This riverside city is on the edge of Chicago’s northwestern suburbs, around ten miles south of the Wisconsin border.
The Fox River flows down the east side of McHenry, and can be admired at riverside parks, the new Riverwalk promenade and the Moraine Hills State Park where you can watch water traffic passing through the lock.
A short way upriver from McHenry is the famous Chain O’ Lakes, and in summer you can rent a boat for a little odyssey on this waterway.
A variety of endearing small-town attractions can be found in McHenry, like a sprawling Pick-Your-Own farm, a vintage drive-in theater, a craft brewery and a scenic lake with a sandy beach.
1. Downtown McHenry
Something special about McHenry is the presence of not one but three commercial areas, all close together on Main Street, Green Street and Riverside Drive.
Over the last 20 years these have been bolstered by Tax Increment Financing and thoughtful redevelopment projects like the Riverwalk.
All three areas deserve your time for their assortment of specialty shops, restaurants, bars and service businesses.
Along these thoroughfares you’ll find a florist, jewelers, fashion boutiques, a deli, bakeries, furniture store, gift shops and collectibles.
There’s live entertainment at the Vixen, and a cosmopolitan range of cuisines from Thai to Italian, Mexican, Chinese and American contemporary dining and breakfast classics.
McHenry harnessed one of its best assets when it created this riverside promenade starting downtown at Green Street.
The paved and landscaped Riverwalk traces the banks of Boone Creek on a meandering journey east to its confluence with the Fox River.
You’ll cross a charming little footbridge before making your way to the tip of Miller Pointe, where a dock affords a lovely view of the Fox River.
The project has helped to revitalize McHenry’s downtown waterfront, and connects riverfront restaurants, bars and entertainment amenities.
3. McHenry Outdoor Theater
For a nostalgic evening of entertainment you can head to one of the last remaining authentic drive-in theaters in Illinois.
Five minutes from downtown, the McHenry Outdoor Theater is open June to October and offers two movies for less than the price of one at a regular theater.
To listen you can rent a radio for a small fee, or tune in to the theater’s FM frequency with your car radio.
The concession stand offers a variety of bites, from burgers, hotdogs, brats and pizza by the slice to hot pretzels, nachos and ice cream.
4. Chain O’ Lakes
McHenry is the southwestern gateway to a huge inland waterway on the Fox River, made up of 15 lakes, 45 miles of river and some 7,100 acres of water.
In the summer boating season the Chain O’ Lakes is a big draw for the Chicago and Milwaukee region, and is officially the busiest recreational waterway in the country, with up to 100,000 visitors on weekends.
If you don’t have your own vessel you can rent one from All Marine’s Retro Rentals on McHenry’s Riverwalk.
This business has a big choice of retrofitted vintage boats evoking the 50s and 60s, as well as refurbished pontoons, canoes, paddleboards and kayaks.
The larger, family-sized pontoons can be rented for up to eight hours, for a little odyssey on the waterway.
5. Moraine Hills State Park
There’s a recreation wonderland southeast of McHenry, covering 2,200 acres, half of which comprises lakes and wetlands.
The profusion of water makes Moraine Hills a haven for wildlife, and some 200 bird species have been recorded at the state park, including eagles and several species of migratory waterfowl.
As the name tells you, Moraine Hills’ high ground was created by gravel-rich glacial deposits at the end of the last Ice Age, and these hills and ridges are now under a mantle of woodland.
Something that makes the park so popular with visitors is its ten+ miles of paved and crushed stone trails for walking, cycling and skiing in winter.
6. Stratton Lock and Dam
From Moraine Hills State Park you can follow a trail to the east bank of the Fox River at McHenry Dam State Park.
During the boating season, some 17,000 vessels pass through the Stratton Lock and Dam here, which serves as the passageway between the Chain O’ Lakes and the navigable Fox River.
On a sunny day, this is a lovely place just to sit and watch the boats go by, and there’s an observation area and rows of benches and picnic tables on the east bank.
The dam is a popular fishing spot and at the parking lot is Fish Tales Concessions, for bait, boat rentals, bicycle rentals and food and refreshments.
7. Stade’s Farm and Market
In summer and fall there’s a world of fun at this agritourism attraction in the north of McHenry.
The farm is named after Vern Stade, who started out as a dairy farmer on this property in the 1970s before gradually introducing fruit and vegetable crops, as well as a farm market and family activities.
