BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
There are only 63 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline in Illinois (as opposed to 3,288 miles in Michigan), and much of this land has been developed as part of city lakefronts, heavy industry, and private beachfront property. That’s why Illinois Beach State Park (1 Lake Front Drive, Zion, IL 60099, 847/662-4811) is so important—and wonderful. It’s the last remaining large swath of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline in the state. It’s a place where you can still have a natural experience at the lakeshore—especially if you get away from the popular beaches and picnic areas.
That’s exactly what I did last week on a beautiful late-summer sunny day that was in the 80s. I decided to hike the 1.8-mile Dead River Loop Trail. More on my hike later in this story.
There are many things to do and see at IBSP (which is officially known as Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park)), but first let me provide an overview of the park. The 4,160-acre park consists of two separate areas: a North Unit and a South Unit. The North Unit features the North Dunes Nature Preserve and opportunities for hiking, biking, fishing, cross-country skiing, picnicking, swimming, and birdwatching. In the North Unit, you can hike or cross-country ski on the Camp Logan Trail, a 1.8-mile multi-use loop path. The North Point Marina—a full-service marina with 1,500 slips, a boat service center, and food concession—is located just north of the park. Note: The North Unit was formerly the site of an Illinois National Guard rifle range, so some locals still call it “Camp Logan.” At the South Unit, you’ll find the Visitor Center, Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center, and the park’s campsite, as well as opportunities to hike (including on the Dead River Trail and other trails), bike, swim, fish, picnic (including a picnic area for those with disabilities), and do other activities such as birdwatching (at the lakeshore and at the Illinois Beach Nature Preserve). Here are some things to do at IBSP:
Go to the beach. The park’s beaches and picnic area are popular destinations for many visitors, many of whom never check out the hiking trails or other attractions.
Go birdwatching. You might see Henslow’s sparrows, American bitterns, ospreys, great blue herons, egrets, belted kingfishers, and many other types of birds during your visit.
Enjoy wildflowers and wildlife viewing. More than 650 plant species have been recorded in the dunes area alone. You’ll also see Caspian terns, ring-billed gulls, and perhaps even a piping plover at the beach. You can see a long list of birds that have been sighted at IBSP by visiting https://ebird.org.
Go camping. The campground has 241 Class A Premium sites with electricity and access to showers and sanitary facilities. You can reserve a site at https://camp.exploremoreil.com. Some campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, but the campground fills up quickly on summer weekends. There are also three campsites for people with disabilities. The campground is open from April 1 through December 30.
Go hoteling. The Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center is the only hotel in Illinois that’s located directly on the shores of Lake Michigan. There are 96 rooms—all with lake views. Reservations can be made by calling 847/625-7300 or by visiting its website. Note: The resort has a pool, but it is currently being renovated.
My Hike on the Dead River Trail and beyond
The Dead River Trail offers an opportunity to explore one of the wildest areas of the park. It’s located in the South Unit, and can be accessed via a trailhead/parking area that allows access to other trails. These paths include the Beach Trail (which, you guessed it, takes you to the shore), the South Unit Trail (which takes you into the dunes north of the parking lot), and the Dunes Trail (a loop trail that parallels the Dead River Trail for much of its route). Click here for a park map and brochure. A nature center is also located near the trailhead, but it was closed during my visit.
The trail begins at the southwest end of the parking lot. You’ll first travel about 0.2 miles through a stunning oak savannah, before seeing the Dead River. The trail meanders along the river through pretty marshland. You’ll encounter a viewing platform about 0.2 miles ahead, which is a great place to see resident and migrating waterfowl.
As I walked the trail, I savored the vivid array of wildflowers amidst the sandy soil and towering oak trees. At home, my rough blazing stars long ago lost their luster, but I enjoyed views of hundreds of these beautiful purple flowers in full bloom in many areas along the river and in the rear dunes behind the beach. There were also a wealth of asters, goldenrod, and sawtooth sunflowers amidst the oak savannahs and dune and swale communities. You might even see prickly-pear cacti amongst the dunes.
The Dead River has its moniker because its link to Lake Michigan is blocked by sandbars much of the year. It actually isn’t dead, but features a variety of fish, amphibians, aquatic plants (e.g., common arrowhead, spatterdock, pickerelweed, common bladderwort, American white water lily, bur reed), mammals (e.g., white-tailed deer, muskrats), and birds (such as sandhill cranes and great egrets). The river looks more like a marsh in some places. Regardless, the river and the oak savannah and dunes around it are beautiful and peaceful. I encountered a total of three people on the trail itself, and those were in the very early sections. I was alone for most of my hike.
