The Run Down

Here's a fun fact for this guide. About 425 million years ago, Chicago was actually located south of the equator in a tropical sea. You can see evidence of that in small pocket of Lake Michigan where the compressed remnants of a coral reef still sit today. It's an area that is teeming with underwater life, and we'll be grabbing our snorkel gear and exploring it with this guide. After we step out of the water, we'll end our outdoor adventure exploring a quiet bird sanctuary tucked back into a small corner off Lakeshore Drive. Here are the details:

1. Snorkeling @ Morgan Shoal and the Silver Spray Shipwreck

2. Nature Walk @ Burnham Nature Park

1. Morgan Shoal and the Silver Spray Shipwreck

About 200 feet from the shoreline at 49th and Lakeshore Drive is an underwater eco system that is unlike any other around the lakefront. It’s called the Morgan Shoal, and unlike most of Lake Michigan which has mostly mud and sand at the bottom, this 30 acre area is covered in a sheet of limestone rock and is home to a variety of fish, plants, and other sea life. This limestone rock was once a massive coral reef that stretched all the way to Niagara Falls, but after millions of years, we’re left with the Morgan Shoal.

In addition to sea life, Morgan Shoal is also home to a sunken ship.

Before we get going, here is a checklist of resources to review to ensure it’s safe to go.

Bacteria Levels – This is a link to the Illinois Department of Public Health. They monitor bacteria levels at all the public beaches in Illinois. The closest beach to where we are swimming is Oakstreet Beach. There will be an advisory posted on this site if bacteria levels are too high.

Swim Risk – This is a good site to check out to see how rough the waters are. It tells you exactly whether there is a low, moderate, or high swim risk. Wave heights and other information is also provided at this site.

As far as equipment goes, I just brought goggles and a snorkel. If you have some sort of flotation device like a boogie board with with a long string that you can attach to yourself, that is probably a good idea since you are swimming about 200 feet from the shoreline. More details to get you going are below.

47th Street Bridge

If you’re driving, the closest parking is at 47th and Cornell. There is a paid parking lot there. It’s also the entry point for our last stop in this guide.

From here, you can just walk down 47th street which will take you to the bridge crossing Lake Shore Drive and to the shoreline.

Once you make it to the Lakeshore Trail, head south for less than a half-mile or until you see the building pictured below with the mural. Before that building, you’ll see a paved walkway that will take you to the shoreline where we’ll begin our dive. 

Water Front

The waterfront here is on a pebble beach with some huge rocks hugging the shoreline. To the north is the Chicago skyline, and to the south, you’ll likely see some families and other swimmers on a warm summer day. 


To get into the water, you’ll be walking on huge rocks which can be slippery so be very careful. After you pass through the first set of large rocks, the shore bed just sinks, and you’ll probably be in about 5 ft of water. The water was crystal clear the day we dove, and if you looked carefully enough, you could see small fish swimming between the rocks.

To give you a frame of reference for the conditions of our swim, the outside temperature was around 85 degrees and the water was between 68-70 degrees. It was definitely very cold when we first dipped our toes into the water, but it felt very refreshing after few minutes.

Keep swimming straight out, and you’ll see the floor of the lake start to get covered in plant life. We didn’t make it out as far into Morgan Shoal as we would’ve liked, because we didn’t bring any sort of flotation device with us, and being that this was my first time open swimming in the lake, I wanted to be a bit more cautious.

If you’re more adventurous, and better prepared than us, keep on swimming straight out and see if you can find what’s left of the Silver Spray, a ship that sank about 100 years ago. What’s left is a propeller and the boiler of the ship. When Lake Michigan water levels were a little lower, you use to be able to see the boiler sticking out of the water. Unfortunately, it’s not visible from the surface so you have to do some diving to find it.

2. Burnham Nature Park

After you finish your water expedition, and head back to the parking lot on 47th and Cornell, you’ll notice at the back of the parking lot is the entrance to a small nature park. Had we not parked here to go to the lake, we would have never known about it. We explored it, and thought it was worthwhile to share.

If you’re not too tired from snorkeling, it’s definitely a nature sanctuary worth visiting. The entrance is behind this parking lot, and there are no views of this place from the street. It’s also sandwiched between Lakeshore Drive and some train tracks, so it’s well hidden from the outside. That’s perhaps why we didn’t run into one person while we were there.

As you make your way through, there are a series of paved and unpaved trails. At one point, you’ll find yourself on an elevated wooden walkway that cuts through a field of wild grass and other vegetation. When I saw it, I thought to myself, “damn, this would be a crazy romantic spot for a picnic.” Anyways, I’ll leave that note for you if you’re in need of a “crazy romantic picnic spot.”