Great Midwestern Beaches and Beach Towns
If you’ve ever driven down Lake Shore Drive in summer, you’ve seen the crowded beaches, distinctive boat-shaped concession stand, volleyball courts, bike paths and festivals at Oak Street Beach and North Avenue Beach.
These are certainly popular, but not your only options.
Go a little farther north to Montrose Beach and Montrose Harbor, and you’ll find a quieter scene with lots more parking — free and paid. It’s a pleasant stroll around the embankments of the harbor, which encircles the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, which you can walk through. The beach itself has concessions, kayak and volleyball rentals, showers and restrooms. There is a nonmotorized boat launch, and an ADA accessible beach walk.
If you’ve brought your pooch, walk a little farther north along the lakefront to the dog beach. This is one of the most joyful places on Lake Michigan, with dozens of canines and humans cavorting in the shallow water and swimming together off the sand bars. (Dogs are required to have a Chicago Dog Friendly Area tag to use the dog beach.) Tip: The south side of Montrose Harbor is a perfect place to photograph the Chicago skyline. 4400 N. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago. For more information, visit chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks/montrose-beach/ and mondog.org.
Nature lovers Illinois Beach State Park in Zion is a natural getaway for nature loves, campers and those who want to feel like they are really out of the city. This park is 6.5 miles long, encompasses 4,160 acres, and is the only natural lakefront ridgeline left in the state. It features 244 Class A campground sites with electricity and restrooms. Part of the campground is nicely forested for shade in the summer. Swimming on the beaches is popular here, and there are bathhouses but no lifeguards. Both the northern and southern parts of the park contain ample picnic grounds complete with tables. There is a handicapped-accessible picnic shelter with access to drinking fountains as well.
The southern part of the park features five miles of trails, including a 2.2-mile loop trail with a graveled surface. In the north, Camp Logan Trail is a 1.8-mile multiuse loop that cross-country skiers also can use.
The park even has a military history that dates from the Civil War. There is a nature center and a nature preserve, which explains the wide variety of terrain, flora and fauna you will find at the park. For more information, visit stateparks.com/illinois_beach_ state_park_in_illinois.html.
Train it Don’t have a whole weekend to hit the beach? Try a day trip to New Buffalo, nestled in the heart of Michigan’s “Harbor Country.” Located just 90 miles from Chicago, you can drive or take an Amtrak train from Union Station to New Buffalo, just beyond the Indiana border. It’s a picturesque harbor town with old-fashioned shops and a public 24-hour boat launch. The smallish public beach and Lakefront Park has facilities and lifeguards on duty, plus a nature trail along the dune. Parking costs $10 per day. You don’t have to bring a lot of gear; you can rent kayaks and paddleboards seven days a week.
In recent years, New Buffalo has grown up. It now has a gambling casino, nightlife at a Hard Rock Cafe, and Silver Creek Event Center, a venue for concerts, conferences and special events.
If you want to stay longer, there is a variety of accommodations in and around New Buffalo from luxury waterfront hotels and condos to quaint cottage rentals. For more information, visit newbuffalo.com and harborcountry.org.
Sister cities Travel farther around the lake, and you will come to the sister cities of Saugatuck and Douglas, about three hours from Chicago in Michigan. These towns surround Kalamazoo Lake, whose Kalamazoo Riverfeeds into Lake Michigan. All this is about a half mile inland, so there is a lot of waterfront and beach to explore, in addition to two historic towns adjacent to one another.
Saugatuck started out as an artists colony and has graduated to the “art coast of Michigan,” says Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau. In 2015 it was rated Best Coastal Small Town in a USA Today readers poll.
This quaint, lively, colorful waterfront town is known for its boutiques, galleries and family-friendly festivals. In recent years, performing and culinary arts have blossomed here. “This year, the Taste of Saugatuck is going upscale, with craft brewers partnering with local restaurants for beer and food pairings,” Fairchild says.
The town of Douglas is where retro is being reinvented with innovative dining, shopping and lodging concepts. In addition to some of the area’s more popular restaurants, there is a converted martini bar/bowling alley called Alley’s Classic American Diner and Bowl; the Petter Wine Gallery, which combines wine tasting, wine selling and art; and The Kirby, a new bed and breakfast in a classic Victorian home with a chic restaurant and wine bar. “A lot of the little motels are being reclaimed with posh interiors that are fun and quirky places to go, as well,” Fairchild says.
Outdoor activities include exploring sand dunes, biking, charter fishing and boating, ferry boat and dune rides, and beaching. Both towns have public beaches on Lake Michigan. Conde Nast Traveler rated Saugatuck’s Oval Beach as one of the 25 best shorelines in the world — and the community itself as one of America’s 11 great beach towns.
Whether you visit as a couple or an intergenerational group, there are plenty of options for rental accommodations right in town so you can walk to everything, Fairchild adds. For more information, visit Saugatuck.com.