- 1 Lakefront Dr., Zion, Illinois 60099
- N: 42.466 W: -87.810
Where is Illinois Beach State Park?
Illinois Beach sits on the shore of Lake Michigan. Being in the far northeast corner of Illinois, it is about equal distance from Chicago and Milwaukee. Both cities are approximately 50 miles away and about a one-hour drive. Although in this metropolitan area, rush hour traffic could add up to 30 minutes to your trip. Be sure to factor that in!
How Big is Illinois Beach State Park?
This is a 4,160-acre US State Parks with a 6.5-mile lakefront trail to bike, jog, or rollerblade on. Although the terrain is flat throughout, it is otherwise quite varied, with its small sandy dunes a great place to spread your blanket or beach towel. There are a few grassy trails along the beach and some areas with large rocks. The park also has forested sections, many swamps and marshes, and open grassy areas perfect for picnicking or throwing a ball around. Fly a kite from the sand, or in one of the open inner expanses of the park.
Illinois Beach State Park Weather
Though the hottest spells of summer bring temperatures up to the high nineties, the lakefront winds keep things relatively cool near the beach most any time. Do bring sun protection of all sorts, though. Summer is the most popular time to visit, although there is plenty going on in spring, with swamp and forest life reborn. The trees turning color in fall is a beautiful sight as well, and while winter is usually far too cold for a beachside stroll, the waves frost everything around them with an icy glaze, making for interesting photography. Be sure to dress properly to protect against the elements and heed any severe cold warnings. Temperatures commonly dip into the single digits, and sometimes below, with windchills being dangerous at times.
When did Illinois Beach become a State Park?
Though nurseryman Robert Douglas and architect Jens Jensen talked of preserving the area as early as the late 1800s, the first official park land was not acquired until 1948. Over the years, the state gained more property, adding additions in 1964 and between 1971 and 1982. The northern unit extends all the way to the Wisconsin border, and getting this far was a process, rather than a single event!
Things to do in Illinois Beach State Park
Illinois Beach State Park is a rare find because it offers so many different activities and a diverse terrain. Biking is one of the most common activities in the park, due to the postcard-worthy paved trail along gleaming waters. Scuba-diving is a hard-to-come by treat, with Lake Michigan an underwater playground for those who want to explore old schooners, barges, and the like. The ubiquitous patches of swampland are teeming with turtles and other wildlife, and the resort is an excellent place to stay if you’re visiting the park or any of the many venues nearby. List of Parks highlights some of the adventures below.
SCUBA diving is listed on this park’s website. Indeed, there are shallow dives of 20 ft leading to some wooden schooners, and even a WWI submarine right offshore. For more advanced divers there is a barge off the coast of Waukegan that sunk in a storm, as well as numerous other nearby sites in the waters of Lake Michigan.
Trailblazing: whether you bike, rollerblade, run, or just walk, the 6.5-mile path along the lake is beautiful and exhilarating. Bikers should be careful of the old and young, as this is a multi-use path. However, it’s often relatively open, permitting a quick pace.
Turtle catching: During much of the year the abundant swamps freckling the park allow the chance for young ones to engage with painted turtles or other species. Turtles frequently sun themselves on warm afternoons. If you’re stealthy enough, opportunities abound.
Campgrounds: Camping is popular here, so make sure to reserve a spot, and be prepared for space to book up early on holiday weekends. There is electricity and showers, and sanitary facilities are available. There are 6 accessible campsites for those who need them.
Resort and Conference Center: This state park features the only hotel in Illinois that is actually on the Lake Michigan shore. From the windows surrounding the indoor, heated, Olympic-size pool, you can view the gazebo and Lake Michigan behind it. Stay the weekend and enjoy the health club and spa. There is a restaurant, bar, and gift shop at this spacious hotel in the pines, making it a great place to host a conference.
Swimming: this is the perfect place to go for a swim. Plant your towel in the sand and take in some rays or play frisbee. While there are waves, they are rarely the size you get in the ocean. This makes swimming here fun but not overwhelming for kids. Dogs are not allowed on the beach or in the preserve area, but they are permitted in the other areas of the park if they are on a leash.
Boating: Boaters can rent a slip at the marina here and fish the waters of Lake Michigan. There is also food available at the marina.
Golf: Take advantage of the 18-hole course the Illinois Beach State Park features. Lake breezes usually keep temperatures bearable even in August.
