The Great Lakes USA are part of the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth. They’re mighty enough to behave like oceans and often get called ‘inland seas’. But nothing quite prepares you for their sheer adventure potential. Don’t worry, we have that covered here.
Let’s start with a little geography. Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Superior lie cross-border in the north east of the USA and south of Canada – that’s how big they are.
In the USA alone you can feel their presence in no fewer than five states: Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota. So if you’re already thinking road trip of a lifetime, hold that thought, we have the perfect itinerary coming up.
Although no one would blame you for just picking a spot on the Lakes and staying put. Almost anywhere you choose guarantees you unforgettable adventure, from great cities like Chicago and Detroit to fabulous lake beaches, national parks and even islands. Of course, one of the greatest things about The Great Lakes is how different each one is, depending on where you land, so you might want to select your lake by state.
Michigan: the state with 3,200 miles of Great Lakes coast
Michigan gets top billing because four of the five Great Lakes call it home, gifting the state over 3,200 miles of coast: pretty remarkable considering it’s technically landlocked.
Locals say you’re never more than a short drive from a beach here and they are not wrong. Only the Lake beaches in Michigan range from sandy and pretty to strewn with semi-precious stones, rare rocks or fossils, and if that sounds magical to you, just wait until your kids find out.
Urban adventures more your thing? Then head for the city that TIME listed as one of its ‘World’s Greatest Places of 2022’. We’re talking about Detroit, Michigan, birthplace of Ford’s Model-T and Motown, but also home to some of America’s greatest museums, year round festivals and a downtown waterfront that buzzes day and night. Although, if you just want to catch a breath, visit aptly named Belle Isle State Park which floats in the Detroit River between Lake Erie and Lake Saint Clair. Bring a picnic and try out some more lake beaches, or hire a bike and go exploring.
Illinois: get your kicks all over the Route 66 state
Route 66 kicks off in Chicago, making it the perfect start to your very own Great Lakes road trip. Alternatively you could just hang out in the city that lives on Lake Michigan and almost everyone – who isn’t from Chicago – assumes is the capital of Illinois.
But that honour actually goes to Springfield, which also happens to be home to more historic sites associated with Abraham Lincoln than anywhere else in the country.
Another state that begs you to adventure around, Illinois is where you’ll find the phenomenal Garden of the Gods rock formations: fantastic for hiking with older kids and spectacularly reel-worthy. And enormous Pere Marquette State Park is the one for wildlife – bald eagles nest here.
Wisconsin: two Great Lakes and a Great River Road
Wisconsin gets in on the Great Lakes with shorelines on Lake Superior to the north and Lake Michigan to the east. You’ll find Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, on the shores of Lake Michigan and making the most of that pole position with an incredibly lively lakefront district. If you can tear yourself away from the water, Milwaukee Art Museum is stunning and for those hankering after art of another sort, the Harley Davidson Museum is here too.
However, one of the best family adventures in Wisconsin takes you away from the cities and introduces you to pretty little towns, classic riverboats and magnificent countryside for 250 miles. It’s the Great River Road which wends along the Mississippi River and makes for a fascinating trip, even with younger kids in the car. You might be tempted to do it all in a day – perfectly possible – but the challenge will be trying not to stop along the way, and few people manage that.
Ohio: laid back cities, nano breweries and ziplines for miles
Cleveland couldn’t be more laid back and generous. It’s the city that gave us the term rock ‘n’ roll and still raises rafters daily: as well as having the world’s only Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it’s also home to Severance Music Center, one of the most beautiful concert halls in the US. But it’s not just music that makes Cleveland so endearing. The food scene is incredible too, from James Beard chefs to neighbourhood restaurants and off-the-charts street food, so come hungry.
Then hit the state capital, Columbus, for more amazing eating experiences, paired with beers from over 50 local breweries. Although not a local, Brew Dog has its US headquarters here too, and in yet another off-beat move, it has also opened the world’s first ‘craft beer hotel’. Maybe not one for a family stay, but definitely worth a visit.
Outside its cities, you’ll find Ohio is a natural adventure playground. As well as its slice of Lake Erie, it has 50 rivers running through it, 74 state parks and 130 state nature preserves. Although kids might just want to go ziplining, in which case, you’ll be pleased to hear that southern Ohio has a whole tree canopy dedicated to serving those kind of thrills.
Minnesota: the land of 10,000 lakes including Lake Superior
Almost every Minnesota experience begins and ends with Minneapolis/Saint Paul. It’s the city known for the Mall of America – and tax free clothes and shoe shopping. But you might also know it as the home of Paisley Park, Prince’s vast estate and music production complex, which is a must-do tour. Or maybe you don’t know Minneapolis/Saint Paul at all, in which case, you’re in for a treat.
Cities aside, and there are quite a few worth seeing, Minnesota is the state of lakes. Apart from a shoreline on mighty Lake Superior, it has 10,000 other lakes to play on too, so no surprise to find that water sports are a big deal here. They’re practically everywhere and you can try anything from white water rafting to kayaking, scuba diving and tubing. Or for a different type of fun on the water, think about house boating. And when nothing will do but dry land, big forests and clear, clean air, head in the direction of one of Minnesota’s 76 State Parks.
Make time for a grand tour of the Great Lakes USA
So now you’ve had a state-by-state hint of the Great Lakes USA, what about the ultimate Great Lakes USA fly/drive family holiday?
Covering all five states, several iconic cities and touching on every one of the Great Lakes, this is a classic road trip in the making. At 2,351 miles, it’s not a short journey, but spread out over at least 16 days it’s one of those family adventures kids will always remember.
It starts in Chicago, takes you to Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Grand Rapids, and on to quaint Mackinac Island in Michigan – home to the fabulous Grand Hotel. Detroit, Cleveland and Columbus are on-route too, so you can pack in music, art, history and many, many museums along the way. Then it’s back into Illinois and time for a tour of Springfield and the Lincoln legends, before wending your way to Chicago again.