The Great Lakes’ combined shorelines stretch 4,530 miles, which is 20% more than the American coastlines of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans put together. This sheer expanse creates seemingly infinite possibilities for you to explore. Each of the five Great Lakes has its own particular character, but all of them are bursting at the seams with outdoor adventure and relaxing freshwater activities that all ages will enjoy. Planning your trip to the Great Lakes will only be difficult when you have to choose what not to do.
You will find the most back-to-nature, Thoreauvian experiences on Lake Ontario, the easternmost, least populated and smallest of the five Great Lakes. On the American side, only Rochester, New York, populates a large area, but enticing destinations lie in the more rustic extremities of the lake. Niagara Falls roars just southwest of Lake Ontario, but a more relaxing experience lies away from the touristy hot spot that surrounds it. Instead, find something like the Bayside Guest House in Olcott, a Victorian-style B&B right on the lake, where you can travel to the marvelous falls while still maintaining a get-away-from-it-all experience.
On the northeast side of Lake Ontario, you’ll find the dreamlike Thousand Islands. With no internationally iconic landmarks distracting you from the glimmering beauty of the water and surreal shorelines, long hours relaxing will seem to fly by as if they were mere minutes. The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New York, will interest history aficionados, while kids will love long days of swimming, rowing and hiking through the peaceful scenery. Waterfront cottages cost less than in many other parts of the country, often around $150/night. (Cottage rentals include water access, but no water vessels — rentals are available in the nearby towns.)
Lake Erie surpasses Lake Ontario in size, but only just. It sets itself apart through the small but fast-paced town of Sandusky, Ohio, and its nearby counterpart, Port Clinton. Sandusky’s famous Cedar Point amusement park boasts some of the most high-octane roller coasters and thrill rides in the world, and its adjacent water park, Soak City, consistently ranks among the best attractions in its class. And if your kids still have energy after all of this adrenaline-purging, they will doubtlessly enjoy the quaint Merry-Go-Round Museum and Lagoon Deer Park.
For the adults, Sandusky also has a Maritime Museum and the Eleutheros Cooke House and Garden, making for lovely afternoons of charming scenery and history. If you’re looking for a more peaceful escape, we suggest Port Clinton, 20 minutes to the north. You should make a point to visit the Jolly Roger Seafood Restaurant on East Perry Street, especially for the local walleye and waffle-cut fries.
Lake Huron, the middle of the five Great Lakes, provides access to the widest variety of attractions, so if you’re hard-pressed to decide where to spend your trip, this may be the lake for you! Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay Region occupies the space between the “thumb” and “forefinger” of the state’s manual map. Bay City rests on the central edge of this bay, providing easy access to the rest of the lake. If you’d like an authentic city experience, stay in the Historic Webster House, but otherwise get a camper, drive 90 minutes north and camp near the water in Huron National Forest.
Historically, locals have considered Lake Huron and Lake Michigan twin lakes, as these two share elevation and roughly the same size. However, the cities and parks around Lake Michigan have developed its coastline much more. If you want to get the most out of your vacation, a trip to Lake Michigan may be the best choice. Rent a car in Green Bay and drive through Milwaukee, Chicago and Gary, Indiana, and finish all the way up in Traverse City, Michigan. Stop along the way to stay right on Lake Michigan, like at the DunesWalk Inn at the Furness Mansion in Chesterton.
Alternatively, you could choose a couple of these destinations and take a ferry from one to the other. The trip from Manitowoc, Wisconsin (near Green Bay), to Ludington, Michigan, takes a little over four hours on the S.S. Badger, for only $44 a person. Take your car with you for $69 and drive it two hours north to Traverse City for a slice of cherry pie stuffed with the locally grown fruit. Traverse City is a great place for just about anyone in the family, with its miles of sugar-sand beaches and high-end cuisine (dubbed one of America’s Top 5 Foodie Towns by Bon Appétit).
Finally, we come to Lake Superior — aptly named for its size, depth, volume and number of state parks along the coast. Duluth, Minnesota, provides a great home base for exploring the rugged terrain around this gentle giant. North Shore Cottages, predictably located to the north of the city, provide great value for your money, placing you and your family directly on the water for no more than $229 per night for a two-bedroom structure. From there, you can drive 15 minutes south to Duluth’s trendy Canal Park neighborhood, which also sits directly on the water. Have dinner at Grandma’s Saloon & Grill, if not for the imaginative walleye cake salad, then for the spectacular deck view of the water and city. North of the city, drive along Highway 61 for some of the most jaw-dropping coastline in all of America.
America’s third coast lies along the five expansive Great Lakes in the continental Northeast and Midwest, presenting you with both an advantageous travel situation and also a terribly difficult decision. The differences between the lakes vary greatly, though, so only you can know which destination will please your family most. That said, though, it’s hard to go wrong. The Great Lakes didn’t get that name by accident.