What to Do at Clinton Lake: the Lake Closest to Champaign-Urbana
Ice cream cones, hiking trails, great fishing spots and even a beach — Clinton Lake makes a great day trip for Champaign-Urbana area families
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, Mich., or Indiana Dunes). We’re here to tell you that Clinton Lake is a lesser-known gem roughly 45 minutes from C-U, and with many glimmers of what it would feel like to be on a real beach.
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 down the different things you can do at Clinton Lake so you can make the best plan 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.
Must Know Info: Open Memorial Day through Labor Day, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. $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! 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!
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 at 7 p.m. People definitely bring tents, chairs, blankets, and all the usual “beach” gear you might expect. 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. 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 you 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 a half-hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise. There are six public boat ramps and one canoe launch at the lake. Clinton Lake is a 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 many 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) 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 (Friday-Saturday) minimum stay is required during Memorial Day, Independence Day (when July 4 falls on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday) 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.
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 play at Clinton Lake so you can drive out to explore what is available for your family and enjoy the scenery in the process.
There are lots of hiking paths that are very kid friendly and playgrounds just along the lake. We like the sandy playground outside of a shelter just west of Boondocks since it’s 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 (217) 935-0925 to confirm they are open. They’re open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. The grill side of Boondocks is a cooked-to-order restaurant and the supplies side is where you can get bait or other gear for your visit.
Boondocks gets two thumbs up from us (and our kids!). If you want a great place to grab casual food 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 the outdoor window and take it back to your site 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 meals.
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