For most people, the word ‘beach’ conjures visions of crystalline Caribbean waters, exotic South Seas islands, or coastal destinations around the U.S. Few would think of the Midwest, yet smack dab in the heartland a series of beaches encircle Lake Michigan like a string of pretty pearls. On a recent trip to Chicago I walked three miles along its lakefront, from the southernmost end of Grant Park to the northern tip of the Gold Coast, to visit the city’s three downtown beaches.
I began at 18th Street, where a narrow parcel of land known as Northerly Island juts into Lake Michigan. In 1909, renowned architect Daniel Burnham developed the Chicago Plan, which envisioned several man-made islands along the shores of the cobalt lake. Northerly Island, the only one that was actually built, was created from landfill and later converted into a peninsula. Now home to the Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, and Field Museum, the peninsula is commonly referred to as the Museum Campus. Here I discovered 12th Street Beach, a half-moon crescent cove hunkering at the bottom of a grassy slope behind the Planetarium. With its new beach house and free parking, 12th Street Beach is ideally located for a combined day of museum-going, picnicking, and sunbathing.
From the Museum Campus I walked north along the lakefront. To my right, thousands of boats bobbed in the gently undulating waters of Lake Michigan. Grant Park stretched on my left, offering myriad opportunities to rest at landmarks such as Buckingham Fountain and the peaceful Cancer Survivors Garden. At Randolph Street I followed Lake Shore Drive as it curved to the east, crossing the Chicago River and strolling past the behemoth Ferris wheel at Navy Pier before entering Milton Lee Olive Park. Meandering pathways guided me back to the shores of the lake and Ohio Street Beach, a tiny pocket of sand tucked between Lake Shore Drive and a breakwater.
Although Ohio Street Beach has no services it provides excellent access to Oak Street Beach, a mile or so to the north, via a wide promenade that runs along the water’s edge. I walked its crowded length, keeping one eye peeled for mow-you-down cyclists and the other trained on swimmers clad in sleek neoprene suits and skullcaps who swim a mile along the promenade each day, weather permitting.
Without a doubt, Oak Street Beach is the crown jewel of the three downtown beach parks. Located at the northern end of North Michigan Avenue, it is ringed by skyscrapers and landmark hotels that grace Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Beneath the looming black John Hancock tower, beach-goers sprawl on colorful towels in the wide, soft sand or join a pickup volleyball game at one of several nets set up by the city. Concessions, restrooms, and a waterfront outdoor restaurant are available, but there is no parking; this is definitely a walk-to beach. Strangely, palm trees lined the shore. They were obviously new and recently planted, leading me to speculate whether they could possibly survive Chicago’s often brutal winter weather. I guess I’ll just have to come back this winter to find out; it’s as good an excuse as any to return to this great city!
Article and photos by Barbara Weibel of Hole In The Donut Travels