Chicago, IL: Illinois Beach State Park

Explore wetlands and the shores of Lake Michigan at the only hike-in beach in the Chicagoland area on this easy 2.3-mile loop through the southern side of Illinois Beach State Park.
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Explore wetlands and the shores of Lake Michigan at the only hike-in beach in the Chicagoland area on this easy 2.3-mile loop through the southern side of Illinois Beach State Park.

The long list of amenities at Illinois Beach State Park (a 244-site campground, hotel, bike trails, a concessionaire, and a large marina) draws big crowds on hot, summer weekends. But this 2.3-mile loop on the 4,160-acre park’s south side escapes the masses and offers access to one of the Chicagoland area’s only hike-in beaches.
Starting at the visitor center parking lot on the park’s south side, the route follows a southbound trail alongside the Dead River. Aquatic plants and animals in the elongated pond (a “river” that flows only when water levels breech the beachside sand bar that contains it) can be hard to spot, but look for waterfowl from the viewing platform about a quarter mile from the trailhead. As the trail turns east, it cruises a strange landscape of low, windswept sand dunes before landing at another viewing platform and at mile 1, the sandy beach itself. Kick off your shoes and take a swim before turning back into the shrubby dunes and heading north. This trail is known for rich displays of wildflowers: look for milkweed, shooting star, and gentian as you cruise back toward the visitor center. Turn left and cross a boardwalk before landing there at mile 2.3.
-Mapped by Ted Villare

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 3.8

Waypoints

IBP001

Location: 42.421667, -87.808474

Catch the trail on the west side of the parking lot (the same side as the visitor center) and begin by hiking south over old sand dune mounds, now barely noticeable as hills.

IBP002

Location: 42.418657, -87.809726

Less than 0.25 miles from the trailhead, stop at this wooden platform above a bend in the Dead River. Scan the expansive wetland for water birds and wildflowers.

IBP003

Location: 42.412275, -87.808835

Leave the shore of the Dead River and bear right at the 3-way junction to follow the park's southernmost trail toward the beach.

IBP004

Location: 42.411679, -87.808515

The washboard-like terrain here consists of a series of low, gently sloping sand dunes topped by the occasional scrawny oak tree. You'll also see unusual plants like the bearberry (small leaves and little white flowers) and the Waukegan juniper (an evergreen with white berries).

IBP005

Location: 42.410609, -87.805253

Turn right on the short spur trail to the lake. A small observation platform here allows a better view of the surrounding, rippling terrain. After spending time at the beach, you'll backtrack to this point and turn north onto the Oak Ridge Trail.

IBP006

Location: 42.410419, -87.803507

The sandy beach is a perfect place to spread out a blanket and unpack for a picnic. This is one of the area's few hike-in beaches making it a rarity, but the mile-long trip in deters crowds even on hot summer weekends.

IBP007

Location: 42.409128, -87.803121

Continue south 200 yards to the sandbar at the mouth of the Dead River. Backtrack from here to the beach spur trail that heads inland.

IBP008

Location: 42.417928, -87.80525

Walking parallel to the lake, look for places where the wind has scoured away the plants and created hollow spots. These are called "blowouts." Soon, the sandy terrain and low dunes give way to oak savanna and patches of woodland.

IBP009

Location: 42.420558, -87.805154

Turn left at this 3-way junction to follow this mapped route back toward the visitor center and trailhead, or turn right for another dose of the sandy beach which is just 100-yards to the right.

IBP010

Location: 42.420867, -87.806723

Look toward the large marsh on the right before crossing a shallow dune pond on a 30-yard-long boardwalk headed back toward the visitor center.

Dead River

Location: 42.415821, -87.810652

For most of the year, the Dead River--as its name suggests--shows little movement. It starts to flow when its water level rises high enough to crest the sandbar that blocks the mouth at Lake Michigan.

Dunes

Location: 42.411512, -87.807906

The 6 to 15-foot dunes in this area are the state's only dunes, though Lake Michigan has others in Indiana.

Lake Michigan

Location: 42.41034, -87.803185

The sandy, Lake Michigan beach is the ultimate destination on this easy hike. Walk-in access translates to small crowds and lonely stretches of sand.

Sand Dunes

Location: 42.414744, -87.804644