Megan Bryant is a passionate writer and traveler who has combined her two loves to help others fulfill their traveling dreams. When she isn’t writing, she’s usually curled up with her 3 Dachshunds and a good book or planning her next adventure—wherever that may be.
Illinois is part of the Great Lakes district of North America and has plenty of lakes for locals and tourists to explore. All over the state—even in Chicago, one of the state’s busiest cities—you can enjoy tranquil waters, beautiful scenery, and an abundance of wildlife.
So whether you’re planning a weekend summer getaway or looking for a slice of nature to enjoy throughout winter, here are 12 of the best lakes in Illinois that you shouldn’t overlook.
Axehead Lake was constructed in 1958 and spans 17 acres just 20 minutes from Chicago’s city. Although one of the most popular activities on the lake is fishing—both in the summer and winter months—Axehead Lake is also a great place for an afternoon stroll or a lunchtime picnic. Boats aren’t allowed on Axehead, but you can fish for bluegill, northern pike, smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass right from the lake’s banks.
Carlyle Lake is the largest man-made lake in Illinois. With 85 miles of shoreline and fishing, boating, sailing, and birdwatching opportunities, the 25,000-acre Carlyle Lake is a haven for recreational activities—its millions of annual visitors will agree that it’s a lake that’s definitely worth visiting. There are even campgrounds so you can turn your lake visit into a weekend trip!
Chain O’Lakes Waterway
The Chain O’Lakes consists of 15 lakes that are connected by the Fox River. Covering over 7,100 acres of land, the lakes have become a hot spot for water sports and recreational activities, bringing in weekend crowds of 30,000 people. By traveling just over an hour north of Chicago, you can take part in activities like boating, kayaking, fishing, swimming, and water skiing. Or you can just sit back and relax on the lake’s shores before deciding which nearby restaurant you want to eat at.
Devil’s Kitchen Lake
Spanning 830 acres in southern Illinois, Devil’s Kitchen Lake was created by the damming of Grassy Creek and has since become a fishing paradise for those searching for rainbow trout, largemouth bass, bluegill, and crappie. Boats are allowed on Devil’s Kitchen Lake—and you will find boat launches dotted around the shores—however, there is a power limit with motors restricted to 10 h.p. or less.
Lake Le Aqua Na
Lake Le Aqua Na was developed in order to provide citizens of Illinois with recreational activities not far from their homes and properties—and that’s exactly what it did.
Today, the lake features 8.5 miles of hiking trails, public beaches, boat launch ramps, and campgrounds with opportunities to swim, fish, boat, and even horseback ride. In the winter months, you can even ice fish, sled, and cross-country ski.
Lake Lou Yaeger
Lake Lou Yaeger was originally built for flood control purposes. However, it quickly gained popularity for its recreational activities and fishing opportunities. The shores of Lake Lou Yaeger are great for families as play areas, hiking trails, and campgrounds are all available for public use. And the waters—which don’t impose a speed or power limit—welcome boaters who want to put their engines to the test.
The biggest lake in Illinois is actually the third largest Great Lake in North America—Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan spans over 22,404 sq mi and provides Chicago with 26 miles of scenic lakefront that encourages all types of recreational activities.
Whether you want to relax on one of the picturesque beaches, explore the water by stand up paddle board, get your adrenaline pumping on a jet ski, or fish for bowfin, yellow perch, or lake trout, Lake Michigan has you covered, making it the perfect—and most convenient—lake getaway in Chicago.
Lake Sara is known for its tranquil atmosphere, making it the perfect location for those who are after some peace and quiet. The 800-acre lake has public beaches for relaxing, outdoor activities like kayaking, tubing, and boating, and a campground where you can pitch a tent and extend your trip for the weekend. With two marinas, two restaurants, and nearby golf courses, Lake Sara covers all bases and has something that everyone can enjoy.
Lake Shelbyville in southern Illinois is a reservoir three hours south of Chicago that was created by the damming of the Kaskaskia River. Lake Shelbyville is a nature lover’s paradise as the Shelbyville State Fish and Wildlife Area was set up around the lake due to the area’s rich flora and fauna. With chances to boat, swim, fish, picnic, and camp, Lake Shelbyville provides tons of outdoor fun for both locals and tourists alike.
Maple Lake is famous for boating and fishing. But the tranquil waters also offer relaxation for those who desperately need it. In total, Maple Lake spans over 60 acres and has lush coastlines that belong to the Palos Preserves. Visitors to the lake can camp, boat, fish, bike, hike, and horseback ride, with snowshoeing and cross-country skiing becoming available come winter.
Rend Lake was created in 1962 by the blocking of the Big Muddy River. And now, it spans over 19,000 acres, offering a variety of recreational activities both in and out of the water. Encompassing Rend Lake are 20,000 acres of forests, wetlands, and meadows that are popular amongst wildlife lovers, bikers, and hikers.
In the water, you can take part in fishing, boating, swimming, and wakeboarding, all before calling it a night in one of Rend Lake’s four campgrounds.
And the final lake we wanted to mention was Wolf Lake, an important bio-diversity spot in Illinois. Regarded as a haven for those who enjoy fishing, Wolf Lake has a huge variety of aquatic life, including crappie, largemouth bass, yellow perch, and sunfish. Although people flock to the lake for fishing opportunities, Wolf Lake is also a haven for hiking, hunting, biking, and boating.
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