The Great Lakes, located in North America, are a magnificent natural wonder that span the border between the United States and Canada. Consisting of five main interconnected lakes, including Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario, the Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world by surface area and volume. These lakes have been shaped by natural forces over millions of years, resulting in stunning landscapes, diverse ecosystems, and countless recreational opportunities.
Many people are curious about how many states the Great Lakes border. While the majority of the shoreline is shared with the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, there are a number of U.S. states that have a slice of this natural beauty within their borders. A total of eight states have direct access to the Great Lakes: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Each of these states offers its own unique experiences and attractions for visitors to explore.
In this travel guide, we will take a closer look at each of these states and the ways in which they showcase the beauty and majesty of the Great Lakes. From charming waterfront towns to pristine beaches, from vibrant cultural scenes to outdoor adventures, these states offer a plethora of experiences for travelers of all interests.
The Great Lakes: An Overview
The Great Lakes, shared by the United States and Canada, are a collection of five interconnected freshwater lakes: Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. These lakes are not only stunning natural wonders but also play a vital role in the region’s economy, transportation, and ecology.
Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, is known for its crystal-clear waters and rugged shoreline. It boasts numerous state parks and hiking trails, making it a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Lake Michigan, the only Great Lake entirely located within the United States, is famous for its sandy beaches and charming coastal towns. Visitors can indulge in water sports, explore lighthouses, and enjoy vibrant cultural scenes.
Lake Huron features picturesque coastal areas, including the Georgian Bay and Manitoulin Island. It offers opportunities for boating, fishing, and island hopping. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, is a popular destination for fishing and boating, with a range of marinas and waterfront activities. The lake is also surrounded by wineries and vineyards, creating a charming wine tourism experience.
Lastly, Lake Ontario borders both the United States and Canada, and boasts iconic landmarks such as Niagara Falls. Visitors can explore vibrant cities like Toronto and Rochester, as well as enjoy recreational activities such as sailing and fishing.
In addition to their natural beauty, the Great Lakes are home to diverse ecosystems and wildlife. They support a variety of fish species, including bass, walleye, trout, and salmon, making them a haven for anglers. The lakes also provide vital habitats for migratory birds and serve as a stopping point for numerous bird species during their annual migrations.
From its stunning landscapes to its economic significance, the Great Lakes are undoubtedly a treasure to both the United States and Canada. Whether you’re seeking outdoor adventures, cultural experiences, or simply a peaceful retreat, the Great Lakes have something to offer for every traveler.
State 1: Minnesota
Minnesota, also known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” is the most northern state that borders the Great Lakes. While the majority of its shoreline is on Lake Superior, it also has a small section on Lake Huron.
When exploring Minnesota’s Great Lakes region, one cannot miss the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse. Perched on a cliff overlooking Lake Superior, this historic lighthouse offers breathtaking views of the lake and surrounding scenery. Visitors can take guided tours to learn about its rich maritime history and enjoy stunning sunsets from the lighthouse grounds.
In addition to its lighthouses, Minnesota is known for its stunning natural landscapes. The North Shore Scenic Drive, a 154-mile stretch along Lake Superior’s shoreline, offers incredible views of majestic cliffs, pristine forests, and cascading waterfalls. Hiking trails like the Superior Hiking Trail and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness provide opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts to immerse themselves in the state’s natural beauty.
The city of Duluth, located on the western tip of Lake Superior, is a hub of activity. Visitors can explore the historic Canal Park district, home to unique shops, restaurants, and attractions. The Great Lakes Aquarium offers a chance to discover the fascinating marine life found in the region’s lakes and rivers, while the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center provides insights into the area’s shipping history.
For those interested in history and culture, the city of St. Paul, the state capital, offers a wealth of museums and landmarks. The Science Museum of Minnesota, Minnesota History Center, and the Minnesota State Capitol are just a few examples of the attractions worth visiting. Additionally, visitors can immerse themselves in the vibrant arts scene by attending performances at the Guthrie Theater or exploring the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Minnesota’s Great Lakes region also offers opportunities for fishing, kayaking, and other water activities. Anglers can cast their lines into the lakes in search of trout, salmon, and walleye, while kayakers can paddle along the scenic shoreline, discovering hidden coves and beaches.
