A guide to exploring Michigan’s Great Lakes

Four of the world’s greatest bodies of water lap against Michigan’s shores – Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Michigan – offering an equally impressive range of adventures…

Team Wanderlust
28 September 2022
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Michigan

Four of the world’s greatest bodies of water lap against Michigan’s shores – Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Michigan – offering an equally impressive range of adventures. Together, along with Canada’s Lake Ontario, they form the legendary Great Lakes – the largest area of fresh water on Earth. Here’s how to enjoy them, and the historic American towns in between.

Lake Superior

Three best beaches

1. Sand Point Beach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Clean, safe and accessible, Sand Point is one of the many beautiful beaches lying within Lake Superior’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, famed for its multicoloured sandstone cliffs. Named one of the “Top Five Summer Beaches in America”, it’s rumoured to have Superior’s warmest water, so dive in before sitting back to watch the sunset.

2. Agate Beach, Grand Marais

Lake Superior’s beaches are natural treasure troves of dazzling rocks, gems and minerals, and gold, amethysts and even diamonds have been spotted here. With rich bands of red, yellow and orange, agate is one of the rock hunters’ favourites, and Agate Beach in Grand Marais is one of the best places to find it.

3. Black Rocks Beach, Presque Isle Park

If you’re after more than lounging and soaking up the sun, Black Rocks Beach in Presque Isle Park has plenty to keep you busy. The rock formations offer a natural springboard to cliff jump into the lake, while the forests behind have beautiful hiking trails, and the chance to see white-tail and albino deer.

Three best outdoor adventures

1. Paddle the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

To truly experience Lake Superior’s natural beauty and peace, paddle it! There are plenty of opportunities to hire stand-up paddle boards, kayaks or canoes, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of the most exciting places to explore, with soaring cliffs, caves and rugged rock formations, including the Grand Portal and Indian Head.

2. Dive the Keweenaw Underwater Preserve

Michigan’s Great Lakes have treasures lying beneath the surface, too. The wrecks of lost ships provide fascinating snorkelling and dive sites, and the chance to learn more about Michigan’s maritime history. Keweenaw Underwater Preserve has several shallow-water wrecks dating back to the 1800s, plus the well-preserved U. S. Coast Guard Cutter, Mesquite.

3. Go wild in Isle Royale National Park

A wonderfully remote archipelago of over 400 islands, Lake Superior’s Isle Royale National Park offers exciting off-grid adventures and wildlife encounters from mid-April until the end of October. Roamed by moose and wolves, the islands have 36 campgrounds, 165 miles of hiking trails, and just a few services, so pack wisely and enjoy the wild.

Nearby towns to explore

Michigan’s oldest city, Sault Ste. Marie – known locally as ‘The Soo’ – provides a great base for exploring the Upper Peninsula’s natural wonders. Linked to its larger twin, Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, by a bridge over the St Mary’s River, the waterfront city’s Soo Locks also link Lakes Superior and Huron, with boat tours taking visitors close to the action. Gateway to Sugarloaf Mountain and incredible wilderness adventures in Presque Isle Park, Marquette city’s photogenic harbour and lighthouse offer scenic lookout points over Lake Superior; views which become even more stunning when the Northern Lights come out to play overhead. And from the lakeside town of Munising, you can hike to 17 waterfalls or through Hiawatha National Forest, take a boat tour of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and cycle alongside Superior on the H-58, which offers spectacular views of the forests’ scarlet and golden leaf displays each autumn.

Lake Huron

With striking blue water, miles of untouched sandy beaches, and five historic lighthouses guarding its shores, Lake Huron forms the easterly outline of Michigan’s famous ‘Mitten’, including the ‘Thumb’ which stretches to Saginaw Bay. The third-largest inland lake in the world, Huron is also a magnet for stargazers, with three designated Dark Sky Preserves.

Three best beaches

1. Tawas Point State Park

Known as the ‘Cape Cod of the West’, Tawas Point State Park sits at the end of a sandy spit on Tawas Bay, which has a beautiful swimming beach, and a nature trail along the shores of the lake. Popular with twitchers, the park provides a crucial habitat for migratory birds in autumn and spring.

