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Beyond Chicagoland

Leave Traffic Behind With These 6 Car-Free, Carefree Beach Trips

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, easily accessed by train. Photo: Tom Gill via Flickr.

If, like me, you optimistically view the summer as lasting until September 22, we’ve got more than five more weeks of beach season left. Still, time is running out for fun in the sun, so you should make a beeline for the shoreline as soon as possible. While people often gripe that Chicago has limited access to natural beauty, our city’s status as a rail hub actually makes it easy to reach the beach without a car.

Rainbow Beach is one of the gems of the South Side, and it’s only a stone’s throw from the Metra Electric Line’s Windsor Park station in South Shore. Named in honor of the U.S. Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division, the beach is also shaped like an upside-down rainbow, and it offers a stunning view of the skyline. A large fieldhouse features futuristic, Eggo waffle-shaped canopies. It’s a roughly half-hour ride from Millennium Station, and the fare is $3 each way. From Windsor Park, walk five minutes east on 75th to the beach; the fieldhouse is another eight minutes southeast. You can also get there via the #75 and #79 buses, plus three bus lines that run on South Shore Drive.

Aerial view of Rainbow Beach, via Google Maps.

Like Rainbow, Loyola Beach in Rogers Park is a quiet, serene place to swim because it’s located more than a mile from a Lake Shore Drive endpoint, and it’s easy to get to via transit. This nearly mile-long beach also offers great views of the Loop from a pier at its south end. Every June, community members gather during the Artists of the Wall festival to paint new images on a 600-foot mural by the shore. From the Red Line’s Morse stop, walk eight minutes east on Morse to the beach. The Loyola station is close by as well, and the beach is also accessible via the CTA’s #96, #147, and #155 buses.

Metra’s bikes-on-trains policy opens up a galaxy of options for car-free road trips, and one of the easiest is taking the Union Pacific North Line to Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. Note that bikes are prohibited this Saturday and Sunday due to the Air and Water show, the last blackout dates of the season. From the Ogilvie Center, it’s about an hour-and-a-half train ride; roundtrip fare is $7 with a weekend pass. From the Zion station, it’s a two-mile pedal (or hike, if you’re so inclined) to the park, which features a pebbly beach, camping, a lodge, and plenty of scenic hiking and biking trails.

Car-free camping at Illinois Beach State Park. Photo: John Greenfield

For a bike-and-train trip to a coastline of a different sort, take Metra’s Milwaukee District North Line to Chain O’ Lakes State Park. From Union Station, it takes roughly an hour and forty minutes to get to the town of Fox Lake; from there, it’s a 6.7-mile pedal to the park offices. Located just south of the Cheddar Curtain, the Chain O’ Lakes region features a number of good-sized glacial lakes, popular for fishing and boating. The park has a pleasant campground and an extensive trails network, and you can rent a canoe to paddle out to Blarney Island, a floating Parrothead bar in the middle of Grass Lake, or use the bar's boat-taxi service.

20030504 14 South Shore Line @  Hudson Lake, IN
A South Shore Line Train in Indiana. Photo: David Wilson

The South Shore Line, which runs from Millennium Station to South Bend, Indiana, is another excellent choice for a summer getaway. It has several stops along the surprisingly beautiful Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, including the Dunes Park and Beverly Shores stations – both of which are a short walk from campgrounds, and a one-mile hike to the beach. The former stop provides easy access to excellent hiking trails at Indiana Dunes State Park, but Dunewood Campground at Beverly Shores is by far the more scenic of the two camping options, and you can buy groceries right by the station. The trip from the Loop takes about an hour and a half; roundtrip fare is $16.50.

Note that the South Shore doesn’t accommodate non-folding bikes, but, partly thanks to a petition drive by Streetsblog Chicago's Steven Vance,  they’re looking into changing this policy. If you prefer to pedal to the Dunes, this 60-mile bike route from Daley Plaza to Dunewood – mostly on off-street trails -- is a fun way to get there.

A beach in Harbor Country. Photo: John Greenfield

Amtrak has long offered passenger rail service to the Southwestern Michigan beach towns of New Buffalo and Saint Joseph, but you couldn’t bring a standard bicycle along, even disassembled in a bike box. Last September, the system opened up new options for car-free Harbor Country excursions by introducing roll-on service on the Blue Water Line, which runs between Union Station and Port Huron, Michigan, including a stop in New Buffalo. Unlike Amtrak’s downstate Illinois service, which accommodates bikes but has no dedicated space for them, Blue Water trains provide racks for four bikes in the café car. Roundtrip tickets to New Buffalo can be purchased for as low as $22, although there’s a $10 surcharge each way for bringing a bike.

Streetsblog Chicago reader Kevin Monahan took advantage of this option last weekend, by hopping the train to New Buffalo with his cycle and then pedaling 3.5 miles north along quiet shoreline roads to a beach house in Union Pier. “Having a bike in Harbor County is a great way to get around,” he reports. “Within five or ten miles of New Buffalo there are dozens of restaurants and cafes, two wineries and breweries, hundreds of rental homes, two weekly farmer's markets, and, of course, lots of beachfront territory.”

Know of any other possibilities for train and/or bike beach excursions that I missed, or other car-free road trip ideas you'd like to share? Let us know in the comments section.

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