Minnesota truly showcases the beauty and recreational opportunities that the Great Lakes have to offer. Whether you’re seeking outdoor adventures, cultural experiences, or simply a peaceful retreat, Minnesota’s Great Lakes region is sure to leave a lasting impression.
State 2: Wisconsin
Wisconsin, located to the west of Lake Michigan, is another state that borders the Great Lakes. With its charming towns, picturesque landscapes, and abundant recreational opportunities, Wisconsin offers a delightful experience for visitors.
One of the highlights of Wisconsin’s Great Lakes region is the stunning Door County peninsula. Known as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” Door County boasts scenic shoreline views, pristine beaches, and charming waterfront villages. Visitors can explore lighthouses, enjoy water sports like kayaking and sailing, and indulge in locally-made cheese and wine.
The vibrant city of Milwaukee, situated on the western shore of Lake Michigan, is a cultural hub with a rich brewing history. Beer enthusiasts can explore the city’s famous breweries, such as MillerCoors and Lakefront Brewery, and even take brewery tours. Milwaukee is also home to the Milwaukee Art Museum, with its impressive collection of artworks, and the Harley-Davidson Museum, celebrating the iconic American motorcycle brand.
Another notable destination in Wisconsin’s Great Lakes region is Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Located on Lake Superior, this pristine area consists of 21 islands and offers incredible opportunities for outdoor adventures. Visitors can go camping, kayaking, hiking, and even witness the breathtaking ice caves during winter.
The city of Green Bay, situated at the mouth of the bay on Lake Michigan, is a must-visit for sports enthusiasts. It is home to the famous Green Bay Packers football team and Lambeau Field, a historic sports venue that offers tours and a museum. Visitors can also explore the National Railroad Museum and enjoy the picturesque Bay Beach Amusement Park.
Wisconsin’s Great Lakes region also offers a wide range of recreational activities. Fishing enthusiasts can cast their lines into the lakes in search of trophy fish like walleye, salmon, and perch. Beachgoers can relax on pristine sandy shores and soak up the sun during the summer months. The region’s numerous parks and trails also provide opportunities for hiking, biking, and wildlife spotting.
With its stunning landscapes, cultural attractions, and outdoor adventures, Wisconsin’s Great Lakes region is a perfect destination for nature lovers, history enthusiasts, and anyone seeking a memorable travel experience.
State 3: Michigan
Michigan, known as the “Great Lakes State,” is blessed with an abundance of waterfront thanks to its unique geography. It is the only state that borders four out of the five Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Michigan, and Erie. With its diverse landscapes and vibrant cities, Michigan offers a wide range of experiences for visitors.
One of the highlights of Michigan’s Great Lakes region is the stunning Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior. This 42-mile stretch of colorful sandstone cliffs, sandy beaches, and pristine forests is a paradise for hikers, kayakers, and nature lovers. Visitors can explore the area’s numerous hiking trails, take scenic cruises along the shoreline, and even witness the iconic Miner’s Castle, a unique rock formation.
The city of Detroit, located on the banks of the Detroit River and Lake Erie, is a vibrant destination that offers a mix of history, culture, and entertainment. Visitors can explore the Henry Ford Museum, showcasing the history of American innovation, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, home to an impressive collection of artworks. Sports fans can catch a game at the iconic Ford Field or Comerica Park.
For a taste of small-town charm, visitors can head to Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island. Mackinaw City serves as the gateway to Mackinac Island, a car-free island known for its historic charm and natural beauty. Visitors can take a ferry ride to the island and explore its Victorian-era architecture, indulge in delicious fudge, and rent bicycles to explore the island’s scenic trails.
