The largest city in McHenry County, Crystal Lake sits in the affluent Northwest Suburbs, around 45 miles from the Chicago Loop.
Crystal Lake is removed from the sprawl and is bordered by open farmland, while the city has a definite, walkable core downtown where you’ll find restaurants and entertainment venues like the Raue Center for the Arts in beautiful old buildings.
The city’s park district maintains some wonderful public space, not least at the namesake lake, with two beaches and the Civil War-era Dole Mansion near the west shore, which hosts a beloved festival around the 4th of July.
Now an essential part of summers in the city is the Three Oaks Recreation Area, where a flooded quarry has become a spectacular oasis for water activities.
1. Downtown Crystal Lake
On the fine old streets around Crystal Lake’s Metra station is a sensational central business district teeming with shops, eateries and entertainment spots that you cannot find anywhere else.
The sheer concentration of restaurants, bars and cafes is almost dizzying, bringing you a choice of anything from Chicago-style pizza to pub grub, Italian cuisine, Mexican, contemporary American, ice cream, hot dogs, roast beef sandwiches and pancakes.
In between are all sorts of endearing shops and boutiques, for antiques, chocolate, fashion, jewelry, pottery, shoes, books, freshly made popcorn and other specialty foods.
Injecting even more life downtown is a packed calendar of events and activities, like the Johnny Appleseed Festival in late September and farmers’ market every Saturday in the warmer months.
2. Crystal Lake Main Beach
The city’s first park sits on the west shore of the eponymous lake where you’ll find an exceptionally clean sandy beach backed by the gorgeous historic bath house.
The water at Crystal Lake is as clear as when it earned its name some 200 years ago, and you can come to swim or lounge on the sand from the start of June through Labor Day weekend.
Fees apply for the beach during the summer season, but you won’t need a pass to rent a boat for a relaxing paddle on the lake.
The park cuts a long way in from the lakeshore, and is equipped with basketball hoops, a baseball diamond, a new children’s playground, walking trails and much more.
There are concerts at Crystal Lake Main Beach every Tuesday night all summer long, and this is a fine place to see the fireworks on the 4th of July. Visit in winter for the excellent groomed skating rink.
3. Veteran Acres Park
To stretch your legs after a meal downtown you simply head for this expansive park a couple of blocks to the north. Veteran Acres Park brims with sports facilities for tennis, basketball, softball and basketball, but is also ideal for more sedate activities.
Walking paths lead around the shore of a little lake, which has a preserved wetland area that you can cross via a boardwalk.
For kids there’s a playground and an ever popular splash pad in summer, as well as a great sledding hill in winter.
On the south side is the Crystal Lake Park District Nature Center, which runs a host of nature-oriented programs.
If you just drop by you can check out the center’s exhibits, which include a superb fossil collection, a habitat wall, aquarium, a see-through beehive and a butterfly habitat.
4. Three Oaks Recreation Area
The south side of Crystal Lake is home to a series of mostly exhausted gravel quarries that were worked until the end of the 20th century.
Since 2010 one such site at the long abandoned Vulcan Lakes has been transformed into a remarkable space for outdoor recreation.
The breadth of activities on offer at the Three Oaks Recreation Area is staggering, and includes boating, open water swimming, scuba diving, stand-up paddle boarding and wakeboarding.
Vessels for these activities can be rented from the marina, while there’s also a gorgeous sandy beach to laze on during the summer, as well as a spray park for younger members of the family. Fronting the cable park is the Lakeside Bar & Grille for burgers, tacos and more.
5. Raue Center for the Arts
A downtown mainstay since 1929 is this 750-capacity theater built for vaudeville and movies. Initially known as “El Tovar”, the venue catches the eye for its adobe-style walls and terracotta tiles.
The auditorium is special too, evoking a courtyard with the twinkling night sky overhead. As with many downtown theaters the building went into decline later in the 20th century and seemed doomed, but was revived by a comprehensive two-year restoration at the turn of the new millennium.
Now the Raue Center is an important, state-of-the-art stage for live performance, from music to comedy, and over the last 20+ years has hosted Academy, Grammy and Tony award winners.
6. Lakeside Arts Park at Dole Mansion
A few steps from the lakeshore you’ll find this mansion built in the 1860s by the prominent businessman Charles S. Dole.
No expense was spared on construction, with Dole hiring European craftsmen to produce the woodwork, parquet floors and interior fittings.
Throughout the late 19th century Dole would host lavish parties here, and even built a spur line from the Chicago and Northwestern railway to his property just for his daughter’s wedding in 1883.
A grand Tudor-style annex was built in the 1920s, and nowadays the property is owned and operated by the non-profit Lakeside Legacy Foundation.
The mansion is being restored to its 1920s appearance, and is home to numerous artist studios. You can come for all kinds of events, as well as art classes, workshops and culinary classes.
An annual highlight is the fundraising Lakeside Festival on the first weekend of July, packing music, carnival rides, midway games, children’s activities and delicious food and drink into four days.
7. Colonel Palmer House
Colonel Gustavus A. Palmer (1805-1884), who served in the Patriot War of 1838, was granted a substantial amount of land in McHenry County in 1845 for his service.
When he incorporated his holdings with the nearby village of Crystal Lake, he helped found the city as we know it today.
