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.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think I have a different definition of “natural beauty.” None of these beach pictures count.

  • NP, I’ve swapped out the first photo with something that provides a better sense of the beauty of the Dunes. If you haven’t been there yet, parts of the area are gorgeous. And, yes, it is possible to carry sand chairs, etc., on the South Shore Line.

  • BlueFairlane

    Oh, I’ve been to Indiana Dunes (both the state park and the national lakeshore) many, many times, and parts of it are, in fact, awesome … though the best parts aren’t really accessible from the South Shore Line. Anything close to Beverly Shores requires you to walk down a fairly busy road with no sidewalk, and the beach is going to be packed so that it looks a lot like that Harbor Country beach photo.

    The beach also will be packed near the Dunes Park Station, but the trails in the interdunal zone are really nice. You should note, though, that those trails–and that beach, for that matter–are located in the state park rather than the national lakeshore, and the state park charges a $10 entry fee. This is true even if you walk in.

    FWIW, the trail with the most natural beauty (as long as you don’t look west once you hit the beach) is the Cowles Bog Trail, but it’d be a real pain to try to get there from the South Shore Line without a bike or something.

    Edit to add: Also, it should be noted that the photo you changed out is of the entrance to Central Beach, which is a good five miles from any South Shore station.

  • Coolebra

    How about this one? Also car-free from Union Station by way of Amtrak, dropping you right at the gate.

    I think this guy may have made the trip:


  • Kevin M

    I’ve visited Beverly Shores beach many times; most recently, this last June. I made that walk several times, and I have to disagree on both accounts: there is a sidewalk and the auto traffic is not that busy (and is slow).

    Also, for what its worth, in my dozen trips to this beach over the past several years, I’ve never found it to be nearly as crowded as a Chicago north side beach.

  • Guest

    The pic is having problems posting . . .too large?

  • Guest

    Hmmm. . . .maybe the pic will show below.

  • The most dramatic dune hiking — at least while Mt. Baldy is closed — is easy to get to from the Dune Park station. When I visited a few weeks ago, the beach near the Beverly Shores stop wasn’t particularly crowded, and it’s easy to sun yourself in seclusion by strolling a few hundred feet down the shore.

    I have taken a folding bike on the train before, which was handy for getting to other parts of the area. Summer bike rental is also available from a small camping gear store near the Beverly Shores station. By the way, the South Shore Line works great for winter XC skiing and snowshoeing excursions on the Ly-co-ki-wi trail — I’ve never had a conductor complain about me stowing my gear in the overhead rack.

  • BlueFairlane

    The closest Amtrak will get you to the spot along St. Marys Lake where this photo was taken is East Glacier Village, about 30 miles away. There is, however, a shuttle bus that will get you from East Glacier to the St. Mary Visitor Center (about five miles from here) for an additional $20. You can then catch a free shuttle along the Going to the Sun Road to this point … though getting to it requires a little off-trail bushwacking.

  • Sure, Amtrak to Glacier National Park counts as a car-free beach excursion, if we stretch the definition of a beach to include Gun Sight Lake.

  • BlueFairlane

    Well, again, you’re in the state park if you go from the Dune Park station, and they charge $10. I’m not saying it’s not worth $10 (I happily pay it when I go), just that people should go prepared.

    We’ve had different experiences at the beach near Beverly Shores. In my experience, the beach is pretty narrow down there, the road runs right along it, and it’s been packed any time I’ve gone when there isn’t a storm over the lake.

    I’ve never tried snowshoeing at the dunes, and I don’t ski. The Ly-co-ki-wi trail is a little ugly for hiking in the summer when there are better places nearby, but it probably is a pretty nice destination in the winter.

  • Coolebra

    The bottom picture is McDonald Creek, a little upstream from Lake McDonald (I’ve swum across and jumped off that rock on the opposite side). There’s a reason why only one guy is in the water, too . . .

    Yes, the shuttles are there, one can ride a bike, etc.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think on this one we’ll just have to agree that this is St. Mary Lake, as seen from a point along the shoreline just below where I took this picture … http://www.ipernity.com/doc/285533/19530797/in/album/391907

    Or in roughly the same spot where I took this picture … http://www.ipernity.com/doc/285533/19530789/in/album/391907 (I think yours is a little farther to the right, around where that little marsh is located.)

    Look closely at your photo, and you can see Wild Goose Island. Both of my photos are geotagged with the approximate location where I took them. I don’t have any pictures of Lake McDonald because I didn’t go that far west on the road the last time I was there, but you can see on this internet picture that the mountains around Lake McDonald look very different … http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/81/Lake_McDonald_Glacier_NP_US.jpg

  • Coolebra

    My pic posting went haywire :))

    One is the creek, the other the lake. I’m not sure what you can see and what you can’t. lol

    I thought I had deleted the lake picture. Now that Iook back I see my lake picture twice and the creek once.

    I am writing about the creek shot and you are writing about the lake shot (that I thought you could not see).

    hahaha! Time to get out of keystone cops mode.

    Anyway, cool spots.

  • BlueFairlane

    Ahhh … that explains it. This is a Disqus failure! They’re very clunky about adding photos.

    If the creek picture is the one I’m seeing from “guest” at the very bottom of the page, I was wondering where that spot was. I thought at first that that was St. Marys Falls, a spot along the trail to either Virginia Falls or Gunsight Lake where I saw a bunch of people jumping off a rock about 20 feet high, but it didn’t look quite right. Both are pretty cool spots. I’ve not explored the west side of Glacier much.


  • skyrefuge

    Correction: the $10 State Park entry fee only applies if you’re a car-driving sucker. Bikes/peds are only $2, which I can confirm since I arrived by bike and camped there a few months ago (though given that many park jurisdictions around the country charge nothing for bikes/peds, I was actually a bit surprised by the fee).

  • jared

    Beverly Shores also has the Century of Progress houses in various states of restoration. Walkable from the station…

  • Coolebra

    Yes, the creek was posted by me, but then deleted when the post appeared without the picture. It then resurrected itself, photo intact, under Guest user.

    Anyway, the west and N/W side of the park is spectacular. The north fork of the Flathead is often referred to as the Serengeti of North America. A little town near the west entrance, Polebridge, has a fabulous bakery and Northern Lights Saloon/restaurant in a historic general store. They also have a sign entering town, Slow – People Breathing, and hold a cool event, Aurorafest (formerly Northern Lights Fest, I seem to recall).

  • hello

    I recently discovered the paradise that is Loyola Park. I want to move there now.

  • Yep, Lake Shore Drive-free (though not necessarily LSD-free) beaches are Rogers Parkers’ best-kept secret.

  • Come hither! Rogers Park is great, don’t be fooled by the distance from “everything” that you may hear from others.

  • High_n_Dry

    Uhm, the Illinois Beach State Park photo – sure hope you were not on sites 100-123, 200-215, 290-296, 300H & 301, 392H & 391 as alcohol is banned. :)

  • Correct. It’s a better situation than at the Dunes and many other local campgrounds, where booze is completely verboten. While we’re on the subject, one of the great things about a Metra or South Shore road trip is that, blackout days like the Air & Water Show excepted, you can legally enjoy alcohol on the train. Be sure to toast your fellow travelers stuck in sobering traffic jams on nearby expressways!

  • High_n_Dry

    Just making sure this all on the up and up!


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