What to Do at Clinton Lake: the Lake Closest to Champaign-Urbana
Effective May 29, 2020, all Illinois state parks, fish and wildlife areas and recreational areas, as well as select historic sites, will be open to the public. Camping and concessions will reopen and normal park hours will resume. Effective June 26 shelters, playgrounds and beaches will be open; pools will remain closed. Historic sites which do not have outdoor acreage will remain closed until further notice. For the most up-to-date information on the reopening of IDNR sites and their operations during the pandemic, be sure to research your specific destination and check the IDNR website as well.
You may think that Central Illinois is landlocked, with no hope of a beach-y escape within a few hour drive (closest examples being South Haven, Michigan or Indiana Dunes). We’re here to tell you that Clinton Lake is a lesser-known gem roughly 45 minutes away from C-U, and with many glimmers of what it would feel like to be on a real beach, too.
And beyond the actual beach itself, there’s much to enjoy about Clinton Lake when you visit with your family. We think you’ll be surprised by this pretty spectacular Illinois Department of Natural Resources State Recreation Area.
You can choose if you make a trip to Clinton a short day trip, a full day or a complete camping experience. We’ll break the different things you can do at Clinton Lake down for you so you can best plan the trip that will work best for your family. There is no admission fee just to get into the recreation area, but you will pay for camping and beach access, among other activities that may be there.
Must Know Info: Open Memorial Day through Labor Day. $2 per person. No credit cards accepted at the beach (tip: you can pay with credit at the Boondocks restaurant and show receipt to enter).
The most obvious reason you may be heading to Clinton Lake is because you heard there was a beach you could swim at! The answer is yes, there IS a beach. It is a man-made lake built for the purpose of cooling the nuclear power plant in Clinton. This means it’s always warm… some days, it is TOO warm, if it’s hot outside that is!
There is a $2 per person admission fee to enter the beach area, regardless of whether or not you’re swimming. Hours are 10am-7pm, every day, Memorial Day through Labor Day. You need to have cash to enter the beach area, but if credit is all you have, you can pay at Boondocks (a short drive away) and bring your receipt to the beach for admission.
You can bring your own food in coolers if you wish (no glass allowed, no alcohol allowed) or you can leave the beach area to eat and re-enter before they close at 7pm. People definitely bring tents, chairs, blankets, and all the usual “beach” gear you might expect here. Water shoes are recommended because this is *not* a soft white sand type of beach and there are a lot of rocks around. Also, no lifeguards are on duty, so remain in the (shallow) buoyed area to play.
Must Know Info: Illinois state fishing rules apply (so have your fishing license). You’re most likely to catch crappie here but Clinton Lake is one of the best lakes in the state for catfish (and we’ve seen them firsthand!)
Fishing is one of our favorite activities outdoors in Central Illinois. (Get our whole guide to fishing right here.) Clinton Lake offers tons of options around the lake to fish. Of course, if you’re out on a boat, you can drop your line in the water.
But if you’re not boating as part of your day, you’ll find lots of lakeside docks to fish from, or can even walk right up to the water in many places and cast out into the lake. This is another one of those places at the lake where we recommend having water shoes to protect your feet, as it can get rocky, too.
Note that fishing is NOT allowed in the beach area. Our favorite spot to fish is just outside of Boondocks, where a lot of the boats are coming and going. You can fish right there (watch for boats) or head just a short walk west of there and you’ll find a nice dock with picnic tables and more.
Must Know Info: Clinton Lake is No Wake for all boats from 1/2 hour after sunset to 1/2 hour before sunrise. There are six public boat ramps and one canoe launch at the lake. Clinton Lake is a DNR (Department of Natural Resources) area and all DNR boat ramps are equipped with wheelchair accessible docks.
We know that boating is a draw for some, but not all. If it happens to be your thing, or you’re traveling to the area and bringing watercraft with you, Clinton Lake is one of the larger lakes you’ll find in East Central Illinois. There are a number of boat launch ramps located around the lake, and you’ll see people with boats of all kinds along with people tubing, water skiing, jet skiing and just hanging out on the lake having a good time. Don’t have a boat of your own? You can rent one through Barefoot Cove Marina (including kayaks, too!) Want to take up sailing as a hobby? You can connect with the Clinton Lake Sailing Association to learn how, right here in Central Illinois.
Camping at Clinton Lake
Must Know Info: There are over 200 campsites with varying amenities to choose from at Clinton Lake, making it a popular spot to camp in Central Illinois. Camping loops H, I, J and K are alcohol free. Two night (Fri/Sat) minimum stay is required during Memorial Day, Independence Day (when July 4th falls on a Fri/Sat/Sun/Mon) and Labor Day weekends. There is a fee increase during those holiday weekends. You can get the fee schedule and book online here.
Whether you camp in a tent, with an RV or have a group of up to 75 people you want to camp in the same general area, Clinton Lake offers a space to fit your needs. Be aware that camp definitely fills up on holiday weekends, so book your campsites well in advance.
We find camping at Clinton to be an enjoyable experience with a family-friendly feel and plenty of kids to play with no matter what loop we end up in. Due to the beach, camping amenities and all the recreation available at Clinton Lake, this ranks as a great place for the beginner to advanced camping family to give it a go.
Pictured below, children playing in the paved road on one of Clinton Lake’s camping loops. Kids bring their bikes, scooters, etc. to camp because there are plenty of “loops” for them to enjoy with their wheels!
Take a Hike or Go for a Swing
Must Know Info: If you like to explore, Clinton Lake will make some good adventuring territory. There’s no admission fee just to come out and play at Clinton Lake so you can drive out to explore what is available for YOUR family there and enjoy the scenery in the process.
There are lots of hiking paths that are very kid friendly and playgrounds just along the lake. More reasons to make that day trip from Champaign-Urbana happen just to get a change of scenery… and a beautiful one at that! We like the sandy playground outside of a shelter just west of Boondocks since its so close and we can just walk there from the large lot we park in.
Grab a Bite or Cool Off with a Cone at Boondocks
Must Know Info: Boondocks is open daily. If you’re visiting outside of Memorial Day to Labor Day, we recommend calling them at 217-935-0925 to confirm they are open first. They’re open 8am-8pm daily. The grill side of Boondocks is a cooked-to-order restaurant and the bait/supplies side is where you can get bait or other gear for your visit to Clinton Lake.
Boondocks gets a two thumbs up from us (and our kids!) If you want a great place to grab casual food right next to the lake, Boondocks rounds out a Clinton Lake visit nicely. Visit for breakfast where they have coffee and a full breakfast menu, or come later in the day for lunch, dinner or ice cream. You can order from their outdoor window and take it back to your picnic/fishing site/campsite/boat or order inside the (air-conditioned) restaurant for a break from the heat.
Kids meals run $5 and come with a side, a drink AND a “mini” ice cream (pictured right). The many other items on the menu run $3-7 or so, and sides are sold separately. We found the food to be good and were all happy with our meal.
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