2. Oscoda Beach Park

The golden sands of Oscoda Beach Park slide gently into Lake Huron’s clear, blue water, offering the perfect viewing platform to watch the dawn from Michigan’s ‘Sunrise Side’ over the lake. In July and August there are movie nights on the beach, while an observation deck and boardwalk beckon for evening strolls.

3. Cheboygan State Park

With five miles of Lake Huron shoreline, Cheboygan State Park is the perfect choice for a beach escape, offering great swimming, a campground at Duncan Bay, plus cabins and teepees for hire. The park has six miles of trails for hiking, with stunning coastal views, carpets of wildflowers in spring, and glimpses of lighthouses along the way.

Three best outdoor adventures

1. Kayak to Turnip Rock

Rent a kayak from Port Austin and set out on an adventure to view the stack known as Turnip Rock, due to its weather-worn bulbous shape. Rising up from Lake Huron, the rock provides the turnaround point for a seven-mile return paddle via the Point aux Barques trail.

2. Live the lumberjack life

Learn about Michigan’s logging past and live out your lumberjack or jill dreams at the Lumberman’s Monument Visitor Center, where visitors can learn how to use the traditional tools of the trade and cut a log ‘cookie’ with a crosscut saw, before exploring the trails of the Huron-Manistee National Forests.

3. Snorkel the wrecks of Thunder Bay

The only designated freshwater sanctuary in the USA, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary near Alpena protects nearly 100 historic sunken shipwrecks in Lake Huron, which attract snorkelers and divers from around the world. Glass-bottom boats also cruise the bay, while the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center explores the region’s rich history.

Nearby towns to explore

Known as the ‘Jewel of the Great Lakes’, Mackinac Island offers a glimpse into Old America, with historic inns, forts and churches, immaculate lakeside gardens, and friendly fudge shops that make up to 10,000 Ib of the sweet stuff a day. Catch the ferry from Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, but leave your car behind: there are no motor vehicles on the island, and travel is by bicycle, on foot, or by horse-drawn carriage. Also bursting with old-school charm, Alpena was once a major port for the lumber industry, and its historic downtown honours its past with restored turn-of-the-century buildings, which sit alongside hip eateries and bars. An hour south, Oscoda is a vibrant base for seeing the spectacular colours of ‘fall’, hitting the Sunrise Side Wine & Hops Trail, and learning more about the Great Lakes’ lumbering history at the Paul Bunyan Days Annual Festival and Oscoda Historical Museum.

Lake Erie

The shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is the closest to the city of Detroit, and takes its name from the Erie tribe, who lived along its southern shores. Dotted with lighthouses, the lake draws divers and snorkelers to explore its sunken wrecks, and nature lovers to its beaches, woodlands and trails.

Three best beaches

1. Belle Isle Park

Detroiters don’t have far to travel to find a great beach. Not far from Downtown, the Belle Isle Park sits on the Detroit River, which connects Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. The park has a nature centre, woodlands and a swimming beach, plus off-road electronic wheelchairs for people with disabilities.

2. Luna Pier

A laid-back coastal city on the shores of Lake Erie, Luna Pier has a long sandy beach and a large crescent-shaped pier, just 45 minutes from Downtown Detroit. Previously known as Lakeside, the city’s original wooden pier was considered the best place for dancing under the stars in the heady 1920s.

3. Sterling State Park

Lake Erie’s only state park lies an hour from Detroit in the city of Monroe. With lakefront camping, seven miles of hiking and biking trails and a mile-long stretch of beach near Sandy Creek, Sterling State Park offers a refreshing escape from the city heat in summer, and snowmobiling adventures in winter.

Three best outdoor adventures

1. Explore Detroit’s east side from the water

Discover a different side to the Motor City on a guided Canal Tour, exploring the Detroit River and the city’s east side islands by kayak or stand-up paddle board. Choose from a daytime, sunset or moonlight tour, and hear about Detroit’s history as you paddle its waterfront neighbourhoods.

2. Try cross-country skiing

Whatever the weather, the Lake Erie Metropark in Brownstown, just 30 minutes from Detroit, has exciting outdoor pursuits, with incredible views providing the backdrop. In winter, snow-covered trails offer excellent cross-country skiing, while in summer there’s golf, biking and a Great Wave pool for cooling off under the sun.

