Cruise with the Critters: Must-See Wildlife While Paddleboarding Illinois!

Golden sunrises, serene lakes, and the gentle glide of a paddleboard: this is Illinois like you've never experienced before. Amidst the splash of oars and the rhythmic lapping of waves against the board, there's another world waiting to be discovered. A world where deer sip cautiously at water's edge, where ospreys dance in the azure above, and the very water beneath holds secrets of its own. To truly uncover the wild heart of Illinois, one must leave the hiking trails and take to the water, paddleboard in tow let us begin our journey into the best places to view wildlife from a sup in Illinois!

Key Highlights

  1. Eagle Creek State Park: Witness bald eagles, deer, and over 200 bird species in their natural habitat.
  2. Siloam Springs State Park: Glide alongside herons, egrets, and abundant songbirds.
  3. Apple River Canyon State Park: Marvel at peregrine falcons and the vibrant kingfishers along rocky shores.
  4. Chain O'Lakes State Park: Encounter trumpeter swans and muskrats among interconnected lakes.
  5. Buffalo Rock State Park: Spot bald eagles and great blue herons along the Rock River.
  6. Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge: Observe pelicans and egrets in this restored wetland.
  7. Mississippi Palisades State Park: Enjoy sightings of river otters and a myriad of bird species.
  8. Kankakee River State Park: Watch for sandhill cranes, ducks, and geese.
  9. Peoria Lakes: Explore habitats of ospreys, cormorants, and waterfowl on the Illinois River.
  10. Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park: Discover foxes, deer, and owls around the lakeshore.
  11. Lake Shelbyville: Look out for eagles, herons, and river otters.
  12. Carlyle Lake: Observe pelicans, cormorants, and migrating birds.
  13. Clinton Lake State Recreation Area: Search for beavers, river otters, and warblers among flooded timber.
  14. Pyramid State Park: Paddleboard among swans, herons, and mink.
  15. Evergreen Lake: See ospreys, cormorants, and over 200 bird species.
  16. Mermet Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area: Scan for eagles, herons, and shorebirds.
  17. Matthiessen State Park: Encounter herons, bitterns, and migrating warblers.
  18. Lake of the Woods: Watch for herons, kingfishers, and over 100 bird species.
  19. Washington County Conservation Area: Glide through wetlands spotting deer, foxes, and coyotes.
  20. Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish & Wildlife Area: Observe herons, egrets, wood ducks, and abundant wildlife.

paddle board in IllinoisPhoto Credit: Kiki's Paddleboards
  1. Eagle Creek State Park.

    Glide along the peaceful backwaters looking for deer, beavers, river otters, and over 200 species of birds. Bald eagles nest here in the winter. You can spot these majestic raptors surveying their territory or tending nests high in the bare treetops. Early mornings often bring stunning views of eagles leaving their roosts to go fishing. Paddle quietly near shorelines and you may glimpse timid beavers busily swimming about. Patient watching may reward you with a sighting of playful river otters chasing each other through the water. The park's varied habitat shelters an abundance of birds - over 200 species! Forest birds include woodpeckers, nuthatches, thrushes, and warblers while waterbirds range from belted kingfishers to great blue herons.

  2. Siloam Springs State Park.

    Stand atop your paddleboard and quietly paddle through this haven for wildlife watching. Spot herons, egrets, shorebirds, beavers, foxes, and abundant songbirds as you glide across the lake. Great blue herons stalk patiently in the shallows. Snowy egrets wade through the waters hunting fish. Spotted sandpipers scurry along the wooded shorelines. Beavers busily swim about maintaining their lodges. Red foxes may be glimpsed peeking from the brush. Over 150 bird species inhabit the diverse woods, prairies, and wetlands. Paddle slowly and silently to get the closest looks at wildlife.

  3. Apple River Canyon State Park.

    Scan towering limestone bluffs for peregrine falcons and ride the gentle rapids spotting kingfishers, turtles, and over 100 bird species. Paddle along rock strewn shores gazing up at stunning vertical cliffs. Watch for the fast blur of peregrine falcons performing acrobatics against the blue sky. Belted kingfishers perch on branches hanging over the river before diving for fish. Painted and snapping turtles may be seen sunning on fallen logs. The river winds through prairie and oak forests that shelter over 100 bird species. Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures soar on thermals above the canyon. Songbirds like eastern bluebirds and yellow-breasted chats call from the prairie brush.Photo Credit: Kiki's Paddleboards
  4. Chain O'Lakes State Park.

    Paddle through the chain of lakes and watch for trumpeter swans, blue herons, waterfowl, muskrats, and river otters. Majestic trumpeter swans can sometimes be seen feeding in aquatic plants near shore. Stealthy river otters may be spotted playing and fishing in quiet backwaters. Paddling near reedy areas may reward you with sightings of great blue herons stalking for fish. Keep an eye out for busy muskrats swimming about maintaining their lodges. The wooded lakeshores shelter many waterfowl species including common loons, canvasbacks, mergansers, and mallard ducks. Belted kingfishers chatter as they perch on overhanging branches.

