MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Lake Michigan

America's freshwater Riviera

On Lake Michigan's gorgeous beaches, everyone can find a spot in the sun.

It’s funny that some people in the Upper Midwest spend their summer vacations on the beaches of Cancun or Cape Cod, because the best beaches in the world are in their own back yard.

Lake Michigan is America’s freshwater Riviera, a nearly unending strand of sand that looks like Florida without the high-rise condos. It’s clean, blue and pleasantly cool, with water temperatures in the 60s, and in most places it looks just like the ocean.

Add in candy-striped lighthouses and even more ice-cream stands, and you’ve got the makings of a great beach holiday — a cheap one, too, if you're on a budget.

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Planning a Circle Tour of Lake Michigan

For a great summer road trip, follow the shores of this Midwestern Riviera.

If sun, sand and water are your favorite things, the Circle Tour of Lake Michigan is the vacation for you.

The 1,100-mile drive along this Third Coast is an easygoing road trip that appeals to beach bums, lighthouse lovers, boating buffs and anyone who likes to wander in and out of wineries and fudge shops.

It's a great family trip because there's a beach every few miles, almost always with a playground. On the northwest side of the lake, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one big sandbox.

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Sights of Sheboygan

Surfers, sculptors and sausage makers all follow their passion in this Wisconsin town.

As far as most people know, there’s nothing but sausage in Sheboygan.

This town on Lake Michigan is the bull’s-eye of brats, for sure, and serious eaters go straight for a double on Sheboygan hard roll.

But serious sightseers come to Sheboygan for other reasons: for surfing, for odd sculptures, for sand dunes.

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Living in a lighthouse

Around the Great Lakes, volunteers keep the light on for tourists.

Around the Great Lakes, love for lighthouses is unlimited. Often called "America's castles,'' lighthouses are symbols of a more adventurous era, and tourists find them irresistible.

Now, the state parks and friends associations who care for them have found a way to harness all this passion: They're turning tourists into volunteer keepers. 

For a week or two, volunteers live at the lighthouse, hosting visitors and doing chores. Some get to sleep under quilts in the historic keepers' quarters.

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Two trails from Two Rivers

On Lake Michigan, bicyclists ride the breezes between a lighthouse and a submarine.

In summer, overheated tourists head for the Cool City.

Two Rivers, Wis., gets its nickname from cooling breezes that come from three sides: the East Twin River, the West Twin River and Lake Michigan.

Swimmers can cool off with a dip from Neshotah Beach, a great strip of sand, but there’s an even better one five miles north, where Rawley Point Lighthouse towers over the dunes of Point Beach.

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Destination: Mackinaw City

On the south shore of the Mackinac Straits, the year is 1775.

At the top of the Michigan mitten, a little village has seen a lot of action over the centuries.

Iroquois war parties, French explorers and British soldiers passed by on the Mackinac Straits, which link Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. American traders, lighthouse-builders, ore boats and tourist ferries followed.

Then the continent's longest suspension bridge went up, a link to the Upper Peninsula and an attraction in itself.

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Following the tall ships

Sloops and schooners still sail on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

On the Great Lakes, everyone loves to see a multi-masted schooner, white sails flapping in the breeze.

They're always the favorite guests at festivals, especially on Lake Superior, which usually sees only freighters.

On Lake Michigan, these magnificent replicas of 19th-century schooners and sloops are more common, offering tours and day sails from their homes when they're not appearing at festivals.

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Touring Mackinac Island

On a scenic web of trails, visitors see another side of a celebrated spot.

In the straits between lakes Michigan and Huron, you can find more than one Mackinac Island.

The best-known first was advertised as "the Fairy Isle of Mackinac," and it's not quite rooted in reality. It has a tuxedo shop but no hardware store, a Victorian house called Brigadoon and a fan club that gathers every October in vintage clothing to revere the year 1912.

You get to that island in a horse-drawn surrey, driven by a liveryman in a top hat.

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Lake Michigan's greatest hits

A nine-day Circle Tour itinerary takes in the highlights of this ultra-scenic drive.

Smack in the middle of the Upper Midwest, Lake Michigan is irresistible in summer.

It's America's freshwater Riviera, and everyone competes for a little piece of that beautiful sand: beach bums, lighthouse buffs, campers on a budget. 

A road trip around its shores is one of the world's most scenic drives, a thousand miles of lakeshore lined by state, county and national parks — and two big cities.

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Michigan's great lake cabins

In the only state that borders three Great Lakes, the best places to stay are in state parks.

On a summer day in Holland, Mich., all roads lead to the beach.

When we were there one June, people streamed toward this broad swath of sand until the sun fell low on the horizon, making the fire-engine-red harbor beacon glow like an ember. They ate ice cream, they strolled on the breakwall, they took a last dip in Lake Michigan.

But at 10 p.m. sharp, a police cruiser started flashing its red lights to shepherd everyone out of the park.

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Grand sand

Along Lake Michigan, the Sleeping Bear Dunes are a playground for all ages.

One Great Lake east of Superior, there’s another North Shore.

It doesn’t have any craggy points or sheer palisades, and there are no agates waiting to be found. It has no waterfalls, and not a scrap of basalt; in fact, there’s nothing volcanic about it.

But this north shore, on the leeward side of Lake Michigan, has something Minnesota's beautiful North Shore on Lake Superior doesn’t have: Sand, lots and lots of sand.

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Camping around Lake Michigan

For a beach vacation on a budget, stay at cabins and campgrounds in state parks.

No summer vacation is more fun than a Circle Tour of one of the Great Lakes — and nothing is more of a pain than planning one.

Fans of sand and sun love Lake Michigan, which is lined by state and city parks with gorgeous stretches of sand and dunes. You can’t buy a better beach vacation at any price, but you have to plan ahead.

Planning is tricky because you pass through four states, 30 state parks and two big metropolitan areas, each of which floods beaches with hordes of sun-worshippers on weekends.

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Circling Lake Michigan

A road trip around this sandy inland sea uncovers multiple personalities.

If Lake Superior is the drama queen of the Great Lakes, then Lake Michigan is president of the pep club.

It’s beautiful, popular and a lot easier to get along with than its tempestuous sister. Its shores are lined with sand, not jagged cliffs, and its beaches attract festive crowds every summer.

It’s the only Great Lake you can circle without a passport, and if you don’t want to drive around the whole thing, you can take a short cut on a car ferry.

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Lake Michigan with kids

Following the sandy shores of this great lake, families find many playgrounds.

Not many parents would think that a long road trip would be a perfect vacation to take with young children.

But the shores of Lake Michigan is one big sandbox, and on a drive along its shores, you'll hit one big playground after another.

On the east side, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is spectacular, a Disneyland of sand. But the lake also is lined with lighthouses, fudge shops, fur-trade forts and endless beaches.

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