No matter where you live in the far western suburbs, this first entry in the “Great Beaches!” series is going to be a drive. But I promise it is worth it! Ever since I discovered Three Oaks Recreation Area in 2012, we haven’t let a summer go by without a visit.
Name: Three Oaks Recreation Area
Location: 5517 Northwest Highway in Crystal Lake
Hours: The swim beach is open daily from 10 a.m. to sunset. It is open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
Amenities: Three Oaks Recreation Area is a reclaimed quarry that opened about five years ago. The city of Crystal Lake spent about $14 million to convert what had been a gravel mine into a beautiful, unique spot that offers a swim beach, spray park and playground, boat rentals for boating and fishing, scuba diving, hiking and biking trails, pavilions for rent and picnic sites with grills. Concessions at the swim beach are provided by Culver’s, and it is a more limited menu that what you’d find in one of its restaurants. However on our last trip – which happened late in the afternoon and late in the season – Culver’s was closed for the day. You can bring in your own food, and that’s probably a smart idea given our Culver’s experience. The “Lake House” complex, which is where you enter the beach, offers modern locker rooms with showers and coin-operated lockers. New in 2016, a wakeboarding park opened at Three Oaks on the North Lake. The swimming beach is located on the South Lake. The swimming beach has lifeguards.
Admission: Crystal Lake residents get in free! Guests of city residents pay a $1 daily fee, up to five guests per family. (Guests must be accompanied by the resident family.) Otherwise, the daily admission fees are $10 for adults 16 and older, $6 for seniors, $6 for youth ages 4-15 and free for kids 3 and under. Fees are reduced after 4 p.m. to $5 for adults, $3 for youth and seniors. Note that there is also a parking fee of $5 per vehicle. Find more info on that, as well as entry points for the park, here.
Good for: Families who love sand, pristine waters and cute little islands older kids can swim to. This is not a place where you will want to leave after 90 minutes, so make sure to budget enough time to drive up and back to Crystal Lake and to spend at least three hours on the beach. Because of the size, it could be hard to manage multiple young children here on your own unless they are good listeners. Being a huge body of water, this is not like a heated pool – the water might be cool, but we’ve always visited on hots days, and I’ve never had trouble getting in. There is a floating pier where all the teenagers like to hang out. We’ve only visited here for the swimming beach, but it offers lots more options for active families.
Our Experience: I actually discovered this spot when my daughter and I made a trip to the Main Beach on Crystal Lake back in 2012. Some residents at that beach said while it was nice, we had to check out Three Oaks. So on our way out of town, we drove through and as I wrote back then, this spot looks like it is a movie set! Clear blue waters, soft sandy beaches, charming little islands. Just not what I expect out of a beach in Illinois!
So we’ve gone back once a summer every year since, whenever we have a hot summer day to devote to a special outing. It is particularly nice if we can convince some friends to go with us. I like how there are buoys that divide up the large body of water into zones so you can put some limits on your kids. Being a beach, it’s zero-depth entry, and my then 6-year-old daughter, if I remember correctly, was able to wade in the water last summer from the main beach to the little beach across the way. She and her friend thought it was great fun to be playing on a sandy beach separated from their moms by a body of water.
At the end of our beach time, we usually spend some time on the splash pad and the playground, which has a rubber cushion surface. Last year, we were nearly the last ones out of the parking lot – and I’m looking forward to our return trip in 2016! Note that our visits have always been on weekday afternoons, and the beach has never been crowded. But I did read at least one Yelp review that noted how busy Three Oaks was on a hot weekend. We’ve also never tried any of the other amenities at Three Oaks, just the swimming beach for us so far! If you visit Three Oaks, let us know what you think of it!