A relatively new community in Chicago‘s northwest suburbs, Lake in the Hills was incorporated in 1952.
For its first few decades this remained a modest rural community of a few thousand, before a staggering development boom in the 90s increased the population five fold in the space of a few years.
Lake in the Hills is on the Randall Road corridor, with its long sequence of shopping centers, lined with scores of chain restaurants and stores.
Open water is almost everywhere in Lake in the Hills, at protected wetlands, fens and lakes and along Crystal Creek, and at the world-class Three Oaks Recreation Area, which we’ll talk about first.
1. Three Oaks Recreation Area
Directly northeast of Lake in the Hills is a reclaimed quarry that has been turned into a multifaceted recreation hotspot.
There’s a massive body of water here, scattered with little islands, and you can rent canoes, paddleboards, kayaks, rowboats and sailboats, or head to the North Lake for wakeboarding.
You could also hit the sandy beach, which has a swimming area, splash pad and children’s playground, or try scuba diving and take courses to get your certificates.
The surrounding parkland is blessed with scenic views, and you can take a picnic in the greenery or go for lunch by the water at the dining patio.
2. Prairie Trail
Source: danxoneil / Flickr | CC BY
This 26-mile shared use path begins by the Fox River in Algonquin and continues north for the length of McHenry County as far as the boundary with Wisconsin.
The Prairie Trail passes through no fewer than eight communities, so you’ll always be close to a peaceful urban park or somewhere to eat or drink.
As well as several parks, the trail also weaves through a host of conservation areas, presenting a wealth of different habitats, from wetland to woodland, prairie and also agriculture.
Between Crystal Lake and McHenry the path shares a rail corridor with the Metra line, providing a light, family-friendly gradient, as well as the opportunity to hop on the train for a shortcut.
3. Lake in the Hills Fen Conservation Area
On the northeast side of town is a remarkable piece of nature on the banks of Crystal Creek. The 229-acre upland/wetland conservation area is composed of prairies, sedge meadows and rare hanging graminoid fens.
The latter is caused by the unusual geology of the site, causing “seeps”, where water emerges from the ground in spots where the clay is exposed.
Combined with a neighboring nature preserve, you’ll have 436 acres to explore, featuring the kind of habitats rarely seen in the Chicago suburbs.
In fact it’s as close as you can get to pre-settlement scenery. The landscape is one of moraine ridges with fine views of the verdant wetlands, all with 426 different plant species and more than 20 species of plant or animal on the state’s endangered or threatened list.
4. Sunset Park
At the foot of the Lake in the Hills water tower, Sunset Park is the venue for the village’s big summer events, which we’ll cover later in the list.
At any other time, this is a well-appointed park loaded with things to do, whether you have kids or are into sports.
As well as ample open space and a picnic area, Sunset Park has a splash pad, skate park, playground, tennis courts, soccer fields, basketball courts, football fields and facilities for baseball/softball.
There’s also a fenced bark park on the northwest side, and a seasonal skating rink in winter.
5. Randall Road
Lake in the Hills is at the north end of an important commercial corridor with a seemingly unending row of shopping centers and eateries.
Randall road continues into Algonquin, and locally you’ll find Centre at Lake in the Hills, which has an AMC theater and the likes of Cold Stone Creamery, Taco Bell, White Castle and Steak ‘n Shake.
The string of box box stores continues for miles to the south and includes Kohl’s, Costco, Target, JCPenney, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Trader Joe’s, Old Navy, Victoria’s Secret and many more, along with a Bowlero bowling alley and a slew of independent and chain restaurants.
6. Tom’s Farm Market
A stone’s throw in Huntley is a treasured family business that was established as far back as 1959.
Tom’s Farm Market specializes in bedding plants, grown in 80,000 square feet of greenhouses, and throughout the summer and fall produces a wealth of seasonal produce including asparagus, strawberries, tomatoes, sweet corn and peppers.
As well as a garden center and farm market, you’ll find a gift shop and Cheryl’s Cafe, for freshly made soups, salads and sandwiches.
There’s also a bakery, making everything from lemon blueberry bread to cappuccino cheesecake. And finally, throughout October you’ve got Fall on the Farm, with corn and straw mazes, a petting zoo and plenty of other rural-themed activities for kids.
7. AMC Lake in the Hills 12
A focal point at Centre at Lake in the Hills is this multiplex that opened in 1997. Previously owned by Kerasotes Theatres, the cinema was acquired by AMC in 2010.
Just the perfect place to watch the latest releases, all 12 screens offer stadium seating, superlative sound and comfortable leather AMC Signature Recliners.
