Swimming at Chicago’s Promontory Point

Summer’s almost gone in Chicago. The winds are picking up; white caps on the lake are a little more frequent; the morning temperatures have a little more bite; the evenings a little less light. Soon, the lake will turn over, bringing the cold depths to the surface, and the air will fail to warm them.

So, it’s about time that I write about my favorite little corner of Lake Michigan: the cove formed by the southern face of Promontory Point and the 59th Street Pier, with the 57th Street Beach in between. “The Point” has been used by long-distance swimmers for decades, who appreciate its several unique features:

  • deep water – as soon as you step off the Point, you’re in 10-18 feet of water all the way across to the Pier
  • easy distance measurement – the four city blocks between the Point and the Pier are an even half-mile, for a one-mile round-trip
  • sighting buoys – May through September, a series of six buoys guide you between Point and Pier, though both structures are easily sight-able from the opposite side. These buoys also protect swimmers from boat traffic, which must stay outside the buoy line.
  • ladders – two heavy-gauge ladders are permanently welded to the southeastern tip of the Point, allowing easy water access even to the most “senior” swimmers
  • ease of access – the Point is less than a 10 minute walk from the 55/56/57th St. Metra station, and less than 5 minutes from numerous CTA bus stops and readily available parking.
  • friends, not crowds – it’s easy to find swim buddies at the Point, but it’s almost never crowded the way Ohio Street Beach can get. A regular group swims weekdays at 6am and weekends/holidays at 7am, but you can often find people around noon or early evening. Point swimmers run the gamut from those just looking for a quick dip to those who want a serious workout – and everything in between.

Here’s a satellite image of the swim area, showing approximate distances:

Most people just follow the buoy line, but you can mix things up with a trip to the 57th Street beach. Point-to-Pier is 750m as a straight line, but the buoys run slightly outside the line drawn above, which makes that path closer to 800m. The triangle shown above is a total of 1700m.

While most people swim on the south side of the Point, the north side also provides a nice (albeit shallower) swim zone, with a protected cove, small beach, and buoys during the summer. Swimming on the north side of the Point is technically illegal – it’s not an officially sanctioned “swimming beach” – but this doesn’t appear to be actively enforced.

The Point also provides natural protection against swells and chop, depending on the wind direction. With a north wind (swells coming from north to south), the north side of the Point bears the brunt of the action, which protects the south side. With a south wind, the opposite occurs.

Yesterday we had northeast winds. Here’s what the north side of the Point looked like:

And here’s what we had on the south side of the Point:

I took these pictures within 5 minutes of each other!

The water has been holding steady in the mid-60s, but the “Point penguins” know time is short, and the lake will soon become inhospitable to even the hardiest among us. “50 to 50” is oft-heard saying – that is, 50 degrees (spring) to 50 degrees (fall). Most likely, we have less than a month remaining of temperatures reliably in that zone.

After that, it’s “see you in the spring!” In the meantime, enjoy this beautiful article written for USMS by one of the morning regulars.

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