Illinois Beach State Park

People often ask me how many bikes I have. Right now, it’s the bare minimum I’m supposed to, if I’m keeping score by the Velominati’s “Rules” (see #12). So, three. When I follow that answer with something like, “Well, one of them is my touring bike,” I get all nostalgic and guilty because I haven’t put in the miles on that sucker that I should have. I’ve logged a few thousand miles on my Long Haul Trucker, on everything from rando-style road rides to a month-long hump down the Pacific Coast.

But here in Chicago, it’s tough. I’ve taken her down the lakefront to work, hauled an astonishing amount of groceries and, of course, plenty of beer. Sad to say I’ve not had the time to get out of Dodge and pitch a tent. In between job, traveling, road races, and jam-packed weekends, it hasn’t happened. Being an adult is overrated sometimes.

Yet, there is hope. It’s called the bike overnight. Or out-and-back. Or bike camping. Or my favorite, the Sub 24-hour Overnight (S24O). Been telling myself I’d do it all summer, yet somehow I got hung up on my own planning. Before I knew it, August rolled around and I hadn’t put much thought into it. So I just started telling people, “Yeah, I’m doing it this weekend. Overnighter.” Telling people your plans sometimes forces you to realize them.

This past weekend, I did it. I rolled out Friday around 3 p.m. with George, setting our sights on Illinois Beach State Park. It’s about 50 miles north of Chicago, as far north as you can get in Illinois before you’re in Wisconsin. It occupies a couple of miles of waterfront on Lake Michigan, including beaches, camping, and stunning view of a power plant. But it’s doable, and I wanted to be on the lake.

The Route

We followed our usual way out of town through Evanston, Skokie, Wilmette, and Highland Park. The Skokie Valley Path shot us into Lake Forest, and from there we reeled in the road through Chicago’s far north 'burbs. Had to bushwhack around some construction in Waukegan; smooth riding besides that. We arrived at camp, but not before a last-mile beer run.

The Gear

Packing for an overnight shouldn't be complicated. George told me it took him only five minutes to pack. My crap, on the other hand, had to be dug up from a toolbox, bike clothing drawers, basement storage, and a big Tupperware tub I put random bike stuff in. Gear tends to diffuse when you haven’t used it in years, and moved it around three times.

  • On the Bike: 2 Ortlieb rolldown waterproof panniers, 2 tubes, 2 co2′s+inflator, patch kit, multitool, tire levers, Topeak Road Morph G pump, U-lock, a couple of zip ties.
  • Food: 2 Clif bars, 2 Honey Stingers, 1 cup of chicken flavored Ramen, 1 can of tuna, small bag of trail mix, banana, Nescafe instant coffee, 1 24 oz. water bottle, 1 1.5L Nalgene, and some marshmallows+Hersheys bar (forgot to get graham crackers).
  • KitchenSnowpeak titanium hybrid trail pot+pan, MSR 4 oz. iso-butane stove fuel, stove, lighter.
  • Other: Pen, small travel log journal, Leatherman tool, WX radio, nPower Peg to charge phone, LED headlamp, 2 bungee cords, spare MSR sand stake, bug spray.
  • Clothing: Socks, underwear, tee, light zip hoody, swimsuit, flipflops, microfiber towel, camp rag.
  • Sleep: Six Moon Designs tent+ground cloth, *Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag (see next section for asterisk).

The Trip

On both days of riding, we couldn’t have asked for better weather. A couple of days before, I called Illinois Beach State Park to reserve a campsite because I figured it’s one of the only places to camp between Chicago and Milwaukee, and it’d be sure to fill up. I was right.

When we arrived, the ladies at the kiosk told us the place was booked. No problem, we whipped out our reservation receipt. But to no avail, they said whoever made the reservation did it wrong and that it was actually booked before we called. I looked at George. The ladies watched the color drain from my face, paused, then burst out laughing—giving us a hard time. Not bad, ladies, not bad. They said we were an easy kill because we rode in on bikes.

