North America's Great Lakes region offers some of the continent's top attractions, such as Niagara Falls and Chicago, but also some lesser known road trip possibilities.  The five majestic Great Lakes (Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior) hold over one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water.  From east to west, these lakes are split between the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota and Province of Ontario in Canada.

Attractions include natural wonders such as Niagara Falls, great beaches (where water temperatures can reach as high as 80 degrees F. in late summer), wildlife areas, exciting islands, famed arboretums, charming small town harbors, towering sand dunes, and picturesque lakeshores such as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Isle Royale National Park, Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and Indiana's Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Great cities grace the shores of these lakes, from Toronto, Canada's largest city, to Chicago, America's "Second City" and home of the continent's tallest skyscrapers. In Chicago and Cleveland, the region is home to two of the world's best orchestras, and the region is dotted with great museums.  A cultural tour of the region from late October through May during the non-peak vacation off-season can be economical and very memorable, despite the region's sometimes harsh winter weather, now greatly muted by global warming. 

All along the lakeshores are very good wineries, especially noted for some of the world's best ice wine.  Cuisine is varied but often heavily influenced by the region's waves of ethnic immigrations and in recent decades by an emergence of locavore restaurants featuring the region's agricultural bounty.

Magnificent stadiums and arenas host the continent's major professional baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey leagues.  The historic venues of the Big Ten university athletic league grace the region, turning the fall football season especially into a spirited spectacle of athletic competition.  The Big Ten features 3 of the 4 largest stadiums in the world, including the "Big House" in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home stadium of the Univ. of Michigan, with a capacity of over 107,000, the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

Some of the continent's best zoos and botanical gardens are located in the region.

Great engineering attractions include the Welland Canal north of Niagara Falls, the Mackinac Bridge and the Soo Locks in northern Michigan.

Other cultural attractions include Ohio Amish country, the largest Amish community in the world; Cedar Point, the roller coaster capital of the world; and The Henry Ford, south of Detroit, one of the world's great history and auto travel museums and factory tours.

One of the world's great historical attractions is in Dayton, Ohio.  At Huffman Prairie Flying Field in 1905, after almost two years of life-risking test flights and engineering advancements, following their short flights at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the Wright brothers finally perfected a powered aircraft capable of sustained and reliable flight.  That plane, the Wright Flyer III, is housed in the Wright Brothers Aviation Center at Dayton's Carillon Historical Park.  Both of these attractions are part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.  Dayton also is the home of the U.S. Air Force National Museum, the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world.

Another historical attraction is in Kirtland, Ohio.  Historical Kirtland recreates the village where the Mormon church was first organized, and the Kirtland Temple, the first Mormon temple, is open to the public.


Here is a state-by-state summary of attractions (listed from East to West):



When one thinks of New York, "The Big Apple" comes to mind, or the Hudson River, or even the Catskills..... But, did you know New York is one of the 8 Great Lakes states?  The entire south and east shore of Lake Ontario, and the eastern portion of the south shore of Lake Erie borders the state of New York, adding up to about 370 miles of shoreline. Only Michigan and Wisconsin have more Great Lakes shoreline...  Plus, New York is blessed with the USA side of Niagara Falls and the gorgeous Thousand Islands region of the Saint Lawrence River near Watertown....





Pennsylvania's Great Lakes shoreline runs about 50 miles along the southern shore of Lake Erie...

Places of interest include the city of Erie and Presque Isle State Park, a long sand spit extending northeast into Lake Erie....   There, you can bike ride around the park, swim in the warm clear waters of Lake Erie or just hang out at the beach....

Erie, PA is the home of the Niagara, a reconstruction of the famous War of 1812 warship.... 

The city of Pittsburgh is about 2 hours south of Erie and the Allegheny Mountains region lies to the south and east.... 




Road trippers along the south shore of Lake Erie often stop in Cleveland to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.  The city also is one of the nation's cultural centers, featuring University Circle, the home of the world-renown Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the nation's best. The Cleveland Orchestra performs in Severance Hall, often considered America's most beautiful concert hall.

