The next time someone calls the Midwest “flyover country,” remind them of the Great Lakes.
The five lakes—Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario—are a freshwater playground where summer memories have been made for generations. Sun-kissed days on the water transition into quiet nights aglow with twinkling stars, cozy campfires, and the soft blinks of lightning bugs (the very Midwestern name for fireflies).
The lakes span nearly 95,000 square miles and are connected by a variety of smaller lakes and rivers that make them the largest freshwater system in the world. Given their enormity—not to mention the wide selection of cities, towns, and state parks that flank these waters—choosing just one thing to do at each lake while avoiding any social media debates is an impossible task. After all, locals and frequent travelers will inevitably have strong convictions around beloved attractions on their can’t-miss list.
Nevertheless, we took on the task. Consider these U.S.-specific selections below as inspiration to plan your first (or 101st) trip to the Midwest’s stunning summer paradise.
Kayaker on Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Photo courtesy of Michael Olson/iStock.com
Where Is It: Lake Superior kisses the shorelines of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada. It’s the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area. At 32,000 square miles, it’s roughly the size of Austria.
What To Do: Paddle the waters of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a spectacular setting of multicolored sandstone cliffs, wild forest, waterfalls, and historic lighthouses on Lake Superior’s southern shores. Base yourself in the waterfront towns of Munising or Grand Marais to access this picturesque destinations in the North Woods of Michigan, one that locals would prefer to keep a secret.
Offbeat Gem: Learn a traditional craft honed over the generations by those who call this region home. The North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN, on Lake Superior’s northern shores, offers more than 400 classes. Choose from an eclectic assortment that includes sausage-making, blacksmithing, boat-making, and building your own custom fishing rod. There are even classes for kids.
Downtown Mackinac Island. Photo courtesy of Michael Deemer/iStock.com
Where Is It: The second-largest lake of the Great Lakes, Lake Huron was originally called “La Mer Douce” (the sweet or freshwater sea) by French explorers. It shares a border with Canada to the east and Michigan to the west, forming the eastern outline of Michigan’s famous “mitten” and “thumb.”
What To Do: Step back in time on Mackinac Island. This charming island in northern Michigan (population: 471) does not allow any motorized vehicles; you can only get around by foot, bike or horse-drawn buggy. Accessible by ferry from St. Ignace or Mackinaw City, the island invites a gentle slowing down from the rush-rush of everyday life. Among the highlights: peaceful hikes framed by water and forest, as well as delicious fudge-tasting in candy shops dotting its nostalgic Main Street. If you’re lucky enough to score a rocking chair on the massive porch of the Grand Hotel, you can sit back and soak up some of the island’s most stunning views.
Offbeat Gem: Gaze upon the ghostly remains of shipwrecks in Lake Huron’s “Shipwreck Alley”—and do it without strapping on any scuba gear. Shipwreck Tours based out of Alpena, MI, will take you on boats into Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where nearly 100 historic shipwrecks lie beneath the waves. You can see them through glass-bottom viewing wells aboard the boat while learning about the region’s maritime history.
Entrance sign to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The national park is located along the coast of Lake Michigan in the state of Michigan. Photo courtesy of ehrlif/iStock.com
Where Is It: Lake Michigan is framed by three states: Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. It is the only Great Lake that does not touch Canada.
What To Do: Scale the towering sand formations at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore—then hoot and holler while rolling down them. Sleeping Bear Dunes is home to the world’s largest collection of freshwater sand dunes, some towering as high as 450 feet above Lake Michigan. Located in the northwestern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, it encompasses a 35-mile stretch of shoreline that also includes sandy beaches plus 100 miles of trails, and is conveniently located off Michigan’s M-22, a beautiful drive that hugs the shoreline for more than 100 miles and winds through adorable lake towns.
Offbeat Gem: About three hours south of Sleeping Bear Dunes, you’ll find the Dutch-inspired city of Holland, Michigan. This waterfront destination embraces its Dutch roots by proudly displaying varying levels of kitsch and history in the shape of wooden shoes, tulips, and windmills. Holland is famous for its 155 miles of paved bike paths and for hosting the largest tulip party in America: the Tulip Time Festival (May), when millions of colorful flowers decorate the streets, parks, and gardens.
Marblehead Lighthouse Lake Erie. Photo courtesy of Dszc/iStock.com
Where It Is: Lake Erie’s shoreline touches the most states (Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio), while also bordering Canada to the north. It’s home to Bessie, a legendary lake creature akin to the famous Loch Ness Monster.
What To Do: Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island has been described as the “Key West of the North.” A 20-minute ferry ride from Port Clinton, Ohio, drops you at a top Lake Erie vacation spot where a golf cart can become your main mode of transportation. What awaits: a lively entertainment scene, historic sites, and ample on-the-water activities—including access to the Lake Erie Islands Water Trail, a 50-mile water trail that’s a favorite with paddlers, anglers, and nature enthusiasts. For a tranquil respite at the end of an active day, head to South Bass Island State Park for spectacular sunset views.
Offbeat Gem: Go on safari…in Ohio. African Safari Wildlife Park invites you in to its drive-through game park in Port Clinton, where animals such as giraffes, bison, alpacas, and zebras roam alongside visitor vehicles. Among the highlights: the opportunity to hand-feed giraffes from the window of your car. The park has been around for more than 50 years and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Lake Ontario, with a great view of Toronto. Photo courtesy of HonestTraveller/iStock.com
Where It Is: The smallest of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario is tucked between upstate New York and Canada.
What To Do: Base yourself in the charming port town of Sackets Harbor, NY, for an exploration of the Thousand Islands-Seaway region. Located where Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River meet, it’s a freshwater paradise for boating, paddling, and some of the country’s best trophy fishing. Tap your intrepid spirit while boating around some of the more than 1,800 islands, some of which are home to state parks, lighthouses, waterfalls, and fairytale castles with intriguing love stories attached—such as Boldt Castle on Heart Island.
Offbeat Gem: Sleep in a yurt along the shores of Lake Ontario. Golden Hill State Park, which is home to the historic Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse and is roughly one hour northwest of Rochester, offers this adventurous glamping opportunity. If you’re seeking something a little less rustic, there’s also a lighthouse cottage available to rent.