The Pick-Your-Own season is long at Stade’s Farm and Market, with some 20 apple varieties at the 8,000-tree orchard, as well as strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, blueberries, peppers and of course pumpkins in fall.
You can purchase all this produce and more at the farm market, along with tempting homemade specialty foods.
Finally, for eight weekends in fall Stade’s Farm becomes a theme park, featuring a petting zoo, carnival rides, a corn maze, giant slides, hayrides (when the pumpkins are ready), and much more.
8. McHenry Fiesta Days
The top family-oriented festival in McHenry County brings ten days of entertainment, family fun and great food in the mid-July.
Going back more than seven decades now, McHenry Fiesta Days is organized by the McHenry Area Chamber of Commerce and welcomes around 25,000 people every year.
For just a taste of what’s in store you’ve got a grand parade, a carnival, a classic car show, an art and street fair, a weekend-long music festival and the exclusive Cask & Barrel Night for beer and spirit connoisseurs.
9. Petersen Park
McHenry has access to the east shore of the expansive McCullom Lake, and you can visit for a swim, May through August.
Unlike in some other suburban areas, admission fees for the beach here are low, and you can also rent a variety of boats, including canoes, rowboats, kayaks and paddleboats of various sizes.
Complementing the beach is a children’s playground, sand volleyball court, picnic areas and a big grassy sweep.
Petersen Park is beautiful late in the day when the sun goes down over the lake, and is the scenic location for McHenry’s Fourth of July fireworks. Another big event here is the three-day Blues, Brews & BBQ, taking place in late August.
10. Veterans Memorial Park
On a single block, this park is close to the Fox River and has a row of war memorials on Pearl Street.
Veterans Memorial Park is the setting for several events in the summer, one being the Pearl Street Market, which takes place here on Thursday evenings.
The market coincides with a program of outdoor concerts, held at the gazebo at the center of the park.
There’s also a picnic shelter available for rental, as well as a well-maintained playground for kids at the northern, Broad Street end.
11. Volo Auto Museum
One of the area’s big days out is just a stone’s throw from downtown McHenry.
Although cars are the headline attraction at the Volo Auto Museum, there are more than 30 wide-ranging exhibits, as well as an outdoor dinosaur park with realistic lifesize models and five different antique malls.
Still, the automobiles collections are amazing and include a fleet of vehicles from popular culture, like the Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters (1984), the Bluesmobile from The Blues Brothers (1980) and the Nostromo Survey Buggy from Alien (1979).
Among the other collections are batmobiles, cars belonging to rich and famous people, horse-drawn carriages, vintage cars, tractors, Disney parade cars, antique kiddie rides and much more than we could possibly list here.
12. Volo Bog State Natural Area
Six millennia in the making, this extraordinary natural feature close to McHenry has avoided human intervention.
This makes Volo Bog the only surviving open-water quaking bog in Illinois. Bordering the bog, the state natural area also features restored prairie, savanna, marshland, shrubland and former farmland.
You can find out about the bog’s unique ecology along a 0.5-mile interpretive boardwalk, while a dairy barn from the turn of the 20th century has housed a visitor center since 1980.
For a longer walk, there’s a 2.75 mile trail through the bird-rich wetlands and meadows around the bog.
13. McHenry Brewing Company
The name, “McHenry Brewing Company” goes back a long way to a brewery established in 1860.
In 1868 the brewery relocated to the corner of Pearl and Green Streets, and for decades this part of McHenry was known as “Brewery Corner”.
The brewery was hit hard by prohibition, but did run an underground pipeline beneath Pearl Street to a local speakeasy.
The original operation closed in 1942, but the name was revived as a small-batch brewery based at the same spot in 2017.
The new McHenry Brewing Company has a handful of standards, like a Scotch Ale, American-style Pilsner and a non-alcoholic root beer, as well as a variety of sessional brews and creative new releases on Fridays.
There’s a taproom at the brewery, open Wednesday to Sunday, with a beer garden and regular food trucks,
14. Twisted Limits
This recently opened attraction in downtown McHenry combines escape rooms with a Nerf/laser tag arena.
At the time of writing there were four richly detailed escape rooms, each with a different tone, varying difficulty levels and requiring a slightly different skill set.
By far the toughest was the puzzle-oriented and non-linear Omega Hour, designed for 3 to 6 experienced players. For something more adrenaline-fuelled there’s the arena, where up to 18 players can take part in Nerf or laser battles for 90 minutes or more.