Cleveland's compact downtown features three major league sports venues and two entertainment/dining districts and one of the nation's regional culinary traditions, noted for its locavore and traditional Mod ethnic cuisines.  The city's Market District centers around the West Side Market, one of the continent's great public indoor markets.

Other attractions in northern Ohio include Ohio Amish Country, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Cedar Point and Ohio's Lake Erie islands.

Southern Ohio features Columbus, home of one of the nation's great zoos and The Ohio State University, one of the very largest in the U.S.  Cincinnati is the Queen City, one of the nation's great river cities.  Dayton arguably is the world's aviation history mecca.

The Wilds in Zanesville, east of Columbus, is one of the largest and most innovative animal preserves in the U.S. with almost 10,000 acres. 




When you think of a Great Lakes state, the State of Michigan comes to mind: it touches four of the five Great Lakes and possesses the longest fresh water coastline in the world at about 3,288 miles.  In fact, it is second only to Alaska in total shoreline!

From Southwest Michigan's "Harbor Country" north to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore,  one can find world class beaches and sand dunes (some topping out at 450 feet!), state parks, wineries, quaint harbor towns, country cottages and inns, ORV dune riding, bicycle and snowmobile trails (known as "Rail Trails")....then further north, are the scenic coastal towns of Traverse City, Charlevoix, Petoskey, Harbor Springs and finally the Straits of Mackinaw...  Here's a great thread, especially post 14, describing the SleepingBear Dunes region.

Along this entire route, you can take side trips (or short cuts, as the case may be), via ferry, to Wisconsin, North and South Manitou Islands, Beaver Island and Mackinac Island, one of the Crown Jewels of the Great Lakes/Midwest Region.  This entire route could be driven in as little as one or two days, but to do it right, and enjoy what the west coast of Michigan has to offer, at least 4 or 5 days is in order.

North of the Straits, is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or the "U.P." for short, or sometimes it's affectionately called the "Yoop".   From Lower Michigan (sometimes known as "The Mitten"),  access to the UP, via road is driving across the awe-inspiring Mackinac Bridge.  Even if you don't plan to visit the UP, it's still worth driving across the Bridge to experience the panoramic view of the Straits.

Mackinac Island, where personal cars have been banned for over a century, is an iconic Michigan destination.

The UP is a destination in its own right: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Porcupine Mountains State Park, the Keewauna Peninsula (don't miss Brockway Mountain Drive!), countless waterfalls and crystal clear rivers, whitewater rivers, shipwrecks, Seney Wildlife Refuge, the SOO Locks, Hiawatha National Forest, Grand Island National Recreation Area and the list goes on. A road trip here can easily take a week especially if you plan to hike, paddle or whatever, and if a trip to Isle Royale National Park is in your itinerary, plan to spend another 2-3 days....

During Wintertime, the UP is blessed with Lake Effect Snow.  Many parts of the UP routinely get over 200 inches of snow, thus it's a major snowmobiling destination...  And, due to it's hilly topography (actually, they're ancient mountains formed about a billion years ago, so they've had a lot of time to wear down), there are several ski resorts, located mainly in the western part, the Keewauna Peninsula, Marquette and Iron Mountain....  Ice fishing is also popular.

From a Road Tripper's perspective, both parts of Michigan are relatively easy to get to from major Midwestern cities.  If you're flying in from another part of the USA or overseas, logical portal cities to base your road trip would be Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland (the major airlines fly into each of these cities). Secondary (aka-more regional cities) would be Milwaukee, Marquette (centrally located in the UP), Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Duluth, and perhaps Toledo.  From Chicago, the UP (Pictured Rocks) is about a 6-7 hour drive, traffic and weather permitting; and to the west coast of Michigan, it's about 1.5 hours to "Harbor Country", 3 hours to Grand Haven, 6.5 hours to Sleeping Bear Dunes and about 8 hours to Mackinaw City.  Of course these times are weather and traffic permitting and driving straight through and not stopping to see anything.


Listed below are links to  Michigan sites/sights:

Here's an ultimate Michagan bucket list from the Detroit Free Press.  Check comments for additional ideas. 





