IL Illinois Beach State Park
Illinois Beach State Park
Illinois Beach State Park is located on Lake Michigan right in the middle of the heavily developed corridor between Milwaukee and Chicago. If you’re thinking a park that has a nuclear power plant right in the middle of it, has areas that were once used by the military to practice tank maneuvers, and is reported to be contaminated with asbestos doesn’t sound like the best place for an nature experience, you’d be wrong.
There are a number of trails suitable for hiking or biking that go through a rather unique landscape with views of dunes, wetlands, woodlands, and prairies. And, of course, there is the beach (over six miles of it) which provides some great swimming, walking, or scenic shoreline paddling in a canoe or kayak. Despite heavy use of the park (and the waters off the park) and a location in an urban area, this park and especially the beaches are very clean. The Park employees do an excellent job at picking up litter in the park as well as cleaning up the debris that washes up out of Lake Michigan.
As to the asbestos, the contamination is reported to be from a former Johns Mansville plant and according to reports, chunks occasionally wash up on the beach and are found in other areas of the park. I personally haven't seen them, but then again, I'm not looking for them (or even know what to look for). But I don't think the chunks that wash up on the beach are really the problem, instead it's the chunks that got ground up in the sands and surf and can subsequently become airborne that is of risk. There is plenty of debate over just how hazardous this is. You can try this Google Search for plenty of articles on this topic.
- Terrain / Scenery: Scenic but very flat mix of beach, dunes, wetlands, woodlands, and prairie.
- Fees / Permits: None
- Trail Conditions: Enter Text Here
- Trail Markings: Only the Dead River Trail and Dunes Trail are marked.
- Facilities: Campground, Picnic areas, swimming beaches, concession stand, pit toilets and bathrooms.
- Official Web Page: http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/Landmgt/PARKS/R2/ILBEACH.HTM#Beach Map available for download
- Getting There: The park is located just North of Waukegan, IL and spans the towns of Zion, IL and Winthrop Harbor, IL. Both sections of the park are accessed from Sheridan Road (State Highway 137). To get to the Southern Unit, go East on Wadsworth Road. To get to the main portion of the Northern Unit, go East on 17th Street. There is also a small parking area on Shiloh Boulevard that provides access to the trails at the south end of the Northern Unit.
- Restrictions: Bicycles are not allowed on the Dead River Trail or the Dunes Trail. Dogs are not allowed on any portion of the beach or on the Dead River Trail or Dunes Trail (they are allowed in other portions of the park). The area south of the Dead River is a natural area and is off limits without a permit.
I’ve included an overview map (on the right) that shows both units of the park, and separate higher resolution maps for each unit (further down this page)
The southern unit is the main portion of the park and gets the most visitors. It contains a very popular main swimming beach and has the longest section of continuous beach (several miles long) in the park as well as the largest area of natural dunes. It also contains the campground and the majority of the picnic areas. The northern unit is quieter and made up of land from the old Camp Logan military base. Many of the trails in the northern unit are actually old roads. You can create a bike route through both sections by using Shiloh Boulevard and Deborah Ave as connecting roads (both roads have very light auto traffic) or you can use the Zion Bike Path (shown Purple on the map).
Hiking Illinois Beach State Park Trails
All the trails in Illinois Beach State Park can be hiked and would be considered very easy hiking. The terrain is essentially flat, most trails are fairly wide, and none are all that long. There are a variety of trail surfaces in the park including asphalt, grass, dirt, sand, and crushed stone. The Dead River Trail in the south unit is the only trail that is completely natural surfaced (mostly sand) and is the narrowest trail in the park. It passes by a wetlands area along the dead river and a dunes area. All other trails are wider and most allow bicycle traffic. The inland trail in northern part of the north unit passes through a wooded area and does not get a lot of traffic, so it's a good option for a quiet walk. The beaches themselves actually provide some of the best hiking/walking in the park. Both units have plenty of beach to hike, although the north unit beaches have some obstacles. The trails are described in greater detail under the specific unit (North Unit or South Unit).
