The Fox Waterway is a fun-filed boating playground in McHenry County’s backyard to be enjoyed by all.
McHenry County is a water recreationist’s paradise with the Fox River winding north through Algonquin to Johnsburg and into Pistakee Lake, which connects to more than a dozen that make up the Chain O’Lakes, Illinois’ largest concentration of natural lakes.
From skiing to fishing, from beaches to sandbars and from waterfront restaurants with incredible views to the natural beauty of the area, logging hours on the Fox and Chain is what summer is all about for many resident and vacationing boaters, including my family and me.
Get on Board
Anyone can spend a day on these waterways. If you don’t have a boat or waverunner, a simple online search will direct you to places on the Chain where you can rent everything from a canoe to a powerboat. Or let a captain take care of you when you book a party barge for an afternoon cruise with friends.
If you have your own boat, there are numerous paid launch sites along the Fox and Chain and a free launch at Chain O’Lakes State Park in Spring Grove. We launch at Fox River Preserve and Marina in Port Barrington and Miller’s Dream Marine in McHenry. You must have a Fox Waterway sticker or day pass to boat on these waters. Visit foxwaterway.state.il.us for more information.
Have Fun, Be Safe
You will immediately notice the friendliness of your follow boaters when you’re out on the river and lakes. People routinely wave to one another, and given the chance, will chat you up about your boat and your favorite Chain adventure.
Common courtesy to other boaters and skiers, tubers and swimmers ensures everyone has fun on the water. It’s particularly important everyone plays safe because the Chain is the busiest inland recreational waterway per acre in the United States and sees up to 60,000 people on summer weekends. For the boat’s operator, staying sober and in control goes a long way in helping keep everyone safe, as does understanding the laws.
Illinois law prohibits anyone from operating a vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). In Illinois, the blood-alcohol limit for operating a boat is 0.08 percent — the same as it is for driving a car.
Knowing and practicing boat rules and regulations will better equip you for situations unique to our waterways whether you’re dealing with narrow channels, debris, shallow spots, right-of-way, no-wake zones or using the locks. A boating education course is highly recommended for novice boaters — you can take a pay-if-you-pass course online at boat-ed.com/il.
Learning to operate a boat as an adolescent built my confidence and I highly recommend sharing that experience with your kids.
Children as young as 12 can operate a boat if they have a valid Boating Education Certifi-cate of Competency issued by the IDNR or are accompanied and under direct control of a parent or guardian, or a person at least 18 years of age designated by a parent or guardian. Everything you need to know about lawful boating in Illinois is at dnr.illinois.gov/recreation/boating/Pages/default.aspx.
Having fun on our beautiful waterways also means being respectful to the environment. “Leaving waterways the way you found them — or in a better condition than you found them — allows for future generations to enjoy them as much as you did,” said Greg L. Behm, superintendent, Chain O’Lakes State Park.
Beginning in the 1890s, the Chain became a popular retreat destination for Chicago’s wealthiest and most powerful businesspeople, politicians and even gangsters. Many grand resorts popped up during that time, but closed after the Great Depression.
A few, stunning landmarks remain from that era, including a private residence, Rose Villa.
After the Depression, summer cottages began converting to permanent residences.
“The great opportunity for the lakes and boaters with resorts on the lake disappeared when the area became so popular that they were bought up by families that now have their own homes on the lakefront,” said Linnea Pioro, executive director of the Fox Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.
The good news is, quite a few property owners rent out their cottages. Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com) is a reputable online resource complete with user reviews for those wishing to lodge on the waterfront. The key, however, is to book early.
My family used vrbo.com last year to book a great little ranch in McHenry on the Upper Fox and not only enjoyed adventures on water, but on land. McHenry’s River Walk is a great way to see the Fox River on foot. “The point where Boone Creek and the Fox River is joined [features] flowers and plants, as well as events,” said Kay R. Bates, president, McHenry Area Chamber. “Folks have the opportunity to walk the River Walk visiting McHenry’s downtown with unique restaurants and quaint boutiques.
“Boaters will enjoy docking and spending time in McHenry’s as they engage store owners and [restaurateurs] or just relax and watch the ducks float by from a River Walk gazebo.”
For a special lodging experience on Fox Lake, the Roxana Bed and Breakfast Hotel (theroxana.com) is a Victorian-style building established in the early 1900s as the Krasny Resort, according to “Postcard History Series: Fox Lake” by Paul J. Jakstas.
“It offers their lovely porch to sit out and view the lake, plus have your boat dock right there,” Pioro said.
There are many hotels that are convenient to the waterways. Check out Visit McHenry County for accommodations.
Great Grub on the Water
Port Edward Restaurant
Location: Lower Fox, 20 W. Algonquin Rd., Algonquin, 847-658-5441, portedward.com.
Go for: Seafood; outdoor dining in the summer.
Location: Lower Fox, 3505 S. Wright Rd., McHenry, 815-455-1444, facebook.com/kiefs.reef.
Go for: Bar food, sand volleyball and music.
Location: Lower Fox, 614 Rawson Bridge Rd., Port Barrington, 847-639-9468, brokenoar.com.
Go for: Bar food, beer garden, live music and skydeck dining.
Location: Upper Fox, 801 N. River Rd., McHenry, 815-578-9600, snuggerychicago.com/mchenry.
Go for: Broasted chicken and sports bar atmosphere.
After the Fox
Location: Upper Fox, 1406 N. Riverside Dr., McHenry, 815-344-3760.
Go for: Friday fish fry, English- and Irish-style pub food and a great view.
Location: Upper Fox, 1211 N River Rd., McHenry, 815-385-2014, vickiesplace.net.
Go for: Tiki-bar themed outdoor dining and burgers.
Location: Upper Fox, 3312 N Chapel Hill Rd., Johnsburg, 815-271-5204, epicdeli.com.
Go for: Gourmet subs, paninis and cheesecake.
Location: Fox Lake, 38283 N. Bolton Place, Antioch, 847-395-3569, captainsquartersmarina.com.
Go for: Bar food, kids’ playground, volleyball, basketball, horseshoes and regular special events.
Antonio’s Grill on the Water
Location: Fox Lake, facebook.com/AntoniosGrillOnTheWater.
Go for: Brats, Polish sausage, Italian beef, hot dogs, chips, ice cream, pop, homemade chips and salsa, and bags of ice.
El Puerto Mexican Restaurant
Location: Fox Lake, elpuertorestaurant.net.
Go for: Fine Mexican food for lunch or dinner, award-winning margaritas, fun atmosphere, great view.
Location: Grass Lake, Antioch, 847-395-3804, blarneyisland.com. Accessible only by boat — shuttle service is available from Port of Blarney at 27843 W. Grass Lake Rd., Antioch, 847-395-4122.
Go for: Bar food, music and dancing, party atmosphere, boat races and more.