Few images better capture a summer Saturday than sitting on a boat with a beer in hand. And it’s best enjoyed in Illinois’s best-kept secret: a vibrant boating community just over an hour from the Windy City.
The Chain O’Lakes in Illinois’s northeast corner hosts the gamut of summer lake recreation, from spirited bars and restaurants accessible along the chain, to over 6,500 square acres of water for cruising, fishing, and water recreation. The area is riddled with marinas and boat launches for boat owners to access. A collection of boat rental locations welcomes access for non-boaters, too.
“The Chain” stems from the Fox River, connecting 15 lakes through a series of small channels. Its largest lakes, Fox Lake, Petite Lake, Buff Lake, Lake Marie, Grass Lake, and Pistake Lake, can be accessed in one afternoon cruise. The narrow channels that connect the lakes require boaters to pass in close quarters under no wake. However, this is a must-see people-watching social event on its own.
A friendly wave may be exchanged or met with a cool off from an oversized water launcher in a fun display of camaraderie born from hot days on the channel. Fake palm trees, comical statues, party lights, and Caribbean-inspired decor adorn piers and houses along the channels, celebrating the Chain’s active boat culture. Loud country music and cheerful, boisterous conversation join the sounds of deep-humming motors passing through.
The lake offers endless opportunities for a dip to cool off, but the best spots to do so are at the sandbars on Petite Lake and Lake Marie, which offer waist-high, and in some spots even thigh-high, swimming depths. Petite Lake’s sandbar is relatively calm to begin the day but turns into a nighttime hot spot as the sun goes down. Its location in a cove right at the mouth of the channel between Fox Lake and Petite Lake shields it from too much wind or rough waters, making it an ideal spot for larger gatherings. At the northern end of the chain, Lake Marie’s sandbar sits in a much larger lake that can be subject to rougher waters depending on winds. It gets crowded as well, but can offer a bit more family friendly atmosphere.
For a deepwater swimming option, Dunn’s Lake (accessible through two small channels adjacent to Nippersink Lake) is the area’s best kept secret. Tranquil residential homes and mature wooded neighborhoods shelter this calmer area of the Chain. Its perma-calm waters offer consistent conditions for water sports, and therefore frequently invite skiers, tubers, and wakeboarders. Yet in the middle of the lake, you’ll often find anchored boats with swimmers bobbing by to soak up rays in bathwater-warm water temperatures.
Water sports aren’t limited to Dunn’s Lake, but are best accessed throughout the chain in the early morning before the heavy boat traffic begins. (Extreme tubers that crave a rough ride on tumultuous waters can be seen throughout the day.) The chain does offer a few calmer spots tucked away from boat traffic for those that didn’t catch the early morning stillness. Fox Lake’s Mineola Bay sits outside of heavy boat traffic lanes and can offer safe, calmer waters for mid-day water sports enthusiasts. Stanton Bay, also off of Fox Lake, is another low-key escape for boaters looking for a slow cruise away from the noise.
Perhaps one of the biggest draws of the Chain O’Lakes is the many opportunities to dock up at bars and restaurants throughout the chain. Establishments offer a range in price and cuisine, but most have the outdoor lakeside dining boaters crave.
Lakeside bars and restaurants typically offer access via vacant dock space, so boaters can glide in and tie up for a drink or meal before continuing their cruise. Stops range from classic bar food and a fun summer atmosphere at places like Famous Freddies, to full-scale entertainment stops like Captain’s Quarters, with playgrounds, volleyball courts, and live music.
For a sit-down meal on the dock, Fairmont Shores overlooks Fox Lake and offers views of beautiful summer sunsets over the lake. Another something-for-everyone spot for dinner accessible by boat is Dockers. It’s walking distance from downtown Fox Lake, so if you’re not full after the meal, you can walk two blocks up to Shee Goo Rolled Ice Cream for some dessert before getting back on the boat. And if you’re tired of the burgers-and-fries fare, you can grab a margarita and tacos at El Puerto Mexican Restaurant on the peninsula between Nippersink Lake and Fox Lake.
A discussion of the Chain absolutely must include Blarney’s Island, a bar built on a dock in the middle of Grass Lake coined “Key West of the Midwest.’’ This Caribbean-style party bar is one of the most popular stops for boaters in the area. Built in 1901 to attract hunters, the bar/viewing area—then called “Shorty’s Place”—has now evolved into a summertime party hotspot hosting live music, weekly boat drag races, and events like Blarney Gras, ‘80s weekends, and Electric Island EDM. With a shuttle boat from Port of Blarney, this spot is even accessible without a boat. This escape to island time with tropical drinks and loud music in the middle of the lake is a definite must-stop on the boating chain.
The Midwest is host to some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Regardless of how you choose to enjoy the area, from the gas attendant to the bartender to fellow swimmers at the sand bar, you’ll be greeted with a smile and a joke. Everyone’s on lake time at the Chain O’Lakes, a boater’s summer paradise.
Laura Bengs (she/her/hers) is a midwest-based freelance journalist and copywriter covering parenting, food and beverage, education, culture, and entertainment. You can find her at @BengsLaura or laurabengs.com.