IL State Parks: Illinois Beach

by J. M. Pressley
First published: April 13, 2012

Illinois Beach State Park encompasses the last preserved beach ridge shoreline in the state. For swimming, hiking, boating, or just getting back to nature, this scenic midwest beach is a popular Illinois destination.

Illinois Beach is a state park in the northeast corner of Illinois. Consisting of six and a half miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, Illinois Beach is the last preserved beach ridge shoreline in the state. The park's 4,160 acres range from shoreline dunes to inland marshes and forested tracts, divided into north and south zones by the decommissioned Zion Nuclear Power Station. In addition, the park includes the Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center.

The area was originally inhabited by Algonquin tribes, the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa. French explorers were the first Europeans to visit, and hunters and trappers flocked to the region for decades before Illinois became a state. In the 1830s, the U.S. government made treaties with the local tribes that moved the Native Americans westward and annexed their lands into Lake County. After years of encroaching residential and industrial development, legislation started being introduced in the 1920s to reserve a portion of the Lake Michigan shoreline for a park. The state began purchasing land in 1948, dedicated the south parcel as the state's first nature preserve in 1964, and acquired the northern unit from 1971-82.

Illinois Beach supports an abundant variety of both plant and animal life. The dunes alone support more than 650 species of plants, and the Illinois Audubon Society rates the park's north unit as one of the Midwest's premier spots for viewing hawk migrations. There are nature tours and guided walks through the preserve available to the public during summer weekends. Swimming, of course, is one the main attractions in the summer, but visitors are cautioned that there are no lifeguards on duty. Picnicking, hiking, fishing, and boating are also popular pastimes, although there are certain restrictions areas within the nature preserve areas. Pets should be on leash within the park and are not allowed on the beach or in the nature preserve.

The 96-room lodge features numerous amenities, including a restaurant, cocktail lounge, game room, full-service health club, Olympic-size indoor heated swimming pool, and conference facilities that can accommodate up to 500 people. The lodge has a variety of packages available for both weekday and weekend getaways (see the Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center website for current details). The park's campgrounds offer 244 Class A Premium campsites with access to showers, toilet facilities, and electricity. Campers must obtain a camping permit, and campsites are on a first-come, first-serve basis except for May 1 through September 30 of the year, when they can be reserved online. Hotel reservations are recommended for the lodge, especially during the busy summer season. Groups of 25 or more are welcome but require advance registration.

Getting There

Illinois Beach State Park is located in unincorporated Zion, Illinois, on Wadsworth Road. It's approximately 53 miles north of downtown Chicago, and can be reached via I-94 and Route 173. For specific directions and other park information, visit the Illinois Beach website.