Michigan is also home to picturesque coastal towns such as Traverse City and Holland. Traverse City, situated on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, is famous for its cherry orchards and wineries. Visitors can enjoy beach activities, visit local vineyards, and explore the vibrant downtown area. Holland, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, offers a taste of Dutch heritage with its quaint windmills, tulip festivals, and charming downtown lined with unique shops and restaurants.
In addition to its natural beauty and cultural attractions, Michigan’s Great Lakes region offers a wide range of outdoor activities. Visitors can go fishing, boating, and kayaking on the lakes, enjoy swimming and sunbathing on sandy beaches, or even experience the thrill of dune rides in places like Silver Lake Sand Dunes.
Michigan’s Great Lakes region truly showcases the state’s love affair with its waterfront. Whether you’re seeking breathtaking natural landscapes, urban adventures, or lakeside relaxation, Michigan has it all.
State 4: Illinois
While Illinois is not located directly on the Great Lakes, it still has a significant connection to these magnificent bodies of water. The state’s northeast border touches Lake Michigan, offering visitors a chance to explore its vibrant waterfront city of Chicago, known as the “Windy City.”
Chicago is a bustling metropolis that offers a unique blend of cultural attractions, stunning architecture, and a waterfront experience along Lake Michigan. The city’s iconic skyline is dominated by skyscrapers such as the Willis Tower and John Hancock Center. Visitors can take an architecture boat tour on the Chicago River to admire the city’s stunning architectural gems.
Millennium Park, located in the heart of downtown Chicago, is a green oasis featuring the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as “The Bean.” The park offers art installations, live performances, and a lovely spot for a picnic. Navy Pier, a popular tourist destination, provides entertainment options including rides, restaurants, an IMAX theater, and breathtaking views of the lake.
Illinois Beach State Park, located in Zion, offers a beautiful sandy shoreline along Lake Michigan. Visitors can swim, sunbathe, picnic, and stroll along the beach enjoying the panoramic views of the lake. The nearby Illinois Beach Resort and Conference Center provides accommodations and amenities for those wishing to extend their stay.
Further south, Starved Rock State Park sits along the Illinois River and provides stunning vistas, waterfalls, and hiking trails through canyons and lush forests. Although not directly on the Great Lakes, it is an excellent option for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy nature just a short drive from Chicago.
While Illinois may have a smaller portion of Great Lakes coastline compared to other states, it offers a unique blend of urban and natural experiences. Whether you’re exploring the vibrant city of Chicago or immersing yourself in the tranquility of state parks, Illinois provides a memorable experience for all visitors.
State 5: Indiana
Indiana, though small in size, boasts a picturesque slice of Great Lakes shoreline along Lake Michigan. With its sandy beaches, scenic dunes, and charming lakeside villages, Indiana offers visitors a delightful getaway.
Indiana Dunes National Park is the crown jewel of the state’s Great Lakes region. Stretching along 15 miles of Lake Michigan’s southern shore, it is a haven for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers. The park features towering sand dunes, lush forests, and diverse habitats. Visitors can go hiking, birdwatching, camping, and enjoy stunning views of the lake from the top of the dunes.
The city of Michigan City, located on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, offers a mix of attractions for visitors. The Washington Park Zoo is a family-friendly destination, housing a variety of animals from around the world. The nearby Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets provide a shopping experience with a scenic lake backdrop. The city’s beachfront is perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and picnicking.
Just east of Michigan City, the town of LaPorte offers a charming downtown area with unique shops, restaurants, and historic architecture. Visitors can explore Pine Lake, one of the state’s many inland lakes, and enjoy fishing, boating, and water sports.
For a taste of history and culture, visitors can head to South Bend, home to the University of Notre Dame. The campus offers stunning architecture and a chance to experience college football at Notre Dame Stadium. The South Bend Riverwalk along the St. Joseph River provides a scenic route for a leisurely stroll.
In addition to the natural and cultural attractions, Indiana’s Great Lakes region offers opportunities for recreational activities. Fishing enthusiasts can cast their lines into the lake in search of salmon, trout, and smallmouth bass. Birdwatchers can spot a variety of migratory bird species as they make their way along the shoreline.