Palmer had a successful career as a farmer here, and the house that he built in 1858 is now the home of the Crystal Lake Historical Society.
You can pay a visit for temporary and permanent exhibits relating to the city’s history, touching on aspects like the ice harvesting and pottery industries, as well as baseball and water sports.
The house itself is lovely, blending Federalist and Greek Revival styles, and you can look around the interior on a tour.
8. Prairie Trail
This 25-mile shared use trail stretches north to south through McHenry County along the right of way of the old Chicago and Northwestern Rail Line.
The Prairie Trail runs from Algonquin, south of Crystal Lake, to a little way short of the Illinois-Winsconsin state line.
The path isn’t difficult to find in Crystal Lake as it runs parallel to Main Street for several miles, before veering northeast beside Veteran Acres Park and through the picturesque Sterne’s Woods & Fen.
You can use the Prairie Trail to get onto a network of routes coursing through Chicagoland, including the Fox River Trail, which also begins close by in Algonquin.
9. Crystal Lake Farmers’ Market
At Depot Park next to the Metra station there’s a small but diverse farmers’ market every Saturday morning, June to October.
This is a fine place to come for fruit and vegetables as they come into season, and you’ll have the added satisfaction of buying them directly from the grower.
Also for sale are flowers, herbs, plants, cheeses, meats, eggs, jellies, jams, honey, pet supplies, herbal cosmetics, olive oil and a host of fresh baked goods, from bread to donuts.
10. Crystal Lake Brewing
Crystal Lake has its own craft brewery and unlike many this can be found downtown by the Metra station, as opposed to some industrial park on the outskirts where most tend to be located.
Crystal Lake Brewing prides itself on its approachable yet distinctive beers, staying faithful to the heritage of its various brews by using the appropriate ingredients.
The German Lager for instance is made with imported German hops and malt. You can call in at the taproom to sample the range, which includes an IPA (Clooney Tunes), a Belgian Wit (Backflip), a German Blonde Bock (Maibock), a Hard Seltzer (Crystal), a New England Pale Ale (Reel Hazy) and a slew of seasonal releases.
Brewery tours are available if you want the inside track, and there will often be a great food truck parked outside, especially on Fridays.
11. Lippold Park
On the north side of the lake is a public park bursting with amenities for family recreation. The foremost of these is the Lippold Park Family Golf Center, which offers two 18-hole miniature golf courses, a 60,000-square foot putting green, sand traps and a driving range with 40 lighted tee areas.
This facility is ensconced in a restored wetland and wildlife area navigated by walking and biking trails.
Also at Lippold Park are batting cages, a disc golf course, a skate park, an outdoor fitness area, a picnic pavilion, various mixed-use fields and Hound Town, a fenced dog park with separate sections for dogs of different sizes and ages.
12. Volo Auto Museum
One of a couple of high-profile attractions within range of Crystal Lake is this celebrated auto museum a few minutes away in Volo.
Laying claim to the world’s largest collection of Hollywood TV and movie vehicles, the Volo Auto Museum has no shortage of must-sees.
Check out the Bluesmobile from the Blues Brothers (1980), the Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters (1984), KITT from Knight Rider (1982-86), the Nostromo Survey Buggy from Alien (1979), the death car from the Bonnie and Clyde movie (1967) and James Bond’s Vanquish from Die Another Day (2002).
These are just a handful of the famous exhibits, while the museum’s sprawling complex includes vintage campers, antique kiddie rides, antique arcades, Disney parade cars, airplanes, life size dinosaur models, an 1885 wooden caboose, a diner dedicated to Bettie Boop and five antique malls to browse.
13. Illinois Railway Museum
Reachable within 20 minutes is the largest railroad museum in the country, set among cornfields in Union.
The Illinois Railway Museum has been going since 1957 and boasts the largest operating demonstration railroad in all of North America.
What’s extraordinary is that the museum is operated by a dedicated team of volunteers, restoring the fleet of historic locomotives and running the trains along the tracks.
The museum has numerous trolleys and trains in working order, so check the website to see which trains will be running on which days.
The calendar is also filled with special seasonal events, at Easter, Labor Day, Halloween and Christmas, while the Day Out with Thomas, on Saturdays in July, is a must for families with young children.
14. Urban Air Trampoline and Adventure Park
Back in Crystal Lake is a branch of a nationwide chain of indoor trampoline parks. Urban Air has plenty for all ages, whether you’re looking for a fun but tough workout, or an engaging way for kids to burn off some energy.
Among the attractions there’s a ropes course, a Ninja Warrior-style obstacle course, a battle beam, climbing walls, a huge indoor playground, a slam dunk playground and ProZone performance trampolines for serious acrobats.
Gymnasts, cheerleaders and anyone who wants to test some new moves should head for the APEX Trampolines, which has trampolines on almost every available surface from floor to ceiling.
15. North Wall Rock Climbing Gym
Crystal Lake also lays claim to the best indoor rock climbing facility in the area. Awaiting you at North Wall is more than 3,500 square feet of gym across three main areas.
These include a large bouldering room, as well as a workout and training facility and an auto-belay/tope-rope room.
The bouldering room is geared towards all comers, with more than 200 climbing routes ranging from V0 to V10.
These are altered by the week ensuring a new climbing experience with every visit. As well as daily passes, the gym offers a wealth of programs, from youth climbing clubs to an adult bouldering league.