The site was close to the water, although it was heard and not seen. There was a good mix of tents, RVs, and those big-ass transformer bus camper things; luckily we didn’t hear any generators kick on. We got some looks as we rolled into camp around 6 p.m., as if to say, ”Look, der, honey. They gots their camping gear on the bike!” But the couple we met in the site next to us had done the ride up before, too, as well as some other tours. There was a guy in a pickup truck towing a trailer full of firewood, making the rounds for the campground, sort of like the ice cream truck.

I got my tent set up, bereft of one stake.

On whim, I'd brought along this red MSR sand stake for beach camping. My uncle gave this to me for Christmas, like, ten years ago. Maybe longer. And I’ve never used it, but always liked the idea of having it around for, I don’t know, using it to pierce the heart of a dragon should I ever be attacked in the wilderness. It finally validated its existence among my camping gear. (Thanks, Uncle Bob!)

While setting up my tent, I unfurled what I thought was my *sleeping bag. Turns out, it was my Mont Bell down jacket from the winter. I'd grabbed the wrong stuff sack. My sleeping bag was hanging in its storage bag at home. I had stuffed the jacket into my Western Mountaineering sack because I lost the Mont Bell one. Woops. I ended up sleeping with it wrapped around my legs. It was warm enough that I didn’t need much up top (my hoody sufficed).

With camp set up, we took a dip in the lake. There were a handful of others in the water, mostly people shrieking at the temperature. And cold it was. George and I made it a contest of manhood to see how far we could walk in before having to give up and dunk in.

Water was probably in the mid-60s, brisk yet refreshing. (What do you expect? It’s a melted glacier.) Not nearly as dirty as the water around Chicago’s beaches. The blinking power plant in the distance wasn’t reassuring, but hey, I felt clean. (We also took a dip the following morning after coffee.)

You know how it is when you camp with a buddy. You work through a 12-pack together, canvass every topic that a campfire conversation is possible of accommodating, blow off steam, laugh about the stressful crap that you just rode away from, stir the flames, and pass out.

The next day, after our swim, we broke down camp and rolled out, generally following the same way back except for a detour around Waukegan’s construction, via McAree Road.  

We had a light tailwind, and it turned out the route was gradually downhill. So we burned off miles at a steady clip, holding 19 to 21 mph on the Skokie Valley Path southbound, no problem, thinking we might catch up with our team’s Saturday morning training ride (we didn’t). We did get caught by the longest freight train ever.

More reports to follow. We're shooting for Starved Rock State Park next.

I’ll leave you with this.

View a map of our S24O to Illinois Beach State Park

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this adventure: There are plenty of gas stations, convenience stores, and strip malls along the last mile or two for last-minute needs.

Favorite local bike shop: I have two, Johnny Sprockets and On The Route Bicycles, both in Chicago. Nod to Mountain Road Cycles in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where I got my start.

4 responses so far ↓

Jasper Gates - Oct 9, 2013 at 2:36 PM

Well done! This is funny and smart. I like your description of cycle-camping with a buddy: I'd maybe add "rip a few farts" to your list of manly campfire activities, but I suppose that is implied in "blow off steam." Thanks for the read.

Alan Osborne - Jan 29, 2014 at 5:04 PM

I just LOVED the joke those two ladies at the kiosk played on you!! Ya gotta love midwest humor. Really enjoyed your trip. I used to live in Illinois and still have family there. I want to come back this summer and ride from Frankfort along the Old Plank Trail onto I&M Canal and out to Starved Rock for my overnighter. Maybe we'll pass on the trail.

Wayne - Feb 15, 2014 at 3:59 PM

Looking forward to reading your directions when you accomplish the trip to Starved Rock. Love Starved Rock in the fall when the colors change and a cool breeze in in the air.

Sophie S - Jun 14, 2014 at 6:32 PM

Someone just told me I was nuts for even contemplating a ride to IL Beach State Park, but I think it would be fun! Thanks for the read...

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