There are beaches within a short drive from Champaign-Urbana, providing families a taste of sandy fun
You don’t have to drive 10+ hours to get to the ocean to enjoy the beach. In fact, you don’t even have to drive two hours to Lake Michigan. Central Illinois has a number of beaches to offer and as long as you don’t mind lakes instead of oceans, your family should have a great time!
Pack for a Central Illinois beach trip the same way you would for the ocean — sunscreen, snacks and blankets/towels and chairs, for sure. Some of these beaches involve a short walk from the parking area to the swimming area. You’ll also want to bring a little cash as most of the Illinois state recreation sites have a small fee to enter, and cash will keep things simple (and might be your only option in some locations).
Editor’s note: During COVID-19, some trails, facilities, or entire parks may be closed. Be aware of any safety protocols or group size limitations currently in effect for the area you will be visiting. Before you go, please check the website or social media for the specific park you plan to visit. Bring your masks and practice social distancing during your visit, too.
Clinton Lake, 45 minutes from Champaign-Urbana
This 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! 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).
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 closing time at 7 p.m. 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.
Lake Shelbyville, 90 minutes
A little farther than Clinton, Lake Shelbyville offers a number of different beaches. The lake itself meanders through miles and miles of Central Illinois land and is quite popular with boaters in the area. There are a number of state recreation areas, too, which is where you find the beaches.
The Dam West Recreation Area is quite large and offers a big playground nearby, too. For an additional fee, you can also visit the nearby Shelbyville Family Aquatic Center near Dam West (CLOSED in 2020).
There are four public beaches located on Lake Shelbyville:
- Dam West Recreation Area (Ninth St.) in Shelbyville – OPEN in 2020 (and pictured at the top of this article)
- Sullivan Beach located just outside of Sullivan – OPEN in 2020
- Wilborn Creek Recreation Area near Kirksville – CLOSED in 2020
- Wolf Creek State Park near Windsor, this is also a high-water beach – OPEN in 2020
Fees are $5 per vehicle or $2 per person (no fees for children under 16). Fees at the state park are $1 per person.
Indiana Dunes, 2 hours and 15 minutes
This is the longest drive on our list; we wanted to provide at least one Lake Michigan beach option and this one will give you an option without driving into the center of Chicago traffic. While the dunes are open year round, the West Beach (where you’ll want to head for beach-y fun) is open Memorial Day through Labor Day. One vehicle enters for $6.
Because of the sheer size of Lake Michigan, you may be tricked into thinking you’re at the ocean here! There’s also more “waves” to be had here than some of the other, smaller lakes we’ve listed above. Because who doesn’t love jumping in the waves?
Moraine View, 45 minutes
It’s important to note that no lifeguards are on watch and that this is a very small beach. It’s also worth mentioning that during our last two visits the beach was closed, so you may want to call ahead to confirm it’s open if you mainly want beach time. This “beach” seems to be most enjoyed by the geese of Moraine View, and our recommendation is that you enjoy Moraine View for its stellar kayaking, hiking and camping and pass on the beach.
Middle Fork River Forest Preserve, 40 minutes
A swimming beach exists at Middle Fork but the pond is a bit depleted. Hopefully this will be fixed up in a future year, but presently we wouldn’t recommend swimming at Middle Fork.
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