To start our state park completionist adventure, we ventured an hour north of Chicago to visit Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. Being the height of summer, we decided a literal beach would be the most appropriate place to start.
We arrived at 1:30 on a partly cloudy Friday afternoon. Despite it being a beautiful day at the start of the weekend, it was not too crowded. The park includes six and a half miles of beach and there was more than enough space to walk around without feeling claustrophobic. However, even though it was the perfect day to go to the beach, we decided not to swim as there is no lifeguard on duty. Luckily for us, there is more to this park than just the beach.
Illinois Beach State Park is about 4,100 acres, split into north and south with a decommissioned nuclear power plant dividing the two halves. The north end has the Camp Logan Trail, where you can learn about the park’s military history, while the south end focuses more on nature and camping. Opened in 1964, it is actually the oldest nature preserve in Illinois, with several miles of hiking trails covering all kinds of sites and terrain. Being newbie outdoor enthusiasts, doing both halves of this park was a bit too ambitious, so we decided to just focus on the southern side, saving the Camp Logan Trail for another day. After taking in the view of the beach, we took the multipurpose trail south, past the resort building to the nature preserve.
Here there are a few different trail options, and we initially decided to take the Dead River trail, which would take us along the Dead River (imagine that lol), then loop back to go along the beach. The Dead River actually spends most of the year more like a pond because there is a sandbar blocking the water from flowing into lake michigan. This makes the area around it quite marshy, with plenty of aquatic plants like cattails and lily pads. There were also dragonflies. Lots of dragonflies.
The day we went, we only encountered one other group out on this trail, probably because it had rained quite a bit in the days leading up to our trip, and it seemed to flood the trail. We had been told that trails are sometimes not well marked, and we initially thought this is what happened, but after 15 minutes of seemingly dead end trails and looking at two different maps, we figured out that the trail we were looking for was somewhere underwater and we were forced to turn around and pick another trail.
After a quick stop at the nature center for more water and a bigger map, we switched to the Dunes Trail. This trek was much better marked and much more accessible, being both drier and wider of a path. Though this felt more like a walk through the woods than the previous trail, we could actually hear the lake while walking, making us feel more like we were heading back to the beach than before.
You can see some wildlife around this park, but we didn’t see any while we were there. In fact, the most wildlife we saw was in the nature center. However, what we did see plenty of were different plants. In addition to the aquatic plants along the Dead River, there are plenty of black oaks and various grasses, and a tree stump that both of us thought looked like a warthog. Closer to the beach, we saw some unique flowers as well.
With all these plants, even though we didn’t see any furry critters around, we did see plenty of bugs. Wearing bug spray is a must for hiking near Dead River, as all the dragonflies mean lots of mosquitos. We also saw several butterflies any time we were near wildflowers. Outnumbering both dragonflies and butterflies however, are all the grasshoppers. We saw these everywhere. On every trail, regardless of how wet or dry, or how close we were to the lake or the river. We saw so many that when we went to dinner several miles away and saw one on the sidewalk, we thought it may have followed our car.
Anyway, the trail ended just behind the resort that is on the property. A well hidden rabbit hole tripped up Stephanie, but besides a little dirt, she’s none the worse for wear. As you will probably find out over the course of this journey, we are not the most graceful people. Normally there would have been people around as either guests or employees, but as we found out once we got there, the resort closed in late May. It gave off an eerie vibe. The parking lot was empty and overgrown. The gazebo near the beach still had string lights hung up. And for some reason, it sounded like the air conditioning unit was running. The whole experience was just too weird, so we decided to call it after that and head to North Point Marina, instead of doing any more exploring.
An absolutely fantastic way to end a long day of being outside, the North Point Marina has plenty to offer. Lots of chairs and picnic tables are around, perfect for bringing some lunch, listening to the live performances that happen on the weekend, or just watching boats on the lake. They have bikes and kayaks available for rent, if you want to explore the area a bit more, but we decided to skip those in favor of having a couple beers at the lakeside biergarten, poured into blue solo cups presumably because it’s a bad idea to have glassware that close to an active marina.
Harbour Brewing Co is the resident brewery of the biergarten. Opened in 2018 and based out of Winthrop Harbour, their main location off Sheridan Rd is closed for remodeling at the time of visiting, and their Lake Villa location is opening this fall, which made their Biergarten location at North Point Marina the only taproom available at the time. Both of us would recommend their Hello Summer Shandy, especially for sitting outside watching all the boats in the marina.
Overall, we would say that Illinois Beach State Park and North Point Marina are well worth visiting, whether you want to relax on the beach, take a nature walk, or just want a beer by the lake.