Editor’s Note: This post on a daytrip to 31st Street Beach in Chicago was first published in 2013, but I’ve updated the dates for 2016.
Are you ready for a bit of adventure before summer ends? Then the next time we get a hot spell, you might want to consider heading into Chicago for a day of sun, sand and amazing skyline views at 31st Street Beach.
Name: 31st Street Beach, a property of the Chicago Park District.
Location: 3100 S. Lake Shore Drive (31st Street and Lake Shore Drive) in Chicago. The beach is about 45 miles from Geneva. Before you head out, make sure you are familiar with your directions; our trip involved I-88 E to I-290 E to I-94 E to I-55 N to Lake Shore Drive and then finally 31st Street.
Hours: Swimming is permitted when life guards are on duty, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The 2016 Beach Season in Chicago runs from May 27 through Sept. 5. Before heading out, you’ll also want to check the water quality information and surf conditions here; Swimming at Chicago beaches is occasionally banned because of the weather or water quality.
Amenities: The “beach house” is more like a building with restrooms inside, there were no dedicated changing stalls or showers, although there is a shower outdoors you can use to spray off the sand. (The park district says there are lockers, but I didn’t see them.) There are lifeguards and also a lifeguard first-aid station. The beach features an awesome playground with a very padded surface, a climbing wall and all sorts of unique equipment — it opened in 2013. There is a concession stand called “Pier 31” that sells food. We brought our own food, but I looked quickly at the menu, and it offered burgers, chicken sandwiches, fries, etc. The burgers and chicken sandwiches were about $9 each, so definitely more economical to bring your own food!
Admission: Admission to the beach is free. Parking in the garage is by the hour. We ended up paying $9 for about three hours in the garage. You can also find parking meters on the street that are cheaper than the garage.
Good For: Families who don’t mind a drive or water that’s on the chilly side, who appreciate relaxing on a beach with awesome skyline views and who like playing in the sand.
Our Experience: Earlier this month, I was making some plans with a close friend who lives in La Grange to get together with her and her sister and all of our kids. She said we could meet at a public pool in between our two towns, like we did last summer, or alternately, she proposed meeting up at 31st Street Beach, which is a spot her own family goes to regularly.
Now I lived in Chicago for a long time, and I’m very familiar with the beaches on the near North Side. (In fact, I was too familiar with Oak Street Beach — I got a lobster-like burn when I fell asleep there while sunbathing in my early 20s.) But I had never visited any beaches on the South Side, and in fact, I had yet to take my preschooler to any Chicago beach.
Honestly, my inkling was to say “Let’s make it easy and just meet at a pool!” But that seemed so … suburban of me. And I figured while I might never get around to trying a new beach on my own with my daughter, it would be an manageable adventure to do it with a family familiar with the location already.
I packed the car with our swimsuits, towels, a blanket, sand toys, a cooler with lunch and lots of sunscreen, and we got on Interstate 88 at 11 a.m. on a recent hot Monday. By 12:15 p.m., we were dressed in our swimsuits and lathered in sunscreen, sitting on a blanket on the sand.
I had worried about Lake Michigan being rough and about riptides, too, but the day we visited, the water was very calm. And as part of a recent renovation, the beach features a 2,700-foot-long breakwater that protects it from the full impact of waves.
That renovation, completed in 2012, also created a new harbor with 1,000 floating slips. Even better for this suburbanite, there is an indoor parking garage that functions as winter storage for the boats. But in the summer, you can use it to park your car! My friends found parking at a meter on the street, but I was happy to just pull into that garage; I was never a good parker, even when I lived in the city. From the garage, you just walk the equivalent of about two blocks north to reach the beach. You can admire all the pretty boats while you stroll.
Once we got to the beach, my daughter and I used a restroom stall to change into our swimsuits. (The restrooms were clean enough, but of course sandy and wet, like you’d expect at the beach.) And then we set up our blanket on the sand, and she immediately jumped in the water. It was a bit chilly, but it was a very hot day, and I got used to it pretty quickly.
I stayed pretty close in the water to my daughter — she is fearless, which is good and bad. I had also promised my husband to stay very close to her; he was nervous about her swimming in the lake, but again, the water was calm and there were three lifeguards on duty the day we visited. Two roamed the beach, and one in a rowboat about 20 feet from shore.
Once our friends joined us, my daughter had even more fun. There were plenty of families on the beach that day. Most were set up on the sand (a couple had umbrellas; one brought a tent) but a few made their camp under a strip of trees probably a five-minute walk from the water. I didn’t spot any lockers — although the park district says 31st Street Beach has them — so I kept my valuables in my beach bag. We had a big group, and one of us was always by the mounds of “stuff,” but the beach seemed very safe and friendly. I wouldn’t hesitate to return on my own with my daughter, although I think it’s more fun to meet at least one other family there.
We ate our picnic lunches on the beach, and the kids played in the water and the sand for about three hours.
Before we headed home, we let the kids run around for about 30 minutes on a truly awesome playground — part of which that is above the parking garage as a “green roof.” It has this very squishy surface, hills, a climbing wall and several cool slides. There were also fountains and misters the kids could run through, and the playground is encircled by a wrought iron fence.
The Takeaway: Before getting in our car, we stopped in the “harbor store,” located in the garage to pick up cold waters and some treats for the drive home. It was a long drive — we left at the start of rush hour, and while the drive had been about an hour on the way in, it was about 90 minutes on the way home. But I didn’t mind. My daughter was soon asleep in her car seat, I was listening to the radio, and we had enjoyed a memorable day with friends in a city that I love.