Note: Dogs are not allowed on any of the beaches in either unit, or on the Dunes Trail or Dead River Trail in the south unit. They are allowed in the campground, picnic areas, and other inland trails. I have seen the rangers enforcing this. If your pooch really needs a swim, you have a better chance of getting away with it on the more remote sections of beach in the north unit, but you didn't hear it from me.
Biking Illinois Beach State Park Trails
The bicycling trails in Illinois Beach State Park are all easy wide trails. The trail surfaces include asphalt, crushed stone, grass, dirt, and some sandy areas. The trails are described in greater detail under the specific unit (North Unit or South Unit).
I've included a section of the Zion Bike Path system on this map because it runs so close to the park and can be used as a connector between sections of the park. The Zion Bike Path is a narrow asphalt trail that runs through mostly wooded areas. For the most part it is running between residential areas (people's back yards) and the railroad tracks, though due to the thick wooded areas it does not feel like an urban bike path. The south end of the trail can be accessed from Sheridan Road while the north end is accessed at 17th Street, though he trail can be accessed at any cross road.
There are no mountain bike trails at Illinois Beach park, but there some nice technical trails nearby at Beulah Park, a city park in Zion.
Cross Country Skiing?
I was surprised to see a "no cross country skiing" sign on the Dunes and Dead River trails in the south unit. Since I don't ever recall seeing a biking or hiking trail anywhere that specifically excluded cross-country skiing, I was a bit confused as to why they would do this. Then it occurred to me that I really didn't have any interest in skiing here anyway. The terrain in Illinois Beach State Park is flat, I don't mean mostly flat, I mean completely flat!
Cross-country skiing is allowed on the trails in the north unit and if you live near them, they are probably worth an occasional short ski just to get some exercise and enjoy the scenery. To be honest, I think you'll find better trails at any of the inland Lake County Forest Preserves. You should also check out the Kenosha Area Trails Page for additional nearby cross-country ski trails.
Hmmm, nuclear power plant, asbestos, and bacterial lake pollution? Last one in is a radioactive, asbestos and bacteria contaminated rotten egg!
Make your own choices, but I think this is a great place for a swim.
The main swimming beach is in the south unit, but you can swim any of the miles of beach in the park. The beaches are generally a mix of sand and gravel (smooth small stones). There are some isolated sections in the lake along the beach in the north unit that may have old commercial debris (hunks of concrete, concrete block, piping, etc) below the water surface that may not be kind to your feet. These sections are between the beach by the main parking area and the power plant.
Paddling Illinois Beach State Park
Paddling the shoreline along Illinois Beach State Park is a unique experience since it’s one of only a few places along the southern half of Lake Michigan where you can paddle for several miles along mostly undeveloped shoreline (although some is reclaimed shoreline that was developed at one point, so it's not completely natural shoreline). The best section starts just south of the main swimming beach and continues south past the Dead River. Once you get south of the resort building, there are no visible structures along the shore for several miles. Not only are there no man-made structures visible along the shore, there are also no structures visible inland either due to the large nature preserve. Instead, you see sandy or gravel beach followed by grassy dunes areas followed by woodlands further inland.
Just south of the Nature Preserve you will encounter an industrial area and a large fishing pier. I suggest turning around before hitting this area, but if you want to continue watch out for an area just north of the pier where you can encounter some scary churning waters due to water discharge pipes located below the lake directly west of the large industrial building. To be safe, paddle way out into the lake (maybe a quarter mile or so) well before paddling towards and past the pier.
I don’t believe you can paddle the Dead River (you may be able to get a permit) and I’m not sure if you can go ashore south of the Dead River along the Nature Preserve.
The area along the northern unit is a mix of natural shoreline and man-made structures such as a very large abandoned concrete pier that no longer reaches the shore an other oddball things sticking occasionally out of the lake.
If paddling past the Zion Nuclear Power Plant, there are some buoys out in the lake and I believe you have to stay outside of those buoys.
Illinois does require that canoes and kayaks are registered, and I have seen Illinois Beach State Park rangers giving tickets for unregistered boats. If your boat is registered out of state and you are not keeping it in Illinois for an extended period of time, you do not need to register it in Illinois. Unfortunately, since most states do not require you to register canoes and kayaks, your boat is probably not registered out of state and the Illinois registration process is rather cumbersome (it's not a simple matter of purchasing a sticker).