Michigan Beaches





Indiana's Lake Michigan coastline stretches about 50 miles from the Southeast side of Chicago to Harbor Country in Southwest Michigan. The western 3rd of this stretch is very industrialized, but as you travel east, the industry gives way to farmland (along the I-80-94 corridors) and scenic dune country along the Dunes Highway (US-12).  Driving along the Dunes Highway, you'll find Indiana Dunes National LakeshoreIndiana Dunes State Park; forests, old timey stores, restaurants and motels; wide open beaches and sand dunes; and some high-end vacation homes.  The Dunes Highway becomes the Red Arrow Highway when it crosses over into Michigan.  It's worth mentioning, this stretch is also highly susceptible to heavy Lake Effect Snow Storms, so if you plan to drive this stretch during winter, plan accordingly.

There are numerous interesting destinations within several hours drive south and east of the Indiana coastal route such as the City of IndianapolisTurkey Run State ParkBrown County State ParkHoosier National Forest, the East Race Waterway Whitewater Park in South Bend to name a few.




Chicago, located on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan, is a logical base for a road trip around Lake Michigan.  While Illinois' Lake Michigan shoreline is only about 60 miles, there's plenty to see within easy driving distance (traffic permitting, of course)...  As mentioned in the MICHIGAN section, many Michigan destinations are within a half day's drive from Chicago.  To the immediate north, many Wisconsin tourist/traveler destinations are within  a few hours' drive.

Chicago  is a popular destination city, so in the context of a Road Trips article, it will be mentioned only as a portal city for Illinois-based road trips....  However, listed below are several links for more info on Chicago, especially if you plan to spend time in the city as part of your Road Trip: 

In addition, here is a link to the Chicago Forum page.  Read the "Top questions about CHICAGO" box in the upper right part of the page.  It gives useful info regarding parking, event calendars, pizza, beaches etc......


From Chicago, you could do a variety of Road Trips, from a week long Lake Michigan Circle Tour, to an overnighter to a Beachtown or  whitewater rafting river, to a multiple week extravaganza around the Upper Great Lakes....    One can experience camping, hiking, backpacking, dune climbing,  kayaking/canoeing, rafting, tubing (river and snow), xc skiing, downhill skiing (yes, downhill skiing in the Midwest!), luging, B&B'ing, music festivaling, beachcombing, waterfalling, spelunking, rappelling/rock climbing/ bouldering, SCUBA/snorkeling, ice fishing, snowmobiling, ATV riding and dune buggying---ALL within a day's drive of Chicago....

Day trips (drives under 2.5 hours each way) could include  Starved Rock State Park, Mathiessen State Park, Indiana Dunes State ParkIndiana Dunes National LakeshoreWarren Dunes State Park, Harbor Country, Illinois State BeachVolo Bog, Chain o Lakes, Castle Rock State Park, the Illinois Railway Museum,  Lake Geneva, South Kettle Moraine and Milwaukee.  One could even spend several hours driving through the Northshore along Lake Michigan via Sheridan Road up to, and beyond the Wisconsin border.....    

Overnighter and [long] weekend Road Trips (say, up to 4-6 hours driving) could include the above destinations, plus Door County, WI,  the Wisconsin Dells, Devil's Lake State Park, WI, Northeastern Wisconsin whitewater rivers and waterfalls, Galena, Mississippi River sights, west coast of Michigan, Turkey Run State Park and Brown County, Indiana, and Southern Illinois....

Weeklong Road Trips could include The Lake Michigan Circle Tour (it can be cut in half by taking a carferry across the Lake), Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and surrounding areas, Isle Royale National Park, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Mackinac Island and surounding areas,  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and the Great River Road along the Mississippi River...  Longer trips could include the Lake Superior Circle Tour and the Lake Huron and/or Georgian Bay Circle Tours.....


For the sites/sights in other states, see the MICHIGAN, WISCONSIN, MINNESOTA, INDIANA and ONTARIO sections of this article....




