The second most populous city in Lake County is right on the lakeshore, south of Waukegan, and is known for its military heritage.
North Chicago is home to the sprawling Naval Station Great Lakes, which today serves as the United States Navy’s only boot camp.
One reason for civilians to head onto the base is for the excellent museum, dedicated to the life and service of sailors in the United States Navy.
The city has a great location, a stone’s throw from big attractions like Six Flags Great America, as well as numerous beaches on Lake Michigan.
One option just ten minutes away is the ecologically crucial Illinois Beach State Park, while the Metra system and the Robert McClory Bike Path offer useful alternatives to cars.
1. National Museum of the American Sailor
The museum at Naval Station Great Lakes is one of ten around the country operated by the Naval History and Heritage Command.
In particular, the National Museum of the American Sailor aims to capture the entire history and experience of the sailor in the United States Navy.
This is done with the help of more than 40,000 artifacts and records. The museum holds an impressive collection of uniforms and accessories, from 1900 to the present, and has a wealth of items and photographs relating to boot camp.
You’ll find out all about the life of a sailor from training through service, as well as the history of Naval Station Great Lakes and its role within the United States Navy.
2. Six Flags Great America
One of the top 20 most popular theme parks in the country is an easy drive from North Chicago.
In nine themed areas, Six Flags Great America packs in more than 50 attractions, including 15 roller coasters.
Fans of white-knuckle rides will have no lack of choices, with high-profile rides unveiled almost every season. When we wrote this list a recent arrival was The Joker, a free-spin steel coaster, in which you’ll flip head over heels up to six times.
Also part of the park is the 20-acre Hurricane Harbor Chicago, a water park that has just added Tsunami Surge, the tallest water coaster in the world at 86 feet, with a top speed of 25 mph.
Six Flags Great America is unrecognizable in the build-up to Halloweem when the park opens for Fright Fest, with frightening street performers, haunted houses and spooky twists to many of the rides.
3. Illinois Beach State Park
Both a popular summer destination and an invaluable natural site, Illinois Beach State Park takes up several miles of lakeshore, from Waukegan almost as far as Wisconsin.
You can get there in a matter of minutes from North Chicago, and you’ll encounter the only remaining expanse of beach ridge shoreline in Illinois, accessible via miles of trails.
The dunes support an incredible 650 plant species, and away from the shore are wet prairie, marshland and sandy ridges covered with black oak forest. Naturally the beach is a major draw in the summer months and there’s 6.5 miles waiting for you.
For overnight stays there’s a campground in the southern unit, as well as the 96-room Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center. Caution is advised for swimmers as there are no on-duty lifeguards.
4. Foss Park
One of the less frequented lakeside parks on the North Shore can be found in North Chicago. One reason why Foss Park is less frequented than others close by is because it doesn’t have a beach.
But still, this is a lovely and soothing place where you can amble down to the water’s edge and listen to the waves and watch the sailboats passing by.
Foss Park is in just over 30 acres, with a band shell, concession stand in summer, baseball/softball diamonds, a skate park, picnic shelters and a playground for kids.
5. Waukegan Municipal Beach
Three short minutes on the train from North Chicago and you’ll be in Waukegan where the novelist Ray Bradbury was born.
One of the city’s best features is its excellent municipal beach, backed by natural sand dunes. One mile long, the beach is free to the public all summer long, but non-residents may have to pay a fee for parking.
Just to the south is the 1,000 slip marina, and the Stiner Pavilion nearby hosts outdoor concerts on Tuesdays all summer long.
Waukegan’s dockside area is a good spot for a stroll, and Dockside Ice Cream here is loved for its hot dogs and fine selection of ice cream flavors and cone styles.
6. Lambs Farm
This wonderful non-profit organization in nearby Libertyville offers vocational and residential services to some 250 adults with developmental disabilities.
Members of Lambs Farm’s community are employed at the farm’s various attractions, which offer a perfect family day out, with a mini golf course, amusement rides, miniature train and a petting zoo, complemented by a restaurant, pet shop, bakery, country stand and thrift shop.
Lambs Farm has a long history, going back to a pet store founded by Bob Terese and Corinne Owen in 1961, giving rare employment opportunities to people with developmental disabilities.
They relocated to the current 70-acre site in 1965, turning a restored barn from the 19th century into one of the largest pet stores in the area.
7. Robert McClory Bike Path
Running the length of Lake County is a 25-mile bike path that threads several North Shore communities between the Illinois-Wisconsin state line in the north and the boundary with Cook County in the south.
Much of the route follows the course of the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, which was extended to Milwaukee in 1919 and shut down in the 1960s.
The trail runs through quiet residential areas, occasionally using low-traffic streets and passes by numerous parks and Lake County preserves.
