“I cannot believe we’re in Illinois.” Hang around Lake Lou Yaeger Recreation Area long enough and you’re bound to hear a first-time visitor utter those words, or ones very much like them.

The serene environment in this Central Illinois haven, which consists of 1,400 acres of water and 4,500 acres of woodlands, has a way of engulfing people’s senses and transporting them to a far-off land custom made for lovers of the outdoors. Yet, in reality, they’re a mere 5 miles from downtown Litchfield, Illinois, and only 60 miles north of St. Louis.

The choose-your-own-adventure destination offers hiking, biking, boating, fishing, camping, equestrian services, and a public beach; in other words, everything needed for an epic day outside or a weekend getaway with friends and family. Here are a few of our favorite activities, whether for the returning guest or lake-life newbie.

Hit the Beach
Open to the public from Memorial Day through Labor Day, Milnot Beach has recently been improved with new family-friendly features that make it one of a kind. In addition to dreamily floating in the water or basking on the sand, beach goers now have the option of jumping from diving boards, climbing rock walls, flying from a rope swing, playing sand volleyball, or romping on an inflatable aquatic playground.

Milnot Beach at Lake Lou Yaeger

Milnot Beach at Lake Lou Yaeger is the center of activity.

Pack a picnic lunch or grab something at the snack bar, then enjoy your meal amid stunning views of the surrounding natural woodlands. Note that alcohol is not allowed at Milnot Beach.

Explore the Water
Rent a kayak, Corcl, or a standup paddleboard from the Milnot Beach House and get a different perspective of the lake as you paddle along the shoreline. Keep your eyes peeled; you may just glimpse of an eagle, osprey, beaver, or other water critter.

If you have your own watercraft, bring it along. Visitors are welcome to use their own vessels; just make sure to stop at Marina 1 and pick up a boat pass first. With no horsepower limit, all types of recreational boats are welcome. From kayaks to ski boats and more, daily and annual passes are available.

Fishing at Lake Lou Yaeger

Lake Lou Yaeger is a great place to fish for crappie, bass, and catfish.

Boating and fishing go together like carrots and peas, and the 1,400-acre lake is a great place to hook into crappie, bass, and catfish. Whether you choose to cast from the shore or the water, make sure you have your Illinois Fishing License and follow the fishing limits and regulations posted at Marina 1.

Traverse the Trails
Want to log some miles on land? The grounds surrounding Lake Lou Yaeger make up 4,500 acres of woodlands, some of which are accessible via trail. The newest addition is the Route 66 Hike & Bike Trail, featuring approximately 6.6 miles of natural terrain that winds through the trees and showcases valleys, creeks, and glimpses of the lake. Mountain bikers of all skillsets will find something to ride, including a beginners’ loop at the south end of the trail.

Route 66 Hike & Bike Trail

The new Route 66 Hike & Bike Trail at Lake Lou Yaeger.

If you’re seeking a more leisurely stroll, check out the two well-marked loops at Shoal Creek Conservation Area, which combine for a distance of about 1 mile. Established in 1990 and consisting of 266 acres, this protected area is one of the best remaining examples of till-plain barrens and woodland communities in the state, with over 700 species of plants, 70 kinds of butterflies, and 74 species of birds.

Horse-lovers wanting a place to walk their four-hooved friends can access over 25 miles of trail from the Equestrian Campground. The terrain is suited for a variety of skill levels, complete with water crossings. Both day riders and campers are welcome.

Come for the Day or Stay
No recreation area would be complete without campgrounds, and Lake Lou Yaeger is no different. From primitive campsites, to areas with electric and water, to cabins with mattresses and air conditioning, there’s something for everyone — including those traveling with their horses. Each site at the Equestrian Campground has water, electric, and access to the shower house.

On the other hand, if camping really isn’t your thing, downtown Litchfield is just a 10-minute drive away. Here, visitors can choose from six national brand hotels and over 30 restaurants, along with all the necessary shops in case there’s anything you might have forgotten.

Big Dawg Dare in Litchfield

On course at the Big Dawg Dare 5K obstacle course and mud run.

While you’re in town, grab breakfast at Jubelt’s Bakery & Restaurant, operating since 1922; visit the Litchfield Museum & Route 66 Welcome Center; attend a Picker’s Market, open every second Sunday April through October. You may even want to plan a trip around the Big Dawg Dare, a 5k obstacle course and mud run schedule for July 20 this year. Sound a little to daring for your first time around? Check out the 5K Freedom Fun Run or the Litchfield TriathLou.

There’s no shortage of things to in Litchfield and Lake Lou Yaeger. The one thing not to miss? Experiencing the bustling surf-and-turf destination while you can this summer.

Author: Sarah Waggoner