Lake Michigan's such a scene stealer; check out these smaller, super-manageable alternatives just a short drive from the city.
There’s no sandy beach, but this man-made lake is a haven for boaters and fishing enthusiasts. Paddleboats, kayaks and sailboats can be rented for $8–$25 per hour, and little landlubbers can get their sea legs in weeklong summer sailing camps, where instructors teach sailing terminology, maneuvers and skills (half-day camps $190, full-day camps $295). Bring your fishing pole to catch bass, bluegill or catfish. When the kids tire of water sports, head to the picnic area, lake-view deck or indoor concession stand, or the two-mile walking/running/bike path around the lake. 2201 N Windsor Dr, Arlington Heights (847-577-3059, ahpd.org). Open daily May 28–Sept 3. Free.
Paulus Park Beach is a 40-acre park tucked amid tree-lined homes and a charming downtown with plenty of sand, a fishing pier and a “sprayground” water park where kids get doused by sprinklers shaped like large flowers and worms. There’s a picnic area with shelters, tables and a concession stand, but the short walk to downtown yields fun finds, including a Tastee Freez (620 E Main St, 847-438-4022) and local favorite DiPiero’s Pizzeria & Italian Deli (17 E Main St, 847-438-3253). 200 S Rand Rd, Lake Zurich (847-438-5146, volz.org) Open for Memorial Day weekend, then daily Jun 5–Aug 15, weekends only through Sept 6. Daily fee: $8, kids $5.
Chain O’ Lakes
Wade on the wild side at the “Key West of the Midwest,” 15 lakes that lie next to the Fox River. Boating, waterskiing, wave running and tubing are all popular here—but so are the Budweisers, so keep a careful eye out for reckless driving. If you have a boat, you can launch it free at the Chain O’ Lakes State Park; private marinas charge $10–$15 per launch or rent a motor boat or wave runner (from $90 an hour). Beaches are private here, so the best public swim spots are on the sandbars, especially at Petite Lake and Lake Catherine. 45 Pistakee Lake Rd, Fox Lake (847-587-8540, foxwaterway.org). Open daily when conditions permit. Free.
A former stone quarry, this man-made lake features a big, sandy beach and water that begins at zero depth and graduates to 15 feet deep. The shallow end includes a kiddie slide; diving boards occupy the deep side. There’s also a playground, Frisbee-toss area, concession stand and showers. A neighboring quarry offers 20-minute paddleboat rides for $8. DJs spin on Monday evenings and swimmers are always serenaded by the nearby Millennium Carillon in the 16-story-tall Moser Tower, which provides regular bell music as well as tours to the top for $3. 500 W Jackson Ave, Naperville (630-848-5000, napervilleparks.org). Open May 29–Sept 6. Daily fee: $10, residents $6.
Once a summer retreat for Chicago’s millionaire commodities traders and merchants, Crystal Lake is now a public beach for the masses. Main Beach has a Prairie School–design beach house that adult architecture fans admire, while kids appreciate its concession stand and miniature golf course. Paddleboats, canoes, sailboats and kayaks are available for rent for $6–$8 an hour (a serious deal, right?). But wait, there’s more: The beach is adjacent to a playground and picnic area, and there are free evening concerts on Tuesdays and outdoor movies after dusk some Fridays. 2330 Lake Ave, Crystal Lake (815-459-0680, crystallakeparks.org). Open May 22–Aug 22. Daily fee: $10, kids $6. Residents: $1.