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Resources to improve water trail accessibility.


Most water trail access sites in northeastern Illinois are on publicly owned property held by recreation providers. These include forest preserve and conservation districts, park districts, municipalities, counties, and other local, state, and federal agencies. Forest preserves and conservation district’s holdings include riparian greenways that lend themselves to water-based recreational uses. Locating access sites on land owned by recreation providers is also advantageous in that the landowner is already prepared and insured for recreational use.

Most paddlers prefer more naturalistic, less engineered access site facilities. Developing a launch site may be as simple as placing a sign identifying the site. Other sites may require some construction, such as a path to the water that is wide, flat, and hard enough to carry boats without difficulty. In many cases, a stable bank is all that is needed to provide an adequate launch site for paddlers. At locations with higher river banks, stairs or a path of a reasonable grade may be required. Launch sites may require protection for the riverbank such as geo-textile grid or other methods of bank stabilization; riverbank, ramp or dock materials that do not damage the boats; and devices that protect users from injury such as railings, fences, and lighting. Good information at the site, including the path the trail follows, interesting features, potential safety hazards, and what to expect at the destination are also of great value to non-motorized watercraft users.

Canoes and Other Open Boats:

Open boats require the least launch site construction. Natural riverbanks, decks, bulkheads and docks are all sufficient if they are no more than two to three feet above the water or low enough to drop a boat in the water and easily step down into it.

Kayaks and Decked Boats:

Boats that are decked, such as kayaks and decked canoes, require a launch site where the paddler can stabilize the boat by holding it or by placing a paddle across the cockpit and the dock, riverbank or wall. Once the paddler is sitting in the boat, these craft can be very stable. However, stepping down into, standing in the boat and then getting seated from a wall, riverbank or dock higher than the deck of the floating boat is more difficult than in a canoe. Standing up and stepping out of a decked boat by a high riverbank, wall or dock can be far more difficult, if not impossible.

Resources are available that provide design guidelines and other considerations for launch site development. The National Park service has developed a launch design guide entitled Prepare to Launch for non-motorized water crafts.

The following is a checklist of potential facilities and other considerations for developing a launch site for non-motorized craft. As noted earlier, minimal facilities serve the needs of many paddlers, and all of the items listed below may not be necessary in all areas.

Getting to the Access Site 

streets and highways, public transportation, links to other trails and/or greenways

Bike Parking

allows paddlers to bike to the put-in and/pr shuttle themselves

Boat Racks, Long and Short Term Equipment Storage

boat storage is a limiting factor for many would-be paddlers who live in apartments; storage racks or lockers make it possible for paddlers to take public transportation to the launch-site avoiding the problems of parking on-site

Camping Area

many water trails around the country involve camping on islands, remote areas, or areas inaccessible by road or foot trails; siting launch sites in or near established or planned camping areas allows longer travel on the waterway

Landscaping and Stream Buffer Vegetation



beach, dock, shelf or ramp clearly identified from both land and water non or low-abrasive surfaces are preferred by owners of more expensive gel-coated figerglass boats; low walkway piers between launch ramp’s lanes make the pier usable by kayakers; ramps and floating docks allow access at any water level


parking, walkways, unloading area, stairs and dock or ramp


adequate for site, handicapped spaces, reasonable walking distance to launch site but screened so that stream is buffered, hours of accessibility

Picnic area

lawn, benches, picnic tables, grills, shelter


a place to wait children at takeout can make the site and river family-friendly


consider signs on bridges for paddlers that identify water trail and road name; road signs locating and directing traffic to the entrance of the access site; and signs identifying phone, parking and unloading areas (also see section on maps and signs)


fencing, lighting, emergency phone


walkways, and paths as necessary

Swimming area

where the waterway is clean and safe enough



Unloading/tie-down area for boats

separate from parking, near launch, dock or ramp, allows parking to be located further from the launch site

Waste disposal

containers large enough may encourage people to collect garbage found along the waterway


drinking fountains, faucets for filling tanks and canteens, washing


It may also be desirable to establish stopping spots along trail stretches. This would allow opportunities for rest, contemplation, photography, or a refuge from conflicting motor boat traffic.

Map information may include:

  • The user’s current position on the map
  • The course of the waterway
  • The distance between sites and location of the next few sites
  • The location of obstacles and/or dangers such as dams and preferred portage routes
  • Other nearby or adjacent trails and trail links
  • Services such as telephones, drinking water, stores, fuel and hospitals
  • Interesting sites or attractions along the way
  • Appropriate information on access for disabled users
  • Illinois Nature Preserves and Natural Areas Inventory sites
  • A date indicating when the map was created

Sign information may include:

  • Site name and location
  • Manager contact
  • Warning of downstream obstacles and other safety information
  • Small boat safety information such as Illinois and Coast Guard boating requirements
  • Contact for reporting information about the site or waterway
  • Environmental and cultural information about the river stretch
  • Contact for reporting information about the site or waterway
  • Environmental and cultural information about the river stretch
  • Contact for stewardship and volunteer opportunities
  • A sign depicting a water trail map, including features described in the map information section above

In some cases, it may be appropriate to provide more general information on a sign relating to downstream obstacles and other conditions so as not to create the perception by the public that every possible situation has been covered, when some conditions are unforeseeable.

Water Trail signage projects in Northeastern Illinois have emphasized the following types of signage:

Map signs:

These show the users current position on the map, the course of the water trail, the distance between access sites, the location of obstacles or other known dangers such as dams and preferred portage routes. Placing these next to launch sites or in parking areas next to launch sites makes all visitors aware of the existence of the water trail. These signs have been installed at launch sites at a variety of different sizes, ranging from 72” X 28” to 36” X 24”.

Directional signs:

These signs make paddlers aware of what street they are passing under on the water. They typically include the street name a logo for the water trail and they are typically 12” X 48”. They are mounted on the bridge itself so that paddlers can see them from the water.

Put in signs:

These mark the launch site as a water trail access. These are typically 24” X 18” but have also been produced at smaller sizes.

Take out signs:

These are placed at the launch site so that paddlers can see them from the water. They alert paddlers that are at a take out. They may also include the name of the take out, for example Riverview Park. These are typically 18” X 12”.

Warning signs:

These warn paddlers of dangers such as dams or other obstacles and how to portage. Typically these might be 30” X 18” in size.

Safety signs:

These contain general safety information and let paddlers know where to go for more information. They may be next to a launch site or attached on the same post as a map sign. Typically they are 17” X 11”.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has a Water Trail Tool Kit that includes guidelines for signage (and launch site development).

Meet Our Expert Staff

Openlands Staff Lillian Holden
Regional Water Trails Manager
Geographic Information System (GIS) Analyst
Openlands Staff Laura Barghusen
Director of Restoration and Trails
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