  5. Buffalo Rock State Park.

    Search for bald eagles, great blue herons, deer, beavers, muskrats, and over 100 species of birds as you glide along the Rock River. Scour the sky for bald eagles that nest along the bluffs lining the river. You may see them leaving treetop perches to go fishing. Listen for the reptilian calls of great blue herons echoing from riverside trees. Deer often come down to the river's edge to drink providing a graceful scene. Beavers and muskrats may be spotted busily swimming about tending to their lodges. Over 100 species of songbirds flit through the park's wooded habitat including scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and brilliant warblers.

  6. Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge.

    Slide through shallow backwaters looking for pelicans, herons, egrets, and more as you explore this restored wetland. Paddle through stands of aquatic plants watching for American white pelicans floating on the water like giant swans. Great blue herons may be seen wading stealthily with their specialized toes. Snowy egrets and great egrets stalk through the shallows hunting fish. The pumping song of red-winged blackbirds emanates from the cattails. Iridescent tree swallows dive for insects skimming the water's surface.

  7. Mississippi Palisades State Park.

    Paddle the calm waters scanning for great blue herons, belted kingfishers, warblers, and even river otters. Glide along sandstone cliffs towering above the river. Listen for the cackling call of the belted kingfisher and watch it plunge into the water for fish. Great blue herons nest in riverside trees, so watch for them wading along shores. The warbler migration brings a splash of color in spring with birds like yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, and indigo buntings. With luck you may glimpse playful river otters enjoying the water.

  8. Kankakee River State Park.

    Spot sandhill cranes, ducks, geese, deer, foxes, coyotes, and hundreds of bird species as you paddle downstream. The open waters attract diving ducks like lesser scaup, while Canada geese graze in grassy areas. Sandhill cranes feed in wet prairies along the river. Deer come to drink and may be spotted swimming across the river. Red foxes and coyotes prowl the wooded shores. Belted kingfishers chatter as they dive for fish. Over 200 species of songbirds inhabit the park's varied habitat.

  9. Peoria Lakes.

    Glide across Peoria Lake watching for osprey, cormorants, herons, and waterfowl. Paddle up the Illinois River to see wood ducks, beavers, and more. Scan for ospreys perched atop channel markers before they plunge feet first for fish. Double-crested cormorants stretch their wings as they perch on buoys near the marinas. Great blue herons and great egrets may hunt along shorelines. The sheltered bays host diving and dabbling ducks as well as graceful swans. On the Illinois River watch for brightly-colored wood ducks in flooded timber and beavers busily swimming about.

  10. Lake Le-Aqua-Na State Park.

    Search the lakeshore for foxes, deer, raccoons, owls, hawks, herons, and songbirds as you paddle the lake. Red foxes can sometimes be glimpsed peeking from the rushes. White-tailed deer often emerge from the woods to drink and forage by the lake. Paddling close to shore may startle raccoons, opossums or muskrats. Many raptors hunt here, including bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, barred owls and red-shouldered hawks. Great blue herons wade through the shallows spearing fish. Songbirds like red-winged blackbirds and tree swallows dart over the water.

  11. Lake Shelbyville.

    Look for bald eagles, great blue herons, shorebirds, waterfowl, and even river otters as you explore the wooded shoreline of this lake. Bald eagles nest along the quieter stretches of shore, tending nests in towering cottonwoods. Great blue herons stand statue-still in the shallows waiting to spear fish. Shorebirds like spotted sandpipers scurry along the water's edge. Coves protected from wind and waves host diving ducks like buffleheads. With luck you may spot sleek river otters playing along the shoreline and sliding down muddy banks.

  12. Carlyle Lake.

    Spot pelicans, cormorants, herons, belted kingfishers, and hundreds of migrating birds at this largest lake in Illinois. Search the open water for flocks of American white pelicans gliding majestically on their huge wings. Double-crested cormorants stretch their wings wide as they perch on channel markers. Great egrets stalk patiently through the shallows hunting fish. Belted kingfishers chatter loudly as they dive for food. Songbirds stop to rest and refuel during their long migrations across the lake.

  13. Clinton Lake State Recreation Area.

    Paddle through the flooded timber searching for beavers, river otters, waterfowl, shorebirds, and migrating warblers. Watch for beavers busily swimming about maintaining their lodges hidden in the trees. River otters slide down muddy banks and playfully romp through the water. The secluded wooded coves provide refuge to waterfowl and shorebirds. Vibrant warblers like yellow warblers and American redstarts blaze through the trees during spring migration.

