Wilmette South Beach at Gillson Park to open for swimming this summer

Wilmette residents will now have the chance to enjoy the waters of Lake Michigan at Gillson Park’s South Beach, in addition to the regular beach area, after the Wilmette Park District announced earlier this month it will open the beach for swimming this summer.

South Beach, which is just north of the dog beach, has been historically closed for swimming, with the village citing dangerous conditions and a lack of lifeguard personnel. Park District staff worked through the 2023 off-season to add a slatted dune fence to indicate safe entrances while adding lifeguards and support staff.

“We’re so happy to move forward and implement these additions to enhance the South Beach experience for our guests,” said Wilmette Park District Lakefront Manager Megan White. “We hope our South Beach fans will enjoy the new place to swim, stroll and play in the sun.”

Wilmette Park District Executive Director Steve Wilson said the beach was previously open admission because it was not designated as a swimming beach. South Beach, which sits next to village swimming beach Gillson Beach, was more passive and was not manned by lifeguards.

But the COVID-19 pandemic saw an increase in unsafe behavior at the beach, according to Wilson, with large crowds flocking to the free beach, often bringing coolers of prohibited alcohol. Without checkpoints for entrance or fencing in place, people could walk right up to the water.

“It became in that timeframe, the summer of 2020, a crowded area,” Wilson said. “Eventually we looked at the crowds and determined that we might just be the site of a (COVID) super spreader.”

Fencing was put in place to minimize crowds and was eventually removed, but the behavior continued.

According to the news release, police have been called several times to the beach to intervene.

Wilson said incidents began getting “a little scary,” saying they were typically caused by young adults, as opposed to the usual teenager who will argue but inevitably comply with what they’re told. Police were called “way too often over the last couple years” during instances where attendees refused to listen to Park District staff and follow village rules, he said.

“We feel awful that incidents and groups of people are making us feel we need to do this,” Wilson said. “We’re really trying to reduce the points of conflict between staff and public.”

The Park District faced a similar situation in 2012 when large crowds became difficult to control, leading it to consider enclosing the beach with fencing, but received pushback from residents. About a dozen residents have reached out to the Park District saying they aren’t in favor of the new plan.

“We’ve put our best plan together,” Wilson said. “If we see the plan isn’t working well and it needs to be adjusted or, heaven forbid completely abandoned, we’ll do that. It’s really our job to serve the public the best we can.”

People are still permitted to enter the beach and walk the lakefront free of charge, but if beachgoers come to the beach intending to swim, it will cost some.

Swimming will open Memorial Day weekend at a cost of $5 per Wilmette resident and $10 per non-resident. Admittance can be paid via credit card at the beach entrance. Cash will not be accepted as a safety precaution for staff members.

Everyone at the entrance will be asked to pay but if staff is told the guest is just walking to the water’s edge, staff will determine if this is true. Wilson said this is usually determined by if the guests are carrying chairs and other items that indicate a long stay. He also stated this is protocol at other swimming and sailing beaches in the village.

Swimming is included for residents with a season pass. Kayaks can also be launched from the beach at no charge.

“Everyone is still welcome on South Beach,” Wilson said. “This is not in any way designed to restrict people’s ability to access the property. It’s to control it and make it a better environment.”