If you're not familiar with paddling on the great lakes, you need to be aware that waves and winds can be a serious hazard. Your best bet is to try to time your paddle to when the lake is at it's calmest. This would most likely be in the early morning before the winds and waves pick up on days with a light west wind. If there have been strong east, northeast, or southeast winds in the day or so prior, you may still encounter large waves even early in the morning. A sea kayak is better than a canoe though I regularly use my solo canoe on the lake provided the conditions are right. Late August through early September are best since the water is warm and there are fewer boats. During the summer months you will have a lot of boats and personal watercraft buzzing through these waters.(especially from the Marina south to the resort).
Carrying in: In the South Unit, you can carry in your canoe or kayak from any of the parking areas along the main park road that runs parallel to the beach or from the main beach parking lot. If the main road is open in the North Unit, you can park in the main parking lot and carry in from there. You can also carry in from a parking area at the south end of the marina although they have been creating a large embankment upon this part of the beach that makes carrying in a little trickier than it used to be.
North Unit Details and Map
Following the main road into the park, you will find several parking areas that provide access to various areas. The main lot is all the way at the end of the main road. Occasionally the main park road has been closed just past the Sand Pond parking area. If it is, you can usually park at the small parking area by sand pond and walk or bike into the park (it would be a long way to carry a canoe or kayak though). The trails north of the main parking area are a mix of crushed stone trails (shown brown on the map) and natural surfaced trails (shown green on the map). The natural surfaced trails are a combination of grass, dirt, and sand areas. The short green trail sections shown near the beach are access trails to the beach (there area actually more access trails than those shown on the map). There are a series of small creeks running through these sections. Obviously these creeks run a little too straight to be naturally formed. There are small bridges where the trails cross the creeks. The trail (brown) used to access the trails from the North Shore Marina area is actually a gravel access road used by the park workers. It runs from 7th street along the west side of the parking lot and passes a house owned by the park. You may see some "authorized vehicles only" signs, these are just to keep motorized vehicles out.
The trail (brown) that roughly follows the main park road towards Sand Pond is a crushed stone connector to the trails south of the main park road. These trails are mostly old roads (no longer accessible to motorized vehicles). The trails shown in brown are old asphalt roads that are no longer maintained. The trail shown green on the map is grassy double track from Sand Pond south to the first Old road, then it is just grass with some sandy areas south of the old road. You may notice the green trail dead ends at the railroad tracks. This section of tracks is an old spur line and does not appear to have been used in years (though I am assuming it is still potentially active). You can hike (or have a really bumpy bike ride on) the section of tracks between green trail and the old road (brown) to get to the alternate parking area on Shiloh Blvd or just use the old roads. The short trail heading towards the beach just north of the power plant is an asphalt path that leads to an observation platform.
You can also use the beaches as part of the hiking trail system, however, the beach running along the north section is not one continuous strip. There is a long section that runs from just south of the marina to the main parking area in the park. From the main parking area south, there are sections of piled concrete for shore protection that interrupt the beach (though you can hike along the tops of them). The two small creeks furthest north actually go underground before they hit the beach, but the slightly larger creek that runs just north of Sand Pond does go directly into the lake so you're probably not getting past this section of beach without getting your feet wet. South of this creek (after a short section of piled concrete) there is a continuous section of beach that runs to just north of the Zion Nuclear Power Plant.
You can bike any of the trails in the Northern Unit. All the trails are very easy biking although you will hit some sandy spots on the natural surfaced trails.
Note: there is a very large deer population in the park and subsequently there is a very large tick population. I've found this especially true in the inland areas of the far north section where I no longer take my dog from April through November due the amount of dog ticks and deer ticks he has picked up there. Just biking or walking the trails are not a problem as long as don't brush up against the vegetation along side the trail. These are all rather wide trails so it's pretty easy to stay out of the brush.
