Great Lakes Direct

Lake Michigan Travel Guide

Best Places to Visit and Things to Do

Lake Michigan, the second-largest Great Lake by volume and the only one nestled entirely within the United States, is a destination full of natural beauty, maritime history, and regional culture.

The lake region is ideal for the discerning independent traveler with a taste for exploration and local experiences. It attracts more than 60 million tourists each year.

For history enthusiasts, the Lake Michigan region is brimming with cultural significance.

Exploring its shores reveals the stories of early Native American tribes, French fur traders, and European settlers who once called the region home.

Other notable points of interest include the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and the renowned Door Peninsula on the western side of the lake.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Nature lovers and adventure seekers alike will find no shortage of outdoor activities to enjoy along Lake Michigan.

With more than 2,500 miles of marked hiking and biking trails, visitors can immerse themselves in the region's diverse ecosystems while navigating scenic routes that offer breathtaking lake views.

The Ahnapee State Trail, for example, meanders through picturesque Wisconsin farmlands and wooded areas before leading to the lake's serene shores.

In addition to hiking and biking, water activities such as boating, fishing, and kayaking provide thrilling ways to experience Lake Michigan's incredible beauty.

Dining experiences abound with the abundance of locally caught fish, seasonal produce, and regional delicacies such as Wisconsin cheese, Michigan cherries, and Indiana's famous sugar cream pie.

Geographical Overview

As the only Great Lake located entirely within the United States, Lake Michigan boasts a surface area of 22,404 square miles, making it the third-largest of the Great Lakes by surface area and the second-largest by volume.

Spanning the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, this immense freshwater lake is a true natural wonder.

Lake Michigan spans an impressive 307 miles in length and 118 miles at its widest point. The lake landscapes boast a wide range of ecosystems, from sprawling beaches and dense forests to soaring bluffs and picturesque lighthouses.

The lake's 1,640 miles of shoreline offers travelers an abundance of scenic beauty and intrigue as they embark on their journey of discovery.

Map of towns on Lake Michigan
Map of towns on Lake Michigan

Historical Significance

Lake Michigan was formed more than 13,000 years ago during the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Its name comes from the Ojibwe word "mishigami," which means "great lake".

The region around Lake Michigan has been inhabited for thousands of years, initially by indigenous tribes such as the Ojibwe, Ottawa and Potawatomi. These tribes fished its bountiful waters, navigated its shores, and used its resources for trade and sustenance.

The lake served as an important waterway for transportation and trade among the tribes, and later became a major route for European explorers and fur traders in the 17th century.

The arrival of French explorer Jean Nicolet in 1634 marked the beginning of the European exploration of Lake Michigan and the surrounding region.

The French, and then the English, established trading posts and missions around the Lake, which became part of the vast fur trade network stretching across the mainland. Reflecting its strategic importance, the lake became a battleground and negotiation site during conflicts such as the Fox Wars and the Northwestern Indian War.

Lake Michigan served as a crucial transportation route for goods and people. Steamboats and ships traversed the lake, connecting major cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 further enhanced the lake's importance, linking it to the Atlantic Ocean via the Great Lakes system.

Cities like Chicago and Milwaukee developed as industrial and transport centers. This era also witnessed a surge in immigration, as people from Europe and the eastern United States moved to the region, drawn by the promise of land and opportunity.

The SS Badger car ferry crosses Lake Michigan
The SS Badger car ferry crosses Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan's history in the 20th century and beyond is marked by its role in industrial development, maritime history, and environmental advocacy.

Its waters have seen tragic shipwrecks, served as a critical point for military training during World War II, and fueled economic growth through the shipping and manufacturing industries.

Recent decades have seen efforts to protect and preserve the lake's natural beauty and resources, addressing pollution, invasive species, and conservation challenges.

Lake Michigan Towns in Michigan


Petoskey is known for its beautiful Victorian architecture, historic Gaslight Shopping District, and also gives its name to the unique Petoskey Stones found along the Lake Michigan shoreline. It acts as a gateway to the scenic drives and outdoor activities available at Petoskey State Park and the nearby Little Traverse Wheelway.

Petoskey in northern Michigan
Petoskey in northern Michigan

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Traverse City

Often considered the "Cherry Capital of the World," Traverse City is not only famous for its annual National Cherry Festival but also for its vineyards and culinary scene. Its proximity to both Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay makes it a prime location for water activities.

Traverse City Marina
Traverse City Marina

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Glen Arbor

Nestled near the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Glen Arbor provides access to some of Michigan's most breathtaking natural beauty. The area offers miles of sandy beaches, clear waters, with the lovely Leelanau County another shoreline option for exploration.