Indiana may have a small portion of Great Lakes shoreline, but it offers a wealth of natural beauty, recreational opportunities, and quaint lakeside experiences. Whether you’re seeking outdoor adventures or a peaceful lakeside retreat, Indiana has something to offer for every traveler.
State 6: Ohio
Ohio, although not directly bordering the Great Lakes, has a significant connection to Lake Erie, offering visitors a chance to explore its scenic shoreline and vibrant lakefront cities.
The city of Cleveland, located on the southern shore of Lake Erie, is a major hub of culture, entertainment, and outdoor recreation. Visitors can explore the iconic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which houses exhibits showcasing the history and influence of rock and roll music. The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and the West Side Market are just a few of the other notable attractions in the city.
One of the highlights of Ohio’s Great Lakes region is the Lake Erie Islands, including the popular Put-in-Bay and Kelley’s Island. These islands offer a unique blend of natural beauty, historical sites, and recreational activities. Visitors can kayak along the shoreline, explore caves and cliffs, visit wineries, and immerse themselves in the island’s charming atmosphere.
The city of Toledo, situated near the western end of Lake Erie, is another notable destination in Ohio’s Great Lakes region. It is home to the Toledo Museum of Art, which boasts an impressive collection of artworks, including pieces from renowned artists such as Rembrandt and Monet. The Toledo Zoo and Imagination Station Science Museum provide engaging experiences for families and visitors of all ages.
Outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate the numerous state parks and nature reserves along Lake Erie’s coastline. Maumee Bay State Park offers opportunities for swimming, fishing, hiking, and birdwatching. Additionally, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, located near Cleveland, provides a scenic escape with hiking trails, waterfalls, and the historic Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
For those seeking a more relaxed experience, the coastal towns of Sandusky and Marblehead offer sandy beaches, waterfront dining, and beachside entertainment. Visitors can explore the historic Marblehead Lighthouse, take a ride on thrilling roller coasters at Cedar Point amusement park, or simply unwind on the shores of Lake Erie.
While Ohio may not have the extensive Great Lakes shoreline as some other states, its connection to Lake Erie offers a wealth of cultural, historical, and outdoor experiences. Whether you’re exploring vibrant cities, island hopping, or enjoying beachside activities, Ohio’s Great Lakes region has something for everyone.
State 7: Pennsylvania
Although Pennsylvania is not directly located on the Great Lakes, it still has a connection to Lake Erie through its small portion of shoreline in the northwestern corner of the state. This region offers visitors a chance to experience the beauty of the lake along with the charm of Pennsylvania’s countryside.
Erie, the largest city on Pennsylvania’s Great Lakes coastline, is a popular tourist destination. Presque Isle State Park, a sandy peninsula jutting into Lake Erie, provides opportunities for swimming, hiking, fishing, and birdwatching. Visitors can explore the park’s trails, relax on the beach, or rent bicycles to venture around the peninsula.
The city of Erie itself offers a range of attractions, including the Erie Maritime Museum, which showcases the region’s maritime heritage and the history of the U.S. Brig Niagara. Visitors can also explore the Erie Art Museum, enjoy the vibrant downtown area, and indulge in delicious local cuisine.
Conneaut Lake, located south of Erie, is the largest natural lake in Pennsylvania and offers a laid-back lakeside experience. Visitors can enjoy water activities such as boating, fishing, and swimming. The lake is surrounded by scenic countryside, providing the perfect setting for a relaxing getaway.
Just east of Lake Erie, the city of Meadville is known for its historic charm and natural beauty. Allegheny College, located in Meadville, boasts a beautiful campus and opportunities for cultural experiences, including art exhibits and theater performances. Nearby, the Ernst Trail provides a scenic path for hiking, biking, and birdwatching.
Pennsylvania’s Great Lakes region also offers a variety of vineyards and wineries. Visitors can indulge in wine tastings and take in the picturesque landscapes as they explore the region’s wine trails.
