Beaches, boats and beautiful views: Chicago's Great Lake
Chicago is on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, the second-largest of the Great Lakes (by volume) and fifth-largest lake in the world. The city's 26 lakefront miles might be a tiny fraction of the natural treasure's full perimeter, but they feature some major tourist attractions and a plethora of potential outdoor activities for visitors and locals to enjoy. Even away from its edges, Lake Michigan and Chicago are hand-in-hand, with the water starring in every skyline scene and serving as the source of the bracing breezes made famous by the "Windy City" nickname.
Lake Michigan: facts and figures
With a surface area of 22,300 square miles, Lake Michigan is approximately the size of Massachusetts, Maryland and Delaware combined. It's the only Great Lake entirely within the United States, and its 1,640-mile shoreline is shared by four states: Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. Chicago is by far the largest city on Lake Michigan and in the entire Great Lakes region, as well as the Midwest (and third-largest in the nation). Other sizable cities on Lake Michigan are Milwaukee and Green Bay, Wis., and Gary, Ind. The total population of the Lake Michigan Basin is approximately 12 million.
Lake Michigan has water temperatures peaking in the 60s in July and August, occasionally reaching the low 70s during a heat wave. In winter, it partially freezes and features dramatic, ocean-like waves.
Activities in, on and by the lake
The circa-1909 Plan for Chicago set aside the city's entire lakefront for public use, ensuring it would remain open and free of buildings – as it does to this day. As such, the 26-mile shore is a major asset for locals and a draw for visitors. Here are some of the highlights of activities and attractions on, in and by Lake Michigan in Chicago:
The Chicago Lakefront Trail is a paved, 18-mile pathway with the lake on one side, parks on the other and spectacular views of the Chicago skyline all the way. You can walk, jog or bike (using the city's Divvy bike-share program or other rental concession) along the trail and take in the sights of 13 neighborhoods and four parks, plus beaches, public art, gardens and boardwalks. Up to 30,000 people use the trail every day in summer. It's expansive enough for everyone to spread out along the trail, but if you dislike crowds, avoid its busiest spots, which tend to be the closest to major tourist attractions, on summer weekends.
Lake Shore Drive, an urban parkway running roughly parallel to the Lakefront Trail, is an ideal route for a scenic drive through the city. It also gives you easy access to Navy Pier and the Museum Campus, home to the renowned Field Museum, Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium. Also in the vicinity of the Lakefront Trail and Lake Shore Drive are the Lincoln Park Zoo (which always offers free admission), Soldier Field and the Museum of Science and Industry. A City Pass offers savings for visitors who intend to go to several of these museums and other attractions. Illinois residents with ID also enjoy free admission to the planetarium, aquarium, Field Museum and other institutions on select days.
Chicago boasts 26 free public beaches on Lake Michigan, all of which are naturally most enticing in summer months. Among the most popular is 12th Street Beach, a 91-acre peninsula featuring a bird-rich prairie reserve and a pavilion hosting summer concerts. It also offers a family-friendly beach and skyline views and is within walking distance of the Adler Planetarium. Inside historic Jackson Park is 63rd Street Beach, and Uptown is home to Montrose Beach, the largest in Chicago. North Avenue Beach, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, is known for its massive ship-shaped bar and grill as well as major volleyball tournaments. Promontory Point in Burnham Park allows bonfires in its fire pits, and Ohio Street Beach at Olive Park has marked swimming lanes in its relatively shallow waters. You can immediately find out if a location is safe for swimming on the day of your visit by texting the name of the beach to 312-715-SWIM.
Watersports on Lake Michigan are also popular, with rentals of stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, motorboats, sailboats and jet skis available in summer. Fishing for trout, salmon, walleye and other types of fish is possible at Burnham Harbor near 12th Street Beach, among other locations.
Lake Michigan day trips and more
If Chicago's share of Lake Michigan has you eager to see more, consider a day trip or longer visit to these other lakefront destinations:
- Drive the entire 900-mile Circle Tour around Lake Michigan. With no stops it would take approximately 14.5 hours, but breaking it up with an overnight stop or two is much more appealing.
- See the world's largest freshwater sand dunes at one of several parks, including Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, also in Michigan.
- Visit one of the many historic lighthouses along Lake Michigan. Just 13 miles from Chicago is the Grosse Point Light in Evanston, Ill.. A National Historic Landmark, it was built in 1873 and is now a maritime museum. The Waukegan Harbor Light in Waukegan, Ill., dates to 1889 and is still a working lighthouse.