Destination: Great Lakes – The Complete Great Lakes Insiders Travel Guide

The magnificent blue cluster of Great Lakes are an unmistakable feature on a map of the United States. And while this collection of freshwater lakes shares a similar climate and geography, each one has a character of its own. In this guide, we give you a jumping-off point for each one—complete with accommodations, dining, and things to do. Read on and choose your own adventure!

Lake Superior

Home base: Duluth, Minnesota

The shoreline of Lake Superior is a staggering 2,726 miles. Needless to say, when it comes to choosing a home base to explore the lake, you have plenty of options. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Canada (Ontario, specifically) all border the largest lake in the chain. If you’re a first-time visitor, we recommend the port city of Duluth, Minnesota.

Duluth made its name during the heyday of mining and shipping, but in recent years, it’s gained a reputation for outdoor adventure and its entrepreneurial spirit. (In 2014, it topped the list in Outside magazine’s “Best Town Ever” competition.) From summer activities like mountain biking, paddling, and hiking to winter sports like downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, and ice climbing, Duluth is a year-round playground.

Stay: Choose a hotel along the city’s 7-mile lakewalk like Fitger’s Inn or the Canal Park Lodge. But if quiet is more your style, the A.G. Thomson House is a stunning B&B tucked into one of Duluth’s historic neighborhoods. If you’d rather camp, you can stay at Spirit Mountain Campground. Or, tack on a bonus road trip and drive up Highway 61 along the lake. There are 7 beautiful state parks within an 80-mile stretch of highway.

Eat & Drink:

Do: Hit the mountain bike trails at Spirit Mountain for a challenging workout and stunning views of the harbor. Or get a closer look at the lake from Canal Park near the city’s iconic Lift Bridge.

Lake Michigan

Home base: Door County, Wisconsin

Door County is a narrow 75-miles long peninsula dotted with small, tourist-friendly towns. On the west side of the peninsula lie the (slightly warmer) waters of Green Bay and the majority of the tourist attractions. The slower paced east side of the peninsula fronts Lake Michigan, earning its nickname “the quiet side.”

Summer is the busy season in Door County with festivals, concerts, and an abundance of outdoor adventures. The latter range from the traditional (think hiking, biking, paddling) to the new such as segway tours and zip-lines. Summer is also harvest season in Door County with its number one fruit crop—cherries!—taking top billing at local farm markets and stands.

Stay: If you’re interested in camping, make your reservations early. Peninsula State Park—with its convenient location, shoreline, and trails—fills up many months in advance. Less popular but just as beautiful, Whitefish Dunes State Park and Newport State Park on the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula also accept camping reservations.

Eat & Drink:

Do: Go for a swim or paddle at Nicolet Beach in Peninsula State Park. Stroll the shops in towns like Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim, and Sister Bay. Take a ferry to nearly Washington Island and ride the Cherry Train.

Lake Huron

Home base: Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island has a long history as a Lake Huron summertime destination. The first resort-bound tourists came in the late 19th-century, and the ensuing years have seen generations of travelers following in their footsteps. (Literally. Motorized vehicles haven’t been allowed on the island since 1898, so your transportation options are bikes, horse-drawn carriages, or walking.)

The island itself isn’t particularly large—it’s just 3.8 square miles—but it’s packed with stunning sights and history. (The entire island is on the National Register of Historic Places.) Although Mackinac Island State Park takes up 80% of the island, unfortunately camping isn’t allowed. You can however, camp on the mainland and take a ferry to the island for a day trip.

Stay: If you want to camp, your only option is to stay at a campground on the mainland such as Mackinaw Mill Creek Camping. Leaving your tent or RV behind? Stay at the historic Grand Hotel, named best historic hotel by USA Today. If you’d like a smaller scale hotel, try the newly opened Mackinac House.

Eat & Drink:

Do: Rent a bike (or bring your own) and ride it around the perimeter of the island. It takes only a couple hours at a relaxed pace. After that that, try a sample of world-famous Mackinac Island fudge or take a tour of historic Fort Mackinac.

Lake Erie

Home base: Port Stanley, Ontario

The one Canadian destination in our guide is picturesque Port Stanley on the north shore of Lake Erie. One the most distinguishing features of this harbor town is its wide sandy beach. And it’s not just for looks—Main Beach is perfect for swimming because it’s one of 26 Blue Flag beaches in Canada, a designation that’s given for commitment to water quality and safety. Port Stanley also has its share of shops and galleries perfect for post-beach browsing.

Stay: The nearest camping is at Port Burwell Provincial Park which offers three forested campgrounds. In town, consider Inn on the Harbour or The Windjammer Inn.

Eat & Drink:

Do: Stroll the main street to check out the shops or get out on the water. Bridgeview Marina offers rentals for kayaks, canoes, paddle boats, and SUPs.

Lake Ontario

Home base: Sackets Harbor, New York

From its vantage point overlooking Lake Ontario on Black River Bay, Sackets Harbor is a good starting point for on-the-water adventures. Founded in 1801, the town played a strategic role in the War of 1812, and still has some preserved buildings from the era. These days Sackets Harbor is a quiet village where you can enjoy life at a slower pace. And when you’re ready to move on, you can head north to explore the Thousand Islands region, a scenic archipelago in the St. Lawrence River.

Stay: To be within walking distance of downtown, stay at the Harbor House Inn. Camping is available at nearby Westcott Beach State Park.

Eat & Drink:

Do: For a history lesson, visit the Sackets Harbor Battlefield. Or for a faster paced activity, try whitewater rafting on the nearby Black River.