This past Monday was a rare day when my daughter and I had absolutely nothing planned, from morning til night. I was also feeling in a bit of a funk, and I thought we should shake up our routine. I remembered vaguely hearing last summer that Crystal Lake had a neat new beach, so we headed up Randall Road. Here's what we found, including a funny twist.
Location: 300 Lake Shore Drive in Crystal Lake. It took us about 45 minutes to reach the beach from Geneva.
Hours: 9 a.m. until dusk daily. Once school is in session, the beach is open from 3 p.m. until dusk. In 2012, the Main Beach opened for the season on May 26. It will close for the season on Monday , Sept. 3. (Check the website for the hours for the smaller West Beach, which lacks concessions and boat rentals.) Note: Make sure the beach is indeed open on the day you're planning to visit. You can call 815-477-5404, or there is a link on the site if the McHenry County Department of Health has to close the beach for any water quality reasons.
Amenities: The beach has a large sandy area, a large wooden playground, lots of picnic tables in the shade and a beach house that has two sets of restrooms, showers, benches and hooks. There are no lockers in the beach house, so I locked my valuables in the car, and just took my beach bag and what cash I would need. The concession stand sells chips, ice cream, beverages and candy, as well as pizza slices ($3) and fries ($3.50). (If you are going to be eating a meal at the beach, I'd recommend bringing your own food just because the options for "real" food at the stand are so limited.) A variety of boats are available for rental at $6 an hour, including paddleboats, canoes, rowboats, kayaks and for those who are certified, sailboats at $8 an hour. Animals are prohibited at the beaches. There are a number of lifeguards. You can rent beach chairs and umbrellas, or you can bring your own foldable variety from home, too.
Admission: For non-residents, adults pay $10 per day (or $5 after 4 p.m.) Youth ages 4 through 15 pay $6 a day (or $3 after 4 p.m.) Ages 3 and under are free. You'll pay $5 to park in the lot right across from the beach. Honestly, I didn't see any other options for parking nearby.
Good For: Toddlers who like to splash in the water and play in the sand, through teens who want to dive off the platforms in the deeper portion of the lake. Great option for families who want to swim, maybe rent a boat and then finish off the day with a picnic. If your children have sensitive feet, you might want to have them wear water shoes. I thought the sand was a bit rough in places, and a sign on the way in does warn you that sharp-edged zebra mussels can be present, although we didn't encounter any.
Our Experience: When we arrived at the beach, we changed into our swimsuits in the historic-looking but clean and well-kept beach house. And then we headed outside and I thought ... hmmm. This doesn't look new. In fact, it kind of looks like something out of a John Mellencamp song, which is not a diss at all, since I love history and American. It was very similar to my first impressions of the well-loved Harold Hall Quarry Beach in Batavia, except this beach is obviously on a natural lake, and it's ringed by trees and homes. Lovely, but not new.
Then my nearly 4-year-old daughter ran pell-mell into the (not at all cold) water and the huge smile on her face at seeing the beach and the sand and the kids and the lifeguards and the slides in the water (more on that later) made me put aside any concerns and quickly join her.
Since it's a real beach, the water is naturally zero-depth entry. There is quite a wide body of water before you hit the buoys that mark that water beyond that point is deeper than 3 feet. After that, you have another wide body of water before hitting the 5-foot buoys.
The are two large inflatable slides in the water (one in the deeper end) and then both in the shallow end, two "aquaglide splashmats." They're kind of like a slip 'n' slide, except anchored on top of the water. The "tweens' especially loved running and sliding all over these mats, but when they were somewhat empty, my preschooler had a blast playing on them, too.
I was really impressed with the lifeguards. This is a large body of water, but there were at least six on duty at all times, and they really kept an eye on everything and tamped down the horseplay from some of the older kids. They took one break while we were there, and so we used that time to get ice cream, check out the playground and play in the sand.
We ended up spending nearly 3 1/2 very happy hours at the Main Beach in Crystal Lake. When we finally left, the sun was starting to dip, and shining across the water, it looked just beautiful. I wished we had packed a picnic dinner ... we'll just have to return another time.
The Takeaway: So my daughter and I had a great time at Crystal Lake Beach, and I wouldn't hesitate to make the trip again. But during our outing, I made chit-chat with other families, telling them that we'd come up from Geneva for the day, that it was our first time at the beach and how much fun we were having.
And from two people I heard that while the beach was certainly nice, we should also check out Three Oaks Recreation Area, which just had opened last summer. Doh! So that was the place that I had heard about last year!
So on our way out of town, I decided to drive by Three Oaks Recreation Area, and the staffer at the gate let me drive a loop around it for free, trusting that I wasn't really going to park and make a run for it.
Oh my golly. This place is so gorgeous it looks like it was built for a movie set. Clear blue waters. Soft sandy beaches. Charming little islands. It turns out Three Oaks Recreation Area is a reclaimed quarry that's been turned into a spot for swimming, fishing, hiking, boating and more. We'll definitely be making a return trip to Crystal Lake to check this place out, so stay tuned!
Note: See more photos from Crystal Lake Beach in the Go West Flickr albums.