Whether you’re seeking outdoor adventures, cultural experiences, or a peaceful lakeside escape, Pennsylvania’s Great Lakes region has something to offer. From sandy beaches and scenic parks to charming towns and gastronomic delights, this region provides a unique and memorable experience for visitors.
State 8: New York
New York, located in the northeastern United States, shares a significant portion of its border with Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. With its diverse landscapes and vibrant cities, the state offers a plethora of experiences for visitors along its Great Lakes shoreline.
Buffalo, situated on Lake Erie, is a thriving city known for its rich history and architectural landmarks. Visitors can explore the vibrant Canalside district, home to entertainment venues, restaurants, and seasonal events. The Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park provides an opportunity to learn about the region’s naval history, while the Albright-Knox Art Gallery showcases a renowned collection of modern and contemporary art.
Further north, Niagara Falls is undoubtedly one of the most famous natural landmarks in the world. The powerful waterfalls straddle the border between the United States and Canada, offering awe-inspiring views and a range of activities, including boat tours, hiking, and scenic helicopter rides.
Rochester, located on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, is known for its innovation and cultural offerings. The George Eastman Museum celebrates the art of photography, while the Strong National Museum of Play offers interactive exhibits for families and children. The High Falls district provides a picturesque setting for dining and entertainment.
Another notable destination in New York’s Great Lakes region is the Finger Lakes. This region, known for its stunning lakes and vineyards, offers opportunities for wine tastings, scenic drives, and outdoor adventures. Visitors can explore the charming town of Skaneateles, soak in the beauty of Watkins Glen State Park, or indulge in culinary delights in the town of Geneva.
The Thousand Islands region, situated on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. This archipelago boasts picturesque islands, historic landmarks, and numerous opportunities for boating, fishing, and kayaking. Boldt Castle and Singer Castle are among the region’s most popular attractions.
From the vibrant cityscapes of Buffalo and Rochester to the natural wonders of Niagara Falls and the Finger Lakes, New York’s Great Lakes region offers a wealth of experiences for visitors. Whether you’re seeking cultural attractions, outdoor adventures, or scenic beauty, this region is sure to captivate and leave a lasting impression.
The Great Lakes of North America are not only breathtaking natural wonders but also hubs of recreational activities, cultural attractions, and historical significance. Stretching across multiple states, these magnificent bodies of water offer an array of experiences for visitors to explore.
Minnesota, with its “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” showcases the beauty of Lake Superior and the charm of waterfront towns like Duluth. Wisconsin offers the picturesque Door County Peninsula and the vibrant city of Milwaukee. Michigan, known as the “Great Lakes State,” provides stunning landscapes, vibrant cities like Detroit, and the enchanting Mackinac Island.
While not directly bordering the Great Lakes, Illinois boasts the vibrant city of Chicago and its connection to Lake Michigan. Indiana offers visitors the beauty of the Lake Michigan shoreline, with locations like the Indiana Dunes and the historic town of Michigan City. Ohio showcases the scenic shores of Lake Erie, including the city of Cleveland and the beauty of the Lake Erie Islands.
Pennsylvania’s connection to Lake Erie offers the opportunity to explore attractions such as Erie’s Presque Isle State Park and charming lakeside towns. Finally, New York provides a diverse range of experiences, from the majestic Niagara Falls to the cities of Buffalo and Rochester, as well as the scenic Finger Lakes region and the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River.
Whether you’re seeking outdoor adventures, cultural immersion, relaxation on sandy beaches, or exploring vibrant cities, the Great Lakes region has something for everyone. From the natural beauty of sandy shores, rugged cliffs, and lush forests to the rich history, vibrant cityscapes, and diverse culinary scenes, each state brings a unique perspective and an opportunity to create cherished memories.
So pack your bags, grab your camera, and embark on a journey to explore the wonders of the Great Lakes region. Immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, indulge in local flavors, and create unforgettable experiences that will leave you longing to return to these incredible destinations time and time again.