Chain O’Lakes is an American state park on 1,872 acres (7.49km2) in Jo Daviess County, Illinois, United States. The park was named after the Chain of Lakes which runs through it and into Iowa. It contains ten lakes with over 100 miles (160km) of shoreline including Big Lake, the largest lake in the park at 57 acres (23ha). In total there are 17 lakes with a combined area of 285 acres (114ha), not including Sand Lake which is almost completely surrounded by water. Chain O’Lakes has been called “the most beautiful spot in America”.
The Chain O’Lakes Joint Venture Area comprises four states; Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Together they contain some 625 square miles (1,500km2), or about one-third of the total land area of the state of Wisconsin. Of this, approximately 450 square miles (1,100km2), or nearly three-fifths, is in Wisconsin proper, with the remaining 175 square miles (470km2) divided among the other three states. As of 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, its population was 2,761, down from 3,427 reported for the 2000 census. Its zip code is 51764. A major industry within the park is fishing. Common game fish include bass, bluegill, pike, perch, crappie, northerns, catfish, and muskies. Fishing licenses are required and are issued by the Fish & Wildlife Division of the Department of Natural Resources.
There are 10 designated areas in Chain O’Lakes State Park where camping can be done. These areas have access to modern restroom facilities and cold running water. Camping permits must be obtained from the park staff at the information center. Half of all campsites are available on a first come first served basis, while the remainder require reservations. The Chain O’Lakes Group Camp is located off of Beach Road north of Cedar Falls, IL. This campground provides space for 50 people in two separate groups. One group camp accommodates up to 20 people in tents, the other site can house up to 30 people in RVs or cabins. Both sites share use of a general store, playground, swimming beach, boat ramp, pavilion, and fire ring. No pets are allowed inside the campgrounds. Access to the group camp requires a key that is given only to those who make reservations with the reservation system.
Chain O’Lakes State Park has several trails open year round to hiking, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, horseback riding, and mountain biking. There is a network of trails covering more than 300 miles (480km) throughout the park. Many of these trails connect with each other and other regional trail systems like the WIS 42 Trail System, Starved Rock State Park Trails, and Lee County Regional Bike Route. To help fund a backlog of deferred maintenance and park improvements, the state implemented an entrance fee for this park. The fees, charged per vehicle, start at $10 per day for a single-day or $8 for residents with an Illinois license plate or permit plate. Fees are waived for honorably discharged veterans and Illinois residents age 62 & older and their spouses. Passes good for three days or a week are also available; annual passes good at all 22 state parks charging fees are offered at a cost of $75 for out-of-state visitors or $60 for Illinois residents.
More than 150 varieties of fungi, lichens, and mosses grow on trees and other substrates in the park. Dragonflies and butterflies abound in the summer season. Migrating whales and dolphins are sighted occasionally in the spring and fall. Over 250 bird species may be seen, both migrant and resident. Gulls, loons, grebes, ducks, bald eagles, owls, red foxes, river otters, beavers, muskrats, cottontail rabbits, skunks, and raccoons live in or frequent the park. Wild turkey, bobwhite quail, marsh rabbits, Canadian geese, snowshoe hares, porcupines, and coyotes inhabit the park but are rarely observed. Northern flying squirrels, raccoons, and timber rattlesnakes live in the forests surrounding the park. White tail deer swim across Big Lake during warm months when food is plentiful. Sand Lake is too small to accommodate more than a few paddleboats. Bigger boats need a current registration with any state. Only electric motors may be used.
The park has three boat ramps providing access to Big Lake. Boats may be launched between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., but are prohibited after dusk. Each boat stall has a launch control button to prevent large motorized boats from launching. Canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and other non powered boats are permitted. The park has a beach along Big Lake consisting mainly of gravel with a few patches of sand. Swimming is not permitted due to the high amounts of toxins present in the sedimentation basin. Bass Lake does not allow boating access via the lake itself, rather access is provided by way of a channel on the east side of the lake. Other channels provide access to Big Lake from the west and south sides. Two additional boat launches are accessible from roads outside the park. Boat docks are free, although there is a nominal parking charge for overnight guests. There are seven drive-up campsites, ranging from semi primitive to fully modern, accommodating anything from 4-40 persons. Additional walk-in sites are scattered throughout the park.
Most of the drive-up sites have access to electricity. Water and sewer services are usually available, but sometimes go unavaialble. Modern rest rooms facilities with hot showers are generally available mid-May through Labor Day. If you want your campsite to remain vacant, you must pay a daily rate. Tent and canoe sites are available year round, however, no fires are permitted in the campground. Drive-up tent and RV sites have limited availability, especially in the spring and late fall. Walk-in tent and RV sites are available all year long. Backcountry camping is allowed in certain conditions. Registration is at the information center, which is staffed part time, Monday through Friday. Entrance fees are in effect from Memorial Day weekend until September 16, 2020.
- cross country skiing
- horseback riding
- mountain biking
Chain O’Lakes offer winter activities such as:
- ice fishing
- ice skating
Mammals observed include:
- white tail deer
- ground squirrel
Some common wildflowers include:
- star thistle
- pinxter hay
- prairie clover
- eastern hemlock
Trees commonly found in the forested parts of the park include: