Montrose Harbor: The North Side’s Natural Playground

Photo Credit: Zane Edwards

Located at the north end of Lincoln Park (at Montrose and the lake), Montrose Harbor has a little something for everyone. Home to Chicago’s largest beach, you can expect to find tons of people enjoying summer’s warm days at this lakefront spot. However, humans aren’t the only creatures that will enjoy this space.

Montrose Beach is home to one of Chicago’s two dog-friendly beaches. The fenced-in area at the beach’s northern end creates a space where leashless dogs are allowed to soak in some sun and play in the Lake Michigan waves. Don’t have a pooch but still want to see some critters? Check out “The Magic Hedge,” a nature preserve along the harbor. Originally the site of missile silos and army barracks from the ’50s through the ’70s, “The Hedge” is now an internationally recognized birding area. On an average day the spot is said to attract more than 50 species of birds, though “experienced birders” have reported hundreds of unique species in one visit. Nice to see something other than missiles flying around The Harbor. The National Audubon Society declared the Chicago lakefront as an “Important Bird Area” in 2007.

Not into birds? The Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary can still provide the magic of bunnies. Maybe it’s something in the honeysuckle, or maybe the lepus are just a bunch of avian enthusiasts, but never have I seen more rabbits in one place. A stroll through the area’s “social trails” will reveal packs of rabbits, jutting from bush to bush with little regard for human activity.

Wide stone steps along the curl of The Harbor lead down to the water and provide excellent spots for fishing. A hot spot for perch, Montrose Harbor is often populated by fisherman trading tips and stories. Larger gatherings of anglers occur on the first day of smelt season, as a tradition of early morning beers and brats has been alive for decades. The Harbor also features its own bait shop, Park Bait Co.

At the eastern end of Montrose Beach sits 11 acres of dedicated natural habitat known as The Montrose Beach Dunes. The dunes naturally formed after the Park District stopped grooming a section of the beach, which now contains foredune and globally-imperiled panne habitat and is home to rare local plants and over 150 species of birds. These dunes were designated as an Illinois Natural Areas Inventory Site in 2005,

As every good Chicagoan will tell you, fun outdoor activities aren’t limited to the summer. If you’re looking for some cheap wintertime fun, load up your whiskey flask (or hot chocolate thermos) and head to Montrose Harbor for some of the city’s best sledding. Located near the harbor, Cricket Hill is probably the north side’s most popular sledding destination. You can get the full neo-Rockwellian experience here, as Cricket Hill gives you a backdrop of smiling faces, waves from the lake and the grandeur of Chicago’s skyline. Yeah, it’s like being in a snow globe that you might find at one of O’Hare’s gift shops.

Montrose Beach’s recently remodeled beach house features a 3,000-square-foot patio deck, as well as one of three full-service restaurants at a Chicago beach.  The Dock offers up some great burgers, tacos and wraps, as well as fish n’ chips. Fish n’ chips at the beach? Perfect.

If you’re not into hitting up a sit-down restaurant, keep an eye out for the dozens of independent vendors who patrol The Harbor. On sidewalks and walking trails you can find people selling elotes, spiced mango slices, fruit cups, tacos, cotton candy, paletas and ice cream cones.

Ah, and no discussion of Montrose Harbor would be complete without talking about, well, the harbor. Not only are there over 630 docks, mooring cans and star docks at Montrose, but it’s also one of the few beaches where patrons may launch non-motorized watercraft (kayaks, catamarans, etc.) into Lake Michigan.

Boat or not, Montrose Harbor is one of the best spots in the city to catch some 4th of July fireworks. The views from the beach, a boat on the lake or the top of Cricket Hill are incredible and damn-near impossible to beat.

Oh, and yes, there is swimming. The fact that it took me almost 700 words before I mentioned swimming on the list of things to do at a beach should be a nice indicator of how amazing Montrose Harbor is. While I will always consider Promontory Point to be the most magical lakefront spot in Chicago, Montrose is a close second, and certainly the most incredible on the north side. See you at the beach!

Gene Wagendorf III

About Gene Wagendorf III

Gene is a writer who has spent his entire quarter century of life as a resident of Chicago. When not exploring the city he can be found wandering flea markets and garage sales or having a cigarette between classes at Northeastern Illinois University, where he hopes to acquire a degree in the next quarter century. His favorite smells are old books and bowling alleys. His poetry (how embarrassing!) can be found in issues of Kill Poet, Ditch, Word Riot, O Sweet Flowery Roses and Vowel Movements.

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