3. Remember the Raisin

River Raisin National Battlefield Park commemorates the War of 1812 and marks the site of 1813’s Battle of the River Raisin between the British and American Indian coalition and the American forces. The historic site in Monroe has a new visitor centre and theatre, and connects to the Sterling State Park by a scenic Heritage Trail, which winds along the river

Nearby towns to explore

While it isn’t the state capital – that honour goes to Lansing – Detroit is Michigan’s largest city, and the gateway for most visitors exploring the Great Lakes. Building on its historic legacy, Detroit continues to innovate with exciting arts, dining and music scenes, and in 2015, it was the first US city to be designated a UNESCO City of Design, acknowledging the ongoing architectural conservation and regeneration efforts transforming Downtown. Just 30 minutes away, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is a vital stopover for migratory birds and the first and only international refuge of its kind in North America. Further south lies the historic port city of Monroe, in a region originally inhabited by the Potawatomi people. Established by European settlers in 1785, Monroe was the childhood home of US cavalry officer, General George Armstrong Custer, who is commemorated with a statue and exhibits at the Monroe County Historical Museum, on the site of his old home.

Lake Michigan

Connected to Lake Huron through the Straits of Mackinac, Lake Michigan is the only one of the Great Lakes which isn’t shared with Canada. To the east, the largest freshwater dune system in the world offers outdoor adventures whatever the weather, while miles of untouched sandy beaches fringe the United States’ ‘Third Coast’.

Three best beaches

1. Grand Haven

Whatever your beach style, Grand Haven – the ‘Coast Guard City, USA’ – has a stretch of powdery white sand to suit. Looking for a secluded, untouched spot? Try West Olive. Up for some beach sports? Grand Haven State Park offers fat biking and volleyball, plus incredible sunsets over the lake, with views of the lighthouse and pier.

2. Platte Point Beach, Sleeping Bear Dunes

Designated a National Lakeshore, Lake Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes is home to incredible rolling dunes, and some of the most beautiful, untouched beaches in the state. Platte Point Beach is a favourite spot for kayaking, canoeing and tubing, with exciting journeys that start along the Platte River and lead into the lake.

3. Saugatuck / Douglas

With 12 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, Saugatuck / Douglas on the Art Coast of Michigan has a choice of stunning stretches of sand, including the much-acclaimed Oval Beach, and the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, which has trails through the 200-ft forested dunes for hiking in summer, and cross-country skiing when the snow falls.

Three best outdoor adventures

1. Catch a wave at Empire

Think you can’t surf on a lake? Think again! The Great Lakes are so vast, they’re like oceans, and big waves often roll in on their inland-sea shores. Head to Empire at the heart of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for a surf lesson, or try paddle boarding for a sneak peek into the crystal depths below.

2. Speed over the dunes at Silver Lake

The world’s dune ecosystems are precious, and much of Michigan’s 300,000 acres of sand dunes is protected. Silver Lake State Park is the one place in the state with a dedicated 500-acre Off-Road Vehicle Area (ORV), so you can safely speed around the dunes to your heart’s content on a buggy or ATV.

3. Zip along a luge in Muskegon

The only Olympian-style natural-ice luge track in the USA zips through the Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park, offering riders the chance to zoom along the 850-ft track at speeds of up to 30mph, while nearby there’s cross-country skiing, ice skating and snowshoeing through the pine forests and dunes of Muskegon State Park.

Nearby towns to explore

Whatever season you’re here, the landscapes around Lake Michigan yield unforgettable views, from the sun shimmering on the golden dunes, to the stunning colours of autumn, and snow-dusted forest trails. Quaint beach towns welcome visitors year-round, with al-fresco dining under summer skies and cosy cafes providing warming refuge in winter. Traverse City is the gateway to the Traverse Wine Coast, with 40 wineries along the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsula wine trails, and has a thriving LGBTQ+ scene, hosting Michigan’s Premier Destination Pride event each autumn. Northeast, overlooking the shores of Little Traverse Bay, Petoskey has more than 400 Victorian homes on the National Historic Register, and an eclectic range of galleries and boutiques in its Gaslight Shopping District to explore. And in Holland, visitors can browse the antique malls in the cobbled historic Downtown district, and celebrate the city’s Dutch heritage at Nelis’ Dutch Village, or Dutch Winterfest.

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