South Unit Details and Map
The southern unit is the main portion of the park and gets the most visitors. There is a large supervised swimming beach and several miles of unsupervised beach. There is also a large campground and quite a few picnic areas. The far south portion of the southern unit is a nature preserve and is off limits to the general public (I believe you can apply for a permit to go into this area). The primary trails in the southern section are a pair of intersecting loops located northeast of the Dead River. Both trails are accessed from a parking area near the visitors center. You can also access the trails from the beach. If you're interested in plants, you going to love this area. In just a few hundred feet you can go from classic Midwest wetlands with cattails and turtles to a desert like dunes area complete with cactus (you have to look close for the cactus but they are there).
The Dunes Trail (shown yellow on my map) is now marked as only accessible by foot traffic. They use to allow bikes on this trail, but according to the signs there now, hiking is the only allowed use. This is a wider trail made up of mostly crushed stone surface with occasional small sandy areas. There are several places along the Dunes Trail where you can access the Beach. As its name implies, it runs through an area of sand dunes. Be aware that the dunes on the western shores of Lake Michigan in no way compare to the massive dunes you can see in some places on the eastern and southern shores. The best view of the dunes is at the far southeast section of the trail. On the older park maps and literature you may see reference to an observation lookout at this section of the trail; this structure no longer exists (it was torn down a few years ago). I don't know why they no longer allow bikes on this trail since the trail surface (mostly crushed stone) is not exactly the type of surface you need to "protect" from bike use. It also doesn't get enough traffic (foot or bikes) to be concerned about multi-use clashes. Because I generally bike to the park, I have biked the dunes trail regularly over the years to view the dunes and access the southern beach sections, and to be honest, I will probably be breaking this rule occasionally in the future.
The Dead River Trail (shown Red on my map) is open to foot traffic only (no bikes). This trail is a narrower natural surfaced (mostly sand) trail and even though it goes through roughly the same area as the Dunes Trail, it has a very different feel to it. There is a small observation platform looking over the Dead River. My guess is it's probably very popular with birders. The Dead River is so named because much of the year it is not flowing. When water levels are low, Lake Michigan waves will pile sand across the mouth of the river cutting off its flow. When water levels are higher, you may find a small section of the dead River Trail under water (A section at the far southwest part of the trail). This trail absolutely is off limits to bikes, and with the soft sandy trail surface, you wouldn't really want to ride this trail even if they allowed it.
I think hikers shouldn't miss the Dead River Trail, I suggest doing the entire loop since the section away from the dead river goes through some interesting areas. You can then hit the Dunes Trail or do a combination of the Dunes Trail and hiking the beach. This combination of Dead River Trail, Dunes Trail, and the beach will give you a very diverse mix of scenery without putting in a whole lot of miles. My best guess is that the Dunes Trail is approximately 2 miles around, and the Dead River Trail is less than 1.5 miles.
There are also two trails that run north towards the main parking area. The trail nearest the beach tends to have a lot of foot traffic from beachgoers. The trail further inland is quieter trail that runs through the woods.
The trail (shown brown) running north from the main parking lot starts out as a wide concrete walkway that runs along the beach then turns into an asphalt bike trail that runs along the campground and then turns to a crushed stone bike trail that runs out to the road (Deborah Ave & 29th Street). You can get to the North Unit by going north on Deborah Ave and then east on Shiloh Boulevard to the small parking lot on the north side of Shiloh Boulevard. Or, you can take 29th Street west to the Zion Bike Path and then go North to either Shiloh Boulevard or 17th Street.
Hiking the Beach In recent years, low water levels in Lake Michigan have given us sections of beach where none previously existed. Currently, there is a continuous strip of beach that runs from just south of the Zion Nuclear Power Plant (the beach along the power plant is off limits) all the way to the Dead River (though there is a small section just north of the main beach which may not be accessible if large waves are present). In fact, the beach runs right across the Dead River most of the summer and continues for a couple more miles though I'm not sure if they allow hiking on the beach south of the Dead River since it is technically part of the Nature Preserve.
- Beulah Park Trails There is no real mountain biking in Illinois Beach park, but there some nice technical trails nearby at Beulah Park.
This page is authored and maintained by Dave Piasecki