With more than 4,500 miles of coastline, the Great Lakes region offers the beach-bound a diverse selection for building sand castles. While a car ride of less than two hours will take you to several fantastic natural beaches carved out around Lake Michigan’s historic sand dunes, a walk or a bus is all it takes to reach Chicago’s rather extraordinary string of 28 lakefront public beaches. Chicago’s beaches, like the city itself, offer a lively ethnic mix of revelers, as well as a level of upkeep that ranges from excellent to sadly unkempt. Oak Street and North Avenue have fairly established reps, but here’s a sampler of some spots you might not have discovered, organized from south to north. Unless noted, beaches are guarded from 9:00am to 9:30pm daily from June to Labor Day, and have both changing facilities and concession stands.
Shallow water makes this the perfect family-oriented beach, and the huge park located just behind provides an ideal spot for picnicking. Calumet attracts a largely Latino group of beachgoers from the suburbs and Hammond, Indiana, who loll in the shadow of the old U.S. Steel mill.
During the Columbian Exposition, speculators snapped up underwater lots here, thinking that the lake was going to be partially filled in, but the plan never materialized. Nevertheless, the area gained tremendous popularity, especially during the 1950s when the whole South Side seemed to be using the beach. A 1960s sit-in integrated this once nearly all-white enclave; the beach is now largely frequented by African Americans, who tend to use the facilities more for picnicking and barbecuing in the evening, which is why it can sometimes look deserted during the day.
South Shore/7100 South
The park district’s beautifully refurbished South Shore Cultural Center and its nine-hole lakefront golf course mean lots of security for this small beach. South Shore’s great for swimming because the water is so shallow and protected by old wooden breakwaters that reach well beyond the shore. The decade-old beach house is new relative to most other Chicago beach structures, many of which were built around the 1940s. You’ll find a lot of families hanging out here.
31st Street/3100 South
If you’re going to get sunstroke, this is the place to do it: for years, the Michael Reese Hospital crowd has hung out at 31st, where there’s a field house, fishing pier, and grassy area for picnicking, with lots of parking. This place also gets so jammed on Saturdays and Sundays with families barbecuing, that people have reported driving by and noticing a huge cloud of smoke hovering overhead.
12th Street/1200 South
This very small beach out next to the Adler Planetarium could be one of the jewels of the city, with its proximity to some of the best views of the skyline and its walking distance to Grant Park and Mayor Daley’s new neighborhood in the South Loop. Unfortunately, the sand always seems to be in atrocious condition, full of grass and debris, and the beach house suffers from minimal upkeep. The grassy area around it is a great spot for picnicking with a view, and the racially and economically diverse mix of families at the beach affords great ambience for people-watching. There is also a swimming ledge for access to deeper water. Metered and paid parking available.
Ohio Street/400 North
This medium-sized beach, with its shallow, breakwater-only swimming, has long been a Near North haven for families and others seeking to avoid the fashion show that accompanies the more famous Oak Street and North Avenue beaches. Although the secret’s increasingly getting out, this remains one of the city’s more relaxing sandboxes. Adjacent to Olive Park and Navy Pier, whose reconstruction has reduced once-favorable parking conditions to an expensive or frustrating situation. The sight of the world’s largest triathlon, the beach has no changing facilities and is guarded from 9am to dusk.
Now one of the standard beach destinations in the city, Fullerton’s man-made beach wasn’t hauled in until the late 1930s, creating a small, steep beach that leads to deeper water. The beach has always attracted lots of Lincoln Parkers, although the makeup of that area has changed dramatically, leaving the beach with a current mix of Hispanics and local yuppie families who find the beach easy to reach, even with strollers. There’s also a contingent of serious older swimmers who hang out at the point directly behind the Theatre on the Lake, attracted by the deep-water swimming that’s possible here. There are no changing facilities and the beach is guarded from 9:00am to dusk.
Once a mile-long landfill, people used to shoot wild dogs here for bounty; now the well-shaded area is used predominantly for picnicking by a mix of Latino families, African Americans who still drive in from the West Side, and local Uptown residents. Just north, at the Wilson launch, you can rent jet skis.
For some reason no one seems to be able to explain, Foster has nearly always attracted a large group of North Side high-school kids. It could be the shallow water, but there’s also two basketball courts here that are reportedly THE place to play. Mind you, it won’t happen right away—there’s a tightknit group of people who pretty much control the courts, which are used virtually nonstop. But if you hang out long enough and prove you’re serious, you’ll eventually get into a game.
This is one of those “best-kept-secret” places. The long, shallow, “ocean-like” beach looks almost as if it’s a dune. There’s only one washroom, no other beach facilities, and no parking, so Ardmore has always attracted a neighborhood crowd, made up largely of middle-classers who live in the Sheridan high-rises and Uptowners who aren’t put off by the walk.
A long beach with moderate parking, Loyola is the only place in the city, besides South Shore, where the park district rents sailboats. During the 1950s, this was a 10am-4pm beach that basically shut down after families went home to eat, but a relatively young crowd seems to be on the sand constantly now, even well after dusk.