Wisconsin is known for its water:  Countless inland lakes and rivers, numerous waterfalls,  and of course, its Great Lakes shoreline.... Wisconsin's Great Lakes shoreline is about 800 miles...It's entire eastern shore is along Lake Michigan, and the northwest corner lies along Lake Superior.  Also of note, most of the western border of the state runs along the Mississippi and St Croix Rivers....  Another great river worth mentioning, the Wisconsin River, flows north to south through the middle of the state, then empties into the Mississippi near Prairie Du Chien...

For this article, we'll mainly focus on Wisconsin's Great Lakes sights (and short side trips) starting with Lake Michigan....  From its southern border with Illinois near Kenosha, to its largest city Milwaukee, to its rural coasline dotted with port cities, to beautiful Door County and finally ending north of of the city of Green Bay at the Michigan Border at Marinette....   Then onto its Lake Superior shoreline.....

The entire east coast of Wisconsin could be done in 4 or 5 hours if you stick to the interstates and see nothing, but you could easily spend several days in Milwaukee or Door County alone... 

At its southern border near Lake Michigan, Sheridan Road (runs along Chicago's "Northshore") turns into WI State Route 32, which in turn runs north to Milwaukee.  Along the way, it goes through the shoreline cities of Kenosha and Racine, then brushes by Wind Point Lighthouse...  It then enters the  great City of Milwaukee...  The city is home to many well known attractions and festivals such as the Harley Davidson museum and factory, the Milwaukee Zoo, Mitchell conservatory, Summerfest and the Milwaukee Art Museum and the list goes on.....  It is also worth mentioning, a high speed ferry can be taken across the lake from Milwaukee to Muskegon, MI.

Further north, along the coast is Port WashingtonSheboyganManitowocPoint Beach State ForestKewauneeAlgoma and on up to beautiful Door County, one of the premier tourist destinations in the Midwest.  At this point, you could break away from the shoreline and head northwest to the City of Green Bay, one of the gateways to Wisconsin's Northwoods.....  If you're short on time, I-94 and I-43 (and US-41) run parallel to this route....  North of Green Bay, you could continue to hug  Green Bay itself up to the Michigan border, or you could continue north via US-141 to the Menomenee River and Iron Mountain, MI.....  It's worth mentioning, another ferry crosses the Lake Michigan and sails from Manitowoc to Ludington, MI....

Along this general route, there are interesting inland destinations and events:   Starting from south to north,  the resort area of Lake GenevaKettle Moraine State Forest, the City of Madison (the state capital), Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, the town of KohlerGreen LakeLake Winnebago, the EAA Air Venture and Museum at Oshkosh, the Nicolet National Forestwhitewater rivers, and Pier's Gorge along the Menomenee River.....  Also, there are many scenic waterfalls and county parks, many of them located in northeastern Wisconsin.....  

The northwest corner of the state is along the western end of Lake Superior, sandwiched between Upper Michigan and Minnesota...  In this scenic area is the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (a sea kayaking mecca), Madeline IslandBrule River State Forest (canoeing and kayaking),  and the quaint and scenic town of Bayfield....  You can enjoy the music at the ongoing music festival of Big Top Chautauqua....




In a nutshell: The Northshore, The Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park....   

Minnesota's Lake Superior sights  and/or inland areas could be a destination(s) on its/their own, or it could be part of a grand Lake Superior Circle Tour....  

Minnesota's Lake Superior coastline stretches almost 150 miles, but packed within that 150 miles is some of the most scenic coastline in the entire USA....spectacular vistas over the crystal clear water of Lake Superior, ancient lava flows, the Canadian Shield, waterfalls, ancient mountain ranges, surfing spots and ski resorts...  Just inland (and comprising most of the northeastern part of the state) are countless inland lakes, water trails, snowmobile and xc ski trails, national forests and more ancient mountain ranges....



Here are attractions in the Canadian Province of Ontario.



Trip Planning

Here is TA member lelici49's plan for her 5th Road Trip in the USA.  Her group is two adults, traveling in September for 4 weeks.  The focus is cities with a bit of nature.   THREAD