  14. Pyramid State Park.

    Glide across the water looking for swans, herons, egrets, waterfowl, deer, foxes, and even mink. Paddling near shore may reveal giant trumpeter swans feeding on aquatic plants. Great blue herons stand motionless waiting to spear fish with their sharp beaks. Snowy egrets and great egrets wade through shallow water looking for prey. Dabbling ducks like northern shovelers swim in the protected bay. Red foxes and white-tailed deer emerge from the woods bordering the lake. With extreme luck you may glimpse the elusive American mink navigating the shoreline.

  15. Evergreen Lake.

    Paddle around this natural lake watching for ospreys, cormorants, ducks, geese, swans, sandhill cranes, and over 200 bird species. Look for ospreys diving feet first to snatch fish from the water. Double-crested cormorants spread their wings to dry after fishing. Canada geese and ducks like ring-necked ducks swim near shore. Occasionally sandhill cranes may be seen feeding in the shallows. The secluded wooded shoreline provides sanctuary for over 200 species of birds including vibrant warblers and tanagers.

  16. Mermet Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area.

    Paddleboard on this large reservoir scanning for eagles, herons, waterbirds, and shorebirds. Bald eagles nest in sycamore trees along the wooded shoreline. Great blue herons stand statue-still in the shallows waiting to spear fish. American white pelicans, cormorants, grebes and terns float on the open water. Spotted sandpipers and greater yellowlegs scurry along the water's edge. Be alert for river otters playing in the water as you paddle by. The best wildlife viewing is from atop your board away from shore.

  17. Matthiessen State Park.

    Spot herons, bitterns, and hundreds of migrating warblers as you paddle the Vermilion River. Paddle slowly along the reed-lined river searching for great blue herons and American bitterns camouflaged among the vegetation. The spring warbler migration brings over 100 species to the park, including brilliant orange and black orioles and fiery scarlet tanagers in the trees. Belted kingfishers skim over the water diving for fish. Spotted and wood turtles may be seen basking on logs emerging from the clear water.

  18. Lake of the Woods.

    Quietly paddle, watching for great blue herons, belted kingfishers, beavers, muskrats, and over 100 bird species. Stealthy herons may go unseen until they stretch out their broad wings to fly. Belted kingfishers chatter loudly as they perch on streamside branches before diving. Watch for beavers and muskrats busily maintaining their lodges near shore. The diverse habitat shelters over 100 bird species including warblers, vireos, tanagers, and flycatchers. Bald eagles and ospreys soar overhead before plunging to catch fish.

  19. Washington County Conservation Area.

    Glide through wetlands and woods looking for deer, foxes, coyotes, owls, hawks, ducks, geese, and shorebirds. Scan treetops for owls like barred and great horned owls resting in the daytime. Red-tailed hawks may be seen soaring high on thermals. Wood ducks and mallards dabble in shallow water. Sandhill cranes bugle loudly as they visit the wetlands. White-tailed deer and red foxes emerge from the wooded edges. Belted kingfishers dive for fish while Canada geese honk.

  20. Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish & Wildlife Area.

    Paddle upstream spotting herons, egrets, wood ducks, beavers, river otters, deer, and abundant birdlife. Search the shallows for great blue herons stealthily hunting. Snowy egrets stand statue-still watching for fish. Vibrant wood ducks with colorful crests perch on fallen trees. Look for beavers busily swimming about maintaining their lodges. Sleek river otters slide down muddy banks into the water. White-tailed deer come to the creek's edge to drink. Red-winged blackbirds sing from the rushes.


    As you slide your paddleboard across an Illinois lake, river, or wetland, you never know what amazing wildlife sightings await. A bald eagle may soar overhead before plunging for fish. Sandhill cranes could bugle hauntingly as they pass in flight. The flash of vibrant warbler colors may surround you during spring migration. Or a river otter could peek at you mischievously from the rushes. Paddleboarding offers a unique way to feel at one with nature and get up close to wild animals in their natural habitats. As you glide quietly on the water, you may be surprised at how close some creatures come, unaffected by your presence. Just remember to keep a respectful distance and minimize disturbances. By exploring Illinois’ abundant waterways, you’ll find your own special connection with nature and wildlife. Let the winds and waters take you on a journey into the heart of Illinois’ animal kingdom. Adventure awaits when you dip your paddle and push off from shore. But be careful, because you may just lose your heart to the wonder of the Prairie State’s wild places.

Tips, Tricks, and Fun Articles await.

Here are a few quick links to help you keep going, don't forget to check our blog out for more tips and expert advice. For wildlife tips check out our blog and this article on Beginners Guide To Bird Watching. And don't forget to read our article on Stand Up Paddle Boarding and Wildlife Encounters. For a complete guide of where to paddle board in every state, this one is for you! The best places to paddle board in the United States a state by state tour of where to paddle board with Glide Paddle Boards.

Or perhaps something international is what you are looking for, then these two articles will help out. Check out the ultimate guide on finding places to paddle board near you for tips and tricks on finding new and exciting places near you! And for international spots Epic Spots Globally To Paddle Board is for you! And check out the Glide O2 Angler and why it makes an incredible platform for birding and wildlife viewing.