Watch migrating birds, hike and camp near dunes, and swim
at popular state park
Beach is one of the most popular Illinois state parks, offering
camping, hiking, and swimming on 6.5 miles of shoreline.
But it also boasts over 650 species of plants and a widely
varied topography, and is a favored rest area for migrating
birds. The park, located near the Wisconsin border in Zion
and Winthrop Harbor, was established in the early 1950s;
it now includes over 4,100 acres split into a Southern Unit
and a smaller Northern Unit. Winter activities include hiking,
cross-country skiing, and fishing. The Southern Unit is
home to a large beach, 244 camp sites, several miles of
hiking trails, and an 800-acre Nature Preserve.
the south: Take Sheridan Rd. to Zion. The entrance
to the Southern Unit is at Wadsworth Ave. and is marked
by a big sign. A few miles north, at 17th Street,
is the Northern Unit entrance; there's a smaller sign
here. For more information, call (847) 662-4811.
dunes and ridges that cut across the park are the result
of receding lake levels over the past 8,000 years. As the
waters dropped, the wind blew the newly exposed beaches
into dunes. (This is the same process that created the taller
Indiana dunes; Illinois dunes rarely grew to more than 10
feet high because the prevailing winds blow towards the
lake.) Over time, as the lake level continued to drop, new
dunes were created while the older dunes were colonized
by plants. The result today is long lines of sandy, oak
savanna or prairie ridges, interspersed with linear marshes.
ecological niches are found in the park. On the beach and
foredunes, the harsh wind and blowing sand limit plant life
to the hardiest species like the sea rocket, bearberry,
and the Waukegan or horizontal juniper, which grows just
a few inches off the ground.
far beyond the dunes is the sand prairie. In winter, depending
on snow cover, you can see stalks of Indian grass, little
bluestem, and even prickly pear cactus.
Farther inland are the oak savannas, which occupy much of
the higher ground, while the wetlands in the swales host
Kalm's St. Johnswort, sundew, and a wide variety of orchids,
including many that are endangered. The red-osier dogwood,
found near wetlands throughout the park, is easy to find
in winter: the shrub's beautiful red bark stands out against
The Dead River is a sluggish stream that splits the Nature
Preserve into public and off-limits areas. The river is
called "dead" because, much of the year, the river's outlet
into the lake is blocked by a sandbar. After heavy rains
or snowmelt, the river rises and breaks through the bar,
thus draining the surrounding wetlands. The river is actually
quite healthy and birds are attracted to its wetland plants.
Spring and fall are the best time to see birds, when they
migrate through the park in tremendous numbers. Red-tailed
hawks are common throughout the winter, and great horned
owls are often heard at night. Many deer, red fox, mink
and beaver live in the park; visitors can catch occasional
glimpses of gray fox as well.
is allowed along the shore and in ponds in both sections
of the park outside the Nature Preserve. There's excellent
hiking, especially on the trails through the northern edge
of the Nature Preserve.
Park near the Interpretive Center, where you'll find the
trailheads for a short hike down to the beach and longer
hikes along the beach ridges and through the Dead River's
wetland. (Though the Interpretive Center is currently closed
for renovation, it should reopen sometime this spring.)