The Dead River Trail eventually turns north and heads through the dunes back toward the parking lot. I left the Dead River Trail and chose to follow a path that traveled directly along the river toward the lake. I eventually glimpsed the smooth blue water of Lake Michigan through the dunes and wildflowers. As you near the mouth of the river, the landscape changes to low sand dunes crowned with asters and rough blazing star, big bluestem and other prairie grasses, and a few oak trees. It reminded me of the way the shore looks in some spots along Lakes Michigan and Superior in Wisconsin and Michigan. A sailboat on Lake Michigan skimmed into view in the distance near what looked like the dead-end of the river. As I glimpsed the sailboat through the tall grasses, it reminded me of a covered wagon traversing the “seas of grass” that once made up much of Illinois and other Midwestern states.
I hiked the last of the hilly dune trail and there was Lake Michigan in all of its beauty. Crashing, noisy waves. Big blue skies. Vast expanses of beach with no one in sight—okay, one guy in the distance. The smell of fish, water, and wet sand. Beautiful pebble- and driftwood-covered, sandy beaches (with the occasional plastic flotsam on shore and a view of a coal-fired power plant to the south). The day was hot, so I headed straight for the lake, soaked my feet, didn’t mind getting wet, and then exited to savor the day on a nearby log. A day that I would normally spend in front of a computer, with the only Lake Michigan water I encountered coming from the faucet.
Then I walked toward the mouth of the Dead River and was surprised to see that the river was not so dead that day. It was fully connected to the lake. Suddenly, I saw a very tall, very fit, and very friendly older man waving to me from the low dune above the river. He was tan and shirtless and looked like he’d emerged from a 1960’s beach party movie. “Isn’t this amazing!?,” he exclaimed. “The dunes were 10-feet high last week and completely blocked the river. The storm cleared it all out.” While I was happy to see the Dead River looking like a real river, I also worried about the damage being caused to our country’s beaches due to high water levels (in some areas) and global climate change–supercharged storms. But amidst the sun, waves, and cooling breeze, I put aside those serious thoughts for a few minutes and chatted with this kind man about Illinois Beach State Park, Indiana Dunes State Park, other natural areas, and piping plovers. If I could give my armchair psychologist assessment, I would describe this man as “happy to be alive, happy to be in good health, and damn happy to be on the shore of one of our country’s most beautiful lakes instead of cutting the grass, paying bills, or otherwise living in the real world.” Despite wanting solitude that day, those type of thoughts fall to the back of your mind when you meet a fellow nature lover. As we parted, the man told me, “My brother and sister-in-law live on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. I always tell them [as he motioned to the waves, beach, and dunes] that I have my own version of the Outer Banks right here.”
I began my walk back to my car. The easiest path from the mouth of the Dead River is climbing the dune about 0.2 miles north of the river to connect to the paved Dune Trail (where the guy I met had parked his bike), but I chose to walk in the cool waters of the lake and on its rocky shores amidst the crashing waves as long as possible. If you take my route, follow the lakeshore until you see the first large tree on the beach. After passing it, turn left, ascend the dunes, and you’ll encounter the Dune Trail. Then make a right (head north), and you will eventually see a sign for the trailhead/nature center parking lot.
I know fall is not yet here, but winter is coming. Get out and savor our beautiful natural areas while there’s no wind chill, the skies are bright, the sun is shining, and the hiking is easy.
Things to Know Before You Go
Hours: Sunrise to sunset, year-round
Dogs (on leashes) are allowed in all areas except the beach and nature preserves.
Nearby Nature Destinations and Other Attractions: Greenbelt Forest Preserve, Kenosha Sand Dunes, Lyons Woods Forest Preserve, Six Flags Great America
Copyright (text, except quoted material) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos) Andrew Morkes
Looking for some great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more. The book (306 pages, 210+ photos) is only $18.99. Click here to learn more and purchase the book.
ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlight newsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school. Stories about my work have been published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, Beverly Review, and Practical Homeschooling.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies including Infobase (such as the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series) and Mason Crest (including those in the Careers in the Building Trades and Cool Careers in Science series).