No ocean? No problem. Splash around in nature at these freshwater beaches and swimming holes in and around the Windy City, from an abandoned quarry to the shores of Lake Michigan.
August is the Sunday of summer, with the crisp days of fall just on the other side. For the beach lovers of Chicagoland, 2021 is extra special as the beaches were closed in 2020 due to Covid restrictions. With just a few weeks left before Labor Day, and the official end of beach season, we’ve put together a list of five outdoor swimming spots to enjoy in these last glorious days of summer.
Many people still refer to this as the 31st Street Beach, though it was named in 2015 for Margaret T. Burroughs, an artist, historian, and founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History. It has a great view of the Chicago skyline and has received several noticeable upgrades in recent years. Improvements include a garage with a green roof for picnics, a whimsical playground, and a toddler-friendly splash area. 31st Street Harbor is next to the beach if you want to arrive by boat. This is also one of the few beaches with Wi-Fi. These enhancements mean that Burroughs Beach is more popular than when it used to be an overlooked gem, but it’s still a great place for swimming and hanging out.
3100 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60616
Among open water–swimming connoisseurs, Promontory Point is known as one of the best spots anywhere to experience the joy of swimming outside. For the regular Point swimmers, known as the “Southside Pod” or the “Point Penguins,” the early morning ritual of diving in is a year-round activity. Though most swim “50 to 50,” meaning they start their daily swims in the spring, when the water warms up to 50 degrees and stop in the fall, when it cools to below 50, some hardy souls will continue with winter plunges, hacking holes in the ice for their swim. But for the mere mortals among us, climb down ladders into the water (if you don’t want to jump off the rocks) for a perfect half mile of swimming between the Point and the 59th Street Pier.
5491 S. Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60615
This horseshoe-shaped beach is hidden behind the Adler Planetarium and not particularly well known, so it’s never crowded and excellent for distance swimming. It’s located on the eastern side of Northerly Island, which is actually a peninsula, created in the 1920s by architect Daniel Burnham between Jackson Park and Grant Park. In the 1930s, the island was expanded in preparation for the World’s Fair, though the planetarium is the only structure left. Swimmers might run into the remnants of a shipwrecked schooner, with its partially paved over stern embedded in the beach.
1200 S. Linn White Drive, Chicago, IL 60605
Centennial Beach in Naperville is a gigantic swimming hole that was created out of a historic rock quarry, holding 6.2 million gallons of water. Though the water is chlorinated, re-circulated, and hand-skimmed, it’s neither filtered nor heated, so it’s closer to lake swimming than a pool. The water depth ranges from zero feet to 15 feet, so there’s something for everyone here. Due to its size and amenities, this is a popular spot and hardly unknown, but so fun that it’s worth mentioning. And if you’re looking for a slightly quieter time to experience Centennial Beach, consider either Adult Float on weekend mornings, when those 18+ can laze around on an inner tube with no kids allowed, or the last few hours on Saturdays, when Centennial Beach closes at dusk and swimmers can bask in those last lingering hours of daylight.
500 Jackson Avenue, Naperville, IL 60540
If you’re willing to drive for a day, you can find some of the most magnificent natural swimming holes in Illinois. This is not a day trip—for that, we suggest the Indiana Dunes—but if you have a long weekend and the ability and will to hike, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous swimming holes and even waterfalls. Bell Smith Springs in Ozark, IL, is part of Shawnee National Forest and a good six hour drive from Chicago. There are several hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty that will bring you to the swimming holes, including walking down a set of picturesque but steep stone stairs or you can take a shortcut by climbing down metal rungs on a cliff face, for those with nerves of steel.