Less than an hour east of St. Louis you can explore Illinois’s largest manmade lake. Carlyle Lake is a popular lake for sailing, camping, fishing, hiking, and more. There are several state parks and recreation areas located along the shores of the lake with Eldon Hazlet being the largest. This recreation area is a great spot to spend a day or weekend on the lake without having to travel far. Read on for a family travel guide to both Carlyle Lake and Eldon Hazlet State Park.
About Carlyle Lake
Carlyle Lake History
Carlyle Lake had its start when a group of local citizens formed the Kaskaskia River Valley Project in 1933 to discuss solutions to frequent flooding in the area from the Kaskaskia River. Work was delayed due to World War II until the 1950s. At that time, an attorney, Eldon E. Hazlet helped to form the Kaskaskia Valley Association for the purpose of convincing the public of the need for the lake. In 1957, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a comprehensive plan for the Kaskaskia River Project and construction of the Carlyle Lake Project was completed in April of 1967.
Activities at Carlyle Lake
There are many types of recreation offered at Carlyle Lake. You can explore both on and off the lake.
Carlyle Lake has a nice and newer Visitor’s Center. You can obtain maps and info about visiting the area and learn about the history of the dam construction and the area wildlife. Kids will love the interactive exhibits, climbing through atree log, and viewing a real bee hive! Hours vary by season but the center is open now for the summer daily 10:00 A.M. – 6:00 P.M.
Boating & Fishing
Carlyle Lake offers a wide range of amenities. Boating is popular and the lake is known as one of the top ten sailing lakes in the country. Several marinas also offer boat and kayak rentals if you don’t have your own watercraft. Fishing is also a popular activity. We don’t fish so I can’t help with any info on the best spots!
Camping at Carlyle Lake
We aren’t campers ourselves, but have many friends and family members that love to camp at Carlyle Lake. There are several campgrounds available, both privately owned as well as the public campground at Eldon Hazlet State Park. This campground is one of the largest in entire state with shaded and lakeview sites available. Both tent and RV sites are options and the park also features a store, pool, and playground.
Carlyle Lake Beaches
The area also offers several sandy beaches for play or swimming. We tend to prefer Keyesport or Dam West beaches. Both have restrooms and playgrounds and Dam West also has showers. Keyesport is located more on the northwest side of the lake while Dam West is on the southwest side, near the Visitor’s Center. Dam West can be crowded on summer weekends while Keyesport remains quieter.
The beaches have roped off areas for swimming. Just remember this is Illinois and the soil is sandy and silty and the water is not the clear spring fed rivers you may find in other Midwest areas. So don’t expect crystal clear waters here, but it’s perfect for kids to splash and play.
Biking at Carlyle Lake
Scenic biking is an option along the Carlyle Bike Trail. This trail includes a mix of paved dedicated bike or pedestrian paths along with rural road routes. A fun place to start is near the old General Dean Suspension Bridge just off Route 50 at the Kaskaskia River.
Carlyle Lake Hiking Trails Near the Dam
Carlyle Lake offers many trail options for all abilities and levels including quite a few ADA accessible or stroller friendly paths.
Kaskaskia River Trail
- Distance: 1.5 mile loop
- Difficulty: 1/5 on river section, 2/5 for stairs up and down dam.
- Scenic Value: 4/5. View a historic bridge, the lake, and spillway. Nice sunset hike.
The Kaskaskia River Trail is part of the Carlyle Lake Bike Trail system. However, this is a great path for walk as it’s mostly flat, paved, and short. Kids will also enjoy it because of the playgrounds along the way!
We like to start this trail at the parking area on the east end of the General Dean Suspension Bridge next to where Highway 50 crosses the Kaskaskia River. There is a parking lot and vault restrooms here. The bridge is an attraction in itself. Originally built in 1859 to cross the Kaskaskia River, the bridge was restored in the 1950s and remains open as a pedestrian bridge today.
After crossing the bridge, the paved trail follows along the river and dam spillway. There are flush restrooms and a playground closer to the spillway that remain open all year.
You can turn around at this point if you have a stroller, or take the steps up to the top of the dam for a great view of the lake and the spillway.
Cross the dam and head down the steps on the other side of the spillway channel. Another playground and set of restrooms is located here. Follow the parallel river trail back towards the trailhead, passing over a pedestrian bridge at the end.
Willow Pond Nature Trail
The Willow Pond Nature Trail is a 0.25 mile paved loop around a pond near the Visitor’s Center. This path is ADA accessible and features interpretive signs. We hope to check it out on our next trip to Carlyle!
Little Prairie Nature Trail
Another path we still need to explore, this 0.75 mile loop includes both prairie and hardwood forest to explore. The trailhead is located in the Dam West Recreation Area.
This nature trail is located east of the Carlyle Lake Dam. The 0.5 mile loop passes through a beautiful oak-hickory forest along the shoreline of Carlyle Lake and includes one of the best views of the lake. Trailhead entrances at located at both McNair Campground and Lakeview Access.
Eldon Hazlet State Park Trails
Eldon Hazlet State Park is located on the west side of Carlyle Lake. The park offers over 9 miles of hiking trails plus a park office, campground, playground, cottages, boat ramps, and pool.
Wetland Education Trail
- Distance: 0.5 mile loop
- Difficulty: 1/5. Flat and ADA accessible trail
- Scenic Value: 4/5. Views of wetlands and a lovely pond with flowers.
The Wetland Trail is a great starter trail and perfect for the whole family. The path includes interpretive signs along the concrete paved loop.
The trail passes by a wetland area with cypress trees. The highlight is a wooden boardwalk that extends out on pond with a type of water lilies. (One of the boards does need replacing on the boardwalk so use caution!)
We saw dozens of frogs on the leaves and in the pond. It was a great short hike with a big reward.
There are some areas where the vegetation along the sides of the trail was very tall and starting to encroach on the path. Just a warning if you are taking a stroller, wheelchair, or wagon on this trail.
- Distance: 1.0 mile loop.
- Difficulty: 1/5 on paved section to cemetary. 2/5 on remainder of loop.
- Scenic Value: 3/5. Interesting history, woods, and a lake overlook.
The Pawnee Trail leaves from large parking lot with a vault toilet. You can take the flat concrete trail to see the cemetery first or head out on the unpaved section first. We opted to hit the unpaved portion and started on a mowed grassy path on the edge of the parking area next to a trail sign.
There were a couple downed trees from recent storms we had to pick out way through. Other than that, the trail was well maintained and mowed. It travels through the woods until it reaches the lake where it turns left to run parallel along a ridge above the lake.
Right before the trail turns left again near the cemetery, there is a nice overlook view of the lake and a bench.
The Burnside cemetery is well worth a visit whichever trail you take to get there. It contains the gravesites of several families who passed away between 1832 and 1868. The stones are sometimes difficult to read, but the young ages of their deaths give a glimpse in to how difficult life was for these early settlers.
There are several stones that date to the fall of 1860 which makes me wonder if they were all struck by the same illness.
You can follow the paved path back to return to the parking area, or you can continue parallel to the lake to hike on the Cherokee Trail which has three loops.
- Distance: Three loops that total 3 miles. Loop 3 is the shortest and Loop 1 appears the longest.
- Difficulty: 3/5. Fairly flat with minor hills. We encountered several downed trees.
- Scenic Value: 3/4. Mostly a pleasant walk in the woods. Some lake views, but trees block part of the view.
The Cherokee Trail leaves from the same parking area as the Pawnee Trail. In fact, Loop 3 of the Cherokee Trail shares that same paved path to the Burnside Cemetery before turning left and heading in to the woods. We hiked Loop 3 and Loop 2.
Starting from the cemetery, Loop 3 turns left and heads parallel to the lake along a dirt path. Eventually we ran into Loop 2 and opted to keep right to follow Loop 2. A left turn would have headed back to the parking area.
There is a wooden footbridge along part of Loop 2 near a small inlet from the lake.
We had to pass through some downed trees in this section as well. Otherwise the path was fairly wide and not too overgrown as I had feared.
There are some distant lake views and the map shows several overlooks, however, trees block part of the views.
We opted to skip hiking Loop 1 as the scenery appeared that it would be similar to what we had already seen in Loop 2 & 3. The nice thing about this trail is that each loop leads back to the parking area so you can make your hike as short or long as you wish.
The trailhead for this 2.5 mile loop trail is located by the park office. However, it can also be accessed from the campgrounds and from a spur off the Pawnee Trail. We did not hike this trail, but it travels through the middle of the park through a variety of wildlife habitat.
This 1.5 mile loop trail is wheelchair/stroller accessible. The trailhead is located across from the campground store. The concrete path loops through a restored prairie and past a fishing pond open for bank fishing.
Another fully accessible trail, this path makes a 0.5 mile loop through a three-acre prairie restoration area across from the park office. More than 50 species of native prairie plants can be viewed on this trail.
A local Boy Scout developed this trail to earn his Eagle Scout award in 1996. The Eagle Trail offers an easy 0.75 mile loop along level terrain near the Illini campground.
Additional Things to Know
- State parks such as Eldon Hazlet are free. However, some Corps of Engineers recreation areas outside the state park (such as Keyesport and Dam West) do have daily fees of $5 per vehicle with kiosks to pay. However, if you have a Nationals Park Pass such as an America the Beautiful annual pass or a lifetime pass, the fee is waived.
- All hiking trails in Eldon Hazlet State Park are closed Wednesday – Sunday from early November to early January for controlled pheasant hunting.
- You can find a map of Eldon Hazlet trails here and a map of other Carlyle Lake trails here.
- Click here for a biking trail map around Carlyle Lake.
- You can also find water trail routes here if you own or want to rent a kayak.
- Sunscreen and bug spray are highly recommended. We didn’t have much of an issue with bugs, but I’m sure mosquitos can be a problem with all the water. Also keep an eye out for poison ivy and snakes.
- Pack out what you bring in and follow Leave No Trace principles to keep nature wild.
More to See
The town of Carlyle has some great playgrounds and parks. We found all the parks to have clean and updated playgrounds and restrooms.
Come back to Carlyle in December for their free (donation only) drive-through light display. My kids love it! There are also some lights near the entrance you can explore by foot for some great holiday photo-ops.
If you are heading in to town from the west, Breese also has a beautiful and inclusive playground called Hannah’s Playground with a cute farm theme.
Have you ever been to Carlyle Lake?