For extra convenience the Metra line runs parallel to much of the trail, so you can always hop on a train if you run out of time or get tired. At the northern trailhead the path merges with the Kenosha County Bike Trail, while in the south you can join the Green Bay Trail.
8. Heinz Orchard
Close by in Green Oaks is a small, family-owned orchard that has opened its doors for a U-Pick season every September for more than 70 years.
Heinz Orchard is a no nonsense kind of place, offering nothing more than high-quality apples and bucolic scenery.
Several varieties are grown here, among them McIntosh, Jonathan, Empire, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious, and the farm’s website will let you know when your favorite is coming into season.
There are no admission fees at Heinz Orchards, on the condition that a member of your party has to buy a bag (½ peck or 1 peck).
9. Lake Bluff
The well-to-do village of Lake Bluff is less than ten minutes south by car, a brief Metra ride or an easy trip along the Robert McClory Bike Path.
On E Scranton Ave, by the station is a cute little downtown area with a village green. In the space of two or three blocks are cafes, a microbrewery, a wine bar and Vegan (Be Market), American (Maevery Public House) and Mexican (The Otherdoor) restaurants.
There are a few stores clustered around, including a florist, and convenient for people riding the Robert McClory Bike Path, a cycle shop.
You can take a while to enjoy the foliage at the Village Green, and a short way south is Artesian Park, home to the Lake Bluff Farmers’ Market on Friday mornings, early June through early October.
10. Independence Grove Forest Preserve
The centerpiece of this preserve just west of North Chicago is a 115-acre lake reclaimed from a gravel quarry.
The land was purchased by the county in the 1970s and went through a long-term restoration before Independence Grove Forest Preserve opened to the public in 2001.
There are 7.1 miles of trails rambling around the lakeshore and then connecting with the Des Plaines River Trail to the west.
Spring through fall you can rent kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and fishing boats for an adventure on the lake, and there’s a summer concert series at Millennia Plaza on the southeast shore.
Make sure to call in at the modern Visitor Center, which has intriguing natural history exhibits, while if the conditions are right in winter, ice skating, ice fishing and cross-country are available at the preserve.
11. Foss Park Golf Course
Open to non-residents, this public 18-hole golf course has been around for almost half a century and is one of the best kept secrets on the golf scene in the Chicago area.
Praised for its constant good condition and manicured greens, Foss Park Golf Course is a park 72, with a total yardage of 6,839 from the tips.
This is a rather hilly track, with a slope rating of 126, with elevated greens and scenic views throughout. For the last decade the course has hosted the Foss Park Open in June, attracting some of the top golfing talent in the Midwest.
12. Greenbelt Forest Preserve
In a very urbanized area, this 600-acre preserve on North Chicago’s northwest side is an oasis with a fascinating location and a riveting story to tell.
The Greenbelt Forest Preserve is on the Green Bay Road, which cuts the property in two and was used as a walking path by Native Americans and then fur traders in the 18th century.
The Green Bay Road follows the sub-continental divide, to the point where rain that falls to the east will end up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and rain falling on the west side will head for the Gulf of Mexico.
There are five miles of trails for hiking (four miles for biking and cross-country skiing), with informative interpretive boards here and there. In spring and summer there’s a fine display of wildflowers like mayapples, blue-eyed grass and shooting stars.
13. Old School Forest Preserve
After snowfall in winter, this Lake County preserve is a fantastic day out.
On the east side and visible from I-94, the preserve’s outstanding feature is its sledding hill, which has thrilled generations of kids since the land was acquired from the defunct Bradley School in the mid-1970s.
Old School Forest Preserve is just under 550 acres, in a landscape where mature oak woodland gives way to sweeps of prairie.
August is another great time to pay a visit, when native prairie species like purple milkweed and golden alexanders are in flower.
14. The People’s Choice Family Fun Center
In business since 1984, this family entertainment in Waukegan has recently moved to a new location.
In 43,000 square feet of indoor space, the center is open 365 days a year, and has a small world of fun for children, including an arcade, token redemption games and an 18-hole, blacklight mini golf course.
There are more than 150 machines at the arcade, complemented by a redemption counter with more than 1,000 prizes, from stuffed animals to candy.
Inside the center is Rocky’s Pizzeria and Ice Cream Shoppe, which has a second location on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in North Chicago.
15. Lake Carina
In the care of Lake County, this small lake by the Des Plaines River is a much-loved fishing destination. You can fish from the shore or dock, and small, non-motorized craft are permitted on the water.
Lake Carina ranks well for largemouth bass fishing, and quite well for bluegill and the minimum length limit for bass is 15”, with a 1 fish daily limit.
Running close by the river on the east bank is the Des Plaines River Trail, which starts just north in Wadsworth and follows the watercourse through almost all of Lake County and some of Cook County.