Using the AMC app you can also order your food and drinks before you get to the cinema. Like most theaters there are special discounts on Tuesdays, as well as deals for students, seniors and military personnel.
8. Barbara Key Park
On the east side of the fen is a neighborhood park named after a former village president who strove to have the fen and surrounding property transferred to the village in the 1980s.
Barbara Key Park has a blend of natural scenery, with two bodies of water encircled by trails, paired with a variety of public amenities.
You’ve got basketball courts, volleyball courts, horseshoes, a picnic area, shelters and a great children’s playground. There’s also fishing at the two lakes, which have healthy numbers of bluegill and bass.
9. Exner Marsh Conservation Area
West of the Boulder Ridge Country Club is an ecologically rich area of marshland cared for by the McHenry County Conservation District.
In terms of habitat, this is mainly emergent shallow water marsh, interspersed with shallow ponds. Exner Marsh has become a magnet for birdlife, especially for migratory wetland bird species in the spring and fall.
You can enjoy the scenery on 1.3 miles of trails, and depending on the season, you may see great egrets, black-crowned night herons, least bitterns, blueing teals, king rails, Virginia rails, sora or yellow-headed blackbirds.
10. Scorched Earth Brewing Company
South and east of Lake in the Hills, Algonquin is one of a sequence of pretty communities on the Fox River, with waterfront parks and a cute downtown area.
About halfway to the downtown area on Algonquin Rd you’ll come to this highly-rated craft brewery. The stylish taproom at Scorched Earth offers clear views of the brewhouse’s gleaming stainless steel equipment and has upwards of 20 beers on tap.
There’s something for all palates, from hoppy IPAs to German-style Marzen, Lager, Pilsner and Doppelbock, a Belgian-style Single and Quadrupel, Stouts, Porters, Sours or curious creations like Nitro Milk Stout or sparkling ale.
Food-wise you can order delivery from one of the many local restaurants, and there are usually food trucks on weekends.
11. Hoffman Park
Still in Lake in the Hills, this expansive park is in the hands of the Cary Park District. These 265 acres were acquired in 1999 and are still mostly made up of farmland, along with wet prairie, woodland and savanna.
Over the last decade the park district has added a variety of amenities at Hoffman Park, including a fishing pond with pier, an off-leash dog play area and most recently an 18-hole disc golf course.
This lies in 36 picturesque acres, incorporating old farm fields, tree hedgerows and constantly changing topography.
12. Indian Trail Beach
One of a series of lakes in the village, the 50-acre Woods Creek Lake is surrounded by upscale residences, many backing onto the water and with their own docks.
When we wrote this list Woods Creek Lake was only available to Lake In the Hills residents, and there’s a choice of access points, at Nockels Park, Turtle Island, Butch Hagele Beach and Indian Trail Beach.
Open Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend, the latter is the most popular with a surprisingly large sweep of sand along with a roped swimming area, shelters, a picnic area and lots of grassy space behind.
13. North Wall Rock Climbing Gym
Right by the Three Oaks Recreation area is an indoor climbing gym where climbers of all abilities can train and hone their skills.
The main area here is the Bouldering Room, with more than 200 routes ranging from V0 to V10, although you can still find tougher routes that just haven’t been graded.
One section of these walls is reset each week, so there’s always a new test waiting for you. Also at the gym is an Auto-Belay/Auto-Tope Room, using the latest auto-belay systems and offering 30 routes up to V2.
A fine way for beginners to get started is with a day pass, and these are open to all, with no prior experience required.
14. Summer Sunset Festival
A landmark on the local calendar for more than two decades now, the Summer Sunset Festival is a three-day event across the Labor Day weekend.
On each of the three days you can expect live music, a carnival, midway games and lots of food and drink vendors.
These are accompanied by all kinds of other fun, like a craft fair, parade, family bingo and car show, while on Sunday night a spectacular fireworks display brings the curtain down on the festival.
15. Rockin’ Ribfest
Earlier in the season Sunset Park is also the location for a four-day event pairing good food (namely BBQ) with plenty of entertainment.
Organized by the Lake in the Hills Rotary Club, the Rockin’ Ribfest brings four days of live music, with barbecue by some of the best in the business.
The rib vendors for the event come from as far afield as Fort Worth and Atlanta, while there’s also a lineup of stands for specialty foods, BBQ hardware and other local businesses.
A carnival runs throughout the festival and there’s a crowd-pleasing bill of music, with well-known recording artists and talented tribute acts.