Grand Traverse Lighthouse at the tip of the Leelanau peninsula
Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Leelanau County

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Home to the Ludington State Park, which is considered one of Michigan's best state parks. The park's lighthouse, hiking trails, and canoeing opportunities make it a favorite for nature enthusiasts. Ludington is the port for the SS Badger car ferry that connects Michigan with Wisconsin across Lake Michigan.

Big Sable Point Lighthouse
Big Sable Point Lighthouse

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Saugatuck boasts a charming downtown with unique shops, galleries, and restaurants. Oval Beach is often rated as one of the best beaches in the United States, and Saugatuck's location along the Art Coast of Michigan provides visitors with a blend of cultural and natural attractions.

Downtown Saugatuck on Lake Michigan
Downtown Saugatuck on Lake Michigan

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Lake Michigan Towns in Wisconsin


The city of Kenosha offers a unique blend of urban amenities and natural beauty. Kenosha's lakefront is a standout attraction, with the Kenosha Public Museum, Civil War Museum, and electric streetcar system that connects to the HarborPark and downtown area.

Kenosha Wisconsin
Aerial view of Kenosha, WI

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Port Washington

Port Washington is a historic city of approximately 12,000 people, located on a picturesque bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Unique features include the 1860 Light Station, which is the oldest operational lighthouse in Wisconsin, and the annual Port Fish Day.

Port Washington, Wisconsin
Aerial view of Port Washington, WI

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Sheboygan is known as the "Malibu of the Midwest" for its excellent surfing conditions. The city's lively arts scene is highlighted by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and its annual Levitt AMP Music Series, which hosts free concerts in the heart of Sheboygan.

Sheboygan, Wisconsin
Aerial view of Sheboygan, WI

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Manitowoc is a city with an interesting maritime history. It is known for constructing submarines during World War II and it hosts the annual Sputnikfest, celebrating the 1962 crash landing of a piece of the Soviet Sputnik 4 satellite. It is also the Wisconsin port for the SS Badger ferry from Ludington.

Manitowoc, Wisconsin
Lighthouses at Manitowoc, WI

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Sturgeon Bay

Situated at the intersection of Green Bay and Lake Michigan, Sturgeon Bay is the heart of the beautiful and historic Door County area. The region features unique attractions such as the Door County Maritime Museum and the Cana Island Lighthouse, dating back to 1869.

Bridges across Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Bridges across Sturgeon Bay, WI

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Islands in Lake Michigan

Beaver Island

Beaver Island is located in the northern region of Lake Michigan and is the largest island in the lake. It covers approximately 54 square miles and has a year-round population of approximately 550 residents.

Beaver Island became a Mormon kingdom in the mid 19th century, leading to violent clashes between the original Catholic settlers and the Mormon immigrants.

The island offers a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and fishing, and is known for its historic sites, including the Beaver Island Lighthouse and the Mormon Print Shop Museum.

Beaver Island
Beaver Island

South Manitou Island

South Manitou Island is located off the coast of Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula and is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The island features a historic lighthouse, abandoned farmsteads, and miles of hiking trails that showcase its diverse flora and fauna.

South Manitou Island
South Manitou Island

Washington Island

Washington Island is a tranquil destination of approximately 35 square miles located off the tip of the Door Peninsula in Wisconsin. Home to approximately 700 permanent residents, the island offers a variety of outdoor activities including kayaking, boating, and bird watching.

Visitors can also explore the island's rich history by visiting the Jacobsen Museum and the Stavkirke, a replica of a medieval Scandinavian church.

Car ferry to Washington Island
Car ferry to Washington Island

Attractions on Lake Michigan


Numerous lighthouses were built along the shoreline in the 19th century to help ensure safe navigation on the lake. These iconic structures, many of which still stand today, served as vital guides for ships and became symbols of the region's maritime heritage. Some of the most popular are Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington and the Mission Point Light in Grand Traverse Bay.

Sand dunes and beaches

Sleeping Bear Dunes may be the best known but they are not the only sand dunes around Lake Michigan. There are numerous protected dune landscape on the shoreline, such as the Saugatuck Dunes State Park near Saugatuck or Whitefish Dunes State Park north of Sturgeon Bay on the Lake Michigan side.

But even without dunes, the Lake Michigan shoreline is filled with long sandy beaches, especially the stretch running up from New Buffalo to South Haven.

Lake Michigan Circle Tour

The Lake Michigan Circle Tour is a marked road trip of over 1000 miles on state highways in the four states - Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana - which surround the lakeshore.

The circular tour mainly stays on highways which stick close to the shoreline and offers some fabulous views of the lake and the nearby natural features.

To do the tour justice, a minimum of seven days is needed and some visitors take two weeks (or split the tour into two different week-long trips).

Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park

Notable attractions include Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Michigan, Door County in Wisconsin, and Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana.