The park is an outgrowth of the 1909 Plan for Chicago developed by the park's namesake Daniel Burnham and often called simply "The Burnham Plan". Land for the park has been acquired by the city's park district by a variety of means such as bequest, landfill, and barter. Now, the park hosts some of the city's most important municipal structures, such as Soldier Field and McCormick Place. The park has surrendered the land for the Museum Campus to Grant Park. During the presidency of U.S. President Barack Obama, the park was the landing site for Marine One when visiting his Kenwood home on Chicago's south side.
In the early 20th century, Chicago businessman A. Montgomery Ward advocated that the lakefront must be publicly accessible, and remain "forever open, clear and free", lest the city descend into the squalor typical of American cities of the time, with buildings and heavy industry destroying any chance for beauty. Ward's influence lead to the protection of the lake shore parks system and to this day, the city's lakefront is open from the former city limits at Hollywood Ave (5700N) down to the former steel mills near Rainbow Beach (7700S).
The park lies mostly between Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan, but it crosses the drive and abuts the Illinois Central Railroad tracks in places. There is a beach at 31st Street, a skatepark at 34th Street, a stone beach at 49th Street, and a model boat pond at 51st Street in Hyde Park. The park ends with a flourish at Promontory Point at 55th Street. Footbridges and underpasses provide access to the park over the barriers of the train tracks and Lake Shore Drive. A 6-mile (9.7 km) section of the Chicago Lakefront Trail bicycle and jogging path runs the length of the park.