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