Get married! The resort is a great place for an outdoor wedding. The nuptials can take place around the nicely sodded lake-side gazebo with the sands and the waves just a few feet away.
Hiking trails wander throughout the swamps, fields, and forests of Illinois Beach State Park. They’re a great place to get some exercise or take the children for a nature hike. They smell glorious with the many types of wildflowers that thrive there, and are home to many types of swamp creatures, birds, and butterflies.
When to go to Illinois Beach State Park
There is something for all seasons at Illinois Beach State Park. While aquatic activities are obviously better suited for summer or the warmer parts of spring and fall, winter is a good time for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and spotting a pristine snow owl. For photographing fields of wildflowers and vibrant foliage, autumn is best. Of course, the resort is open all year long, and with so many things to do both in and around the park, it’s the perfect place to hunker down. Whether you’re in town for a relative’s graduation at nearby Great Lakes Naval Base or visiting the outlet malls in Gurnee or just over the Wisconsin border, the resort has everything you need and much more. Plus, it’s a short drive. It’s close enough to both Chicago and Milwaukee to have a fun daytrip to either city while staying at the resort.
Must-Have things to bring to Illinois Beach
Depending on what you plan to do at Illinois Beach State Park, our State Park Visitors Guide advises bringing some essential items with you. Here’s a list of things you might find handy.
A net for catching turtles: kids will love investigating the wildlife in the swamps, and turtles are everywhere. Walk quietly and carry a big pole (with a net attached)! You shouldn’t have too much trouble catching the painted variety.
Food/Snacks: bring along things you can roast on a stick, like hot dogs and marshmallows. You can purchase firewood onsite and build your own campfire near the sound of waves hitting the shore—so much fun to do under the stars. There is a restaurant and bar at the resort as well as a food concession at the marina. Barring these, you’ll need to bring your own.
Scuba and/or snorkeling gear: seasoned divers should bring all their own equipment for the sport, but if you are a newbie, investigate the chartered trips sold in the area. Equipment is provided and lessons are given ahead of time.
Proper footwear for hiking: trails through fields of wildflowers, swampland, and oaks seem endless. You’ll regret not being prepared when your hike finally comes to end though!
Your own skis or snowshoes: cross-country skiers and snowshoers must bring their own gear. While there is a field house on the premises and a small shop at the resort selling hats, jackets, and tees, there is no rental facility for specialized items.
Sunglasses, sunscreen, a beach hat: the summer months are seldom rainy throughout the day. Most rain comes from thunderstorms that pass through heavily but briefly. Most days are brilliantly sunny, and with the sun reflecting off the lake, you’ll need sunglasses and sunscreen, and maybe some lip balm, too!
Binoculars: from afar is often the best way to view deer, turtles, and aquatic birds at length. Bring your binoculars to get a good look at the many types of wildlife that dwell at Illinois Beach State Park.
Camera: if you’re lucky enough to catch a turtle or a really big fish, you’ll want to document it on film. A good zoom lens can capture a variety of birds—including snow owls. These gorgeous white birds are known to make appearances throughout winter and are quite stunning.
Bug Spray: lots of marshes mean lots of bugs. You’ll definitely need a good bug spray for sitting by the campfire at dusk or hiking in the preserve.
Fishing equipment: you can purchase bait nearby, but bring your own rods and your fishing license, which is required. Sand Pond is equipped for the disabled.
Where to stay in Illinois Beach State Park
The Illinois Beach State Park Resort is the most convenient, not to mention scenic, choice for staying indoors, while the camping grounds are best for sleeping under the stars. However, both places often book up fast. If you need to go elsewhere, there are many options in the area. Chain hotels are located close by in the Zion, Waukegan, and Gurnee area. The Lincolnshire Marriott Resort is lovely and a bit on the higher end, but there are many less expensive choices as well.
Food Nearby Illinois Beach
The area around Illinois Beach State Park offers lots to do, and thus, many dining locations. If you are not eating at the resort or marina, check out eateries near the shopping outlets and Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, or near the historic Genesee Theatre in Waukegan. The Genesee presents some awesome live shows with your favorite singers and comedians, and theater goers frequently dine before and have a drink after. There is even a famous stallion farm in the area-- the many activities in the region require ample places for visitors to have a meal or a cocktail.
Airports near Illinois Beach State Park
Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport, and Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling are all within an hour drive of this state park. Consider the time of day and week however, because rush-hour or a mishap on the highway can significantly impact travel times.