important crossroads. The takeout comes up fast on river right. On the day we pulled out, we were greeted by a woman in native American regalia who said she was was communing with the elders in drumbeat and song.
You can continue to paddle the Des Plaines downstream to find several landings, including Stony Ford about two miles further. Stony Ford refers to a gravelly “ford” in the river where the bedrock is closer to the surface, making it easier to cross by foot, horse or wagon. Just across the river at Stony Ford is the famous Chicago Portage where native Americans, French trappers, missionaries, European settlers and explorers—including Louis Joliet and Father Marquette on their return trip north in 1673—found passage to connect the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes via a swampy gap between the Des Plaines and Chicago Rivers. The gap was called Mud Lake, and depending on rain was either traversed completely by canoe, or by dragging giant Voyageur canoes and gear through the muck. Going east, travelers could get into Lake Michigan, and eventually Canada. This was a shorter alternative to the Fox River-Wisconsin River portage route that Joliet and Marquette used on the south-bound leg of their trip, one they learned about from the native Americans during their voyage. Today the Chicago portage is a national historical site, with a large sculpture, maps and a walking path. Later generations preparing for industrial and residential development eventually built a levee to cut the Des Plaines off from its eastward fork into Mud Lake and the Chicago River, and to redirect the full current southwest toward the Illinois River. From this point, today the Des Plaines is mostly channelized and heavily industrialized, although there is some interesting paddling around a launch at Isla de Cache at Romeoville, and a set of fishnet rapids at Lockport. Another quality launch is located at Columbia Woods.
If you continue toward Stony Ford, be aware you will be paddling through a Class 1 rapids at the location of the former Hofmann Dam in Riverside. This is for intermediate paddlers only. It’s a fun, narrow chute with standing waves and some former dam rubble, but no obstacles to really work around.
We always like hitting local breweries at the end of every trip, and there are several to choose from close by. We love Hop District Community Brewing, where you can also order food delivered from a restaurant next door. Closer to the takeout are Imperial Oak, and another favorite, Buckledown.
For a shorter, 6-mile trip, put in at Bemis Woods, and take out at Brookfield.
What we liked:
The short shuttle-to-paddle ratio of 1/2 to 1. Eleven miles of paddling and only 5.5 of shuttling one way—and it’s a straight shot on Ogden Avenue (Highway 34, also known as Walter Payton Memorial Highway).
What we didn’t like:
Because much of the regular flow comes from eleven water treatment plants upstream, there is a slightly funky smell to the creek at times. But except for extreme flooding events when stormwater can overwhelm the treatment plans (called a “combined sewerage overflow”), the water is not considered unhealthy, however muddy it might be. The growing number of fish in the creek are a testimony to that.
If we did this trip again:
Bring my canoe or whitewater kayak for high performance in the strong currents.
General: Salt Creek Watershed Network
Good People: DuPage River Salt Creek Work Group
Paddling Club: Prairie State Canoeists
Paddling Club: Northern Illinois Canoe and Kayak Club
Wikipedia: Salt Creek