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Sunset over Lake Michigan
Becky Swora | Adobe Stock

The 8 Best Beaches Along the Great Lakes

SmarterTravel

If you were blindfolded and brought to the shoreline of one of the Great Lakes, you may be fooled into thinking you were seaside at the ocean. These lakes are so big that you’ll see nothing but blue water on the horizon and, in some cases, you can experience crashing waves along the shore.

The 8 Best Beaches Along the Great Lakes

As for beaches, you’ll find some full of sand and others with pebbles, giving you a wide variety of shoreline to discover. And one of the best advantages of swimming in a lake instead of an ocean is the cleansing feel of fresh water rather than the sticky salt water of an ocean. If you’re ready to trade palm trees for pine trees and enjoy a different kind of beach vacation this summer, check out these beaches along the Great Lakes.

Indiana Dunes National Park, Chesterton, IN

Boardwalk steps down a dune at Indiana Dunes National Park
Jon | Adobe Stock

Located on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, the Indiana Dunes National Park covers more than 20 miles of shoreline and 15,000 acres. It officially became the country’s 61st National Park just recently in 2019, making it the only national park in the state of Indiana. There is also an Indiana Dunes State Park adjacent to the national park and some say the dunes are much better in the state park. You’ll be able to enjoy clear waters, camping, and can even participate in The 3 Dune Challenge to test your physical strength.

While South Bend Airport is slightly closer, you’ll find many more options and lower fares to either of Chicago’s airports. Look for Southwest flights into Midway to avoid some of the Chicago traffic, but you’ll find the most options flying into O’Hare.

Sandy Island Beach State Park, Pulaski, NY

Sandy Island Beach State Park
Discover Upstate New York

This New York State Park lies on the eastern shores of Lake Ontario. It’s less than an hour drive north of Syracuse and was once labeled the “hottest spot on the shoreline” back in the 50s and 60s when it was a private beach resort. Since 2005, it has been under the state park system and, as of 2014, the park covers 229 acres. A unique feature on Sandy Island Beach is the red oak and red maple trees that grow in the high dunes. It’s a great combination of the northern countryside mixed with an expansive sandy shoreline.

Fly into Syracuse for the shortest drive. Alternatively, you may find some better flight options into nearby Rochester, or to further away cities such as Buffalo or Albany.

Mackinac Island, Mackinac Island, MI

Michael | Adobe Stock

Rent a bike and cycle around this car-free island. Resting near where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet, this island can be reached by ferry from either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace. It’s full of Victorian homes, lighthouses, and pebble beaches. The famous Arch Rock is a great place for a photo op.

Technically, the closest airport is across the border in Canada. Sault Ste. Marie Airport in Ontario is under an hour drive from the ferry in St. Ignace. However, unless you’re flying from Canada, you’ll probably want to fly into a Michigan airport. The closest is Traverse City, which is a two-hour drive and has increased service this summer. Alternatively, you can fly into one of the larger airports in southern Michigan, which will be a three- or four-hour drive.

North Avenue Beach, Chicago, IL

North Avenue Beach with Chicago Skyline in Background
James | Adobe Stock

Nestled to the east of Lake Shore Drive and on the western shores of Lake Michigan, North Avenue Beach in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago is a great place to mix beach life with city life. You’ll have stunning views of skyscrapers while you play some beach volleyball or sip your favorite drink at the popular Castaways Bar & Grill.

Chicago’s airports are basically equidistant to this popular city beach. If Southwest is your preferred airline, look for flights to Midway. Otherwise, you’ll likely find better flight schedules and more options flying into O’Hare. If you prefer a smaller airport and don’t mind a longer drive, look at flights to Milwaukee, which is 1.5 hours to the north.

Park Point Recreation Area, Duluth, MN

Park Point Recreation Area, Minnesota
Explore Minnesota

On the western edge of Lake Superior, you’ll find the world’s longest freshwater sandbar on this 7-mile stretch of sand combined with the 3-mile-long Wisconsin Point. The small skyline of delightful Duluth, Minnesota provides a backdrop for summer sunbathers. And if it gets too hot, the cold water of Lake Superior provides instant relief. You’ll often find plenty of driftwood along the shore, which doubles as great seating for an evening fire on the beach. Across the Aerial Lift Bridge, you’ll find plenty of restaurants and entertainment activities in Duluth’s Canal Park district.

With United now a mainstay in Duluth, and Sun Country partnering with Landline Bus service, Delta finally has some competition into this small, northern Minnesota airport. This has led to lower fares and it can often be worth it to pay a slightly higher price for the convenience. However, you’ll still find plenty more airline options and lower fares if you prefer to fly into Minneapolis, which is a 2h 30m drive.

Headlands Beach State Park, Mentor, OH

Headlands Park on Lake Erie
Richard | Adobe Stock

Just outside of Cleveland, you’ll find Headlands Beach State Park along the southern shore of Lake Erie. It is the largest natural beach in the state of Ohio and home to some rare plants that are typically found along the Atlantic coast. The lighthouse at the end of the beach indicates where the Grand River flows into Lake Erie.

Cleveland’s airport, which is about 45 minutes away, is slightly closer than Akron, but the difference may seem negligible so both airports are decent options. If you happen to find better flight schedules into Erie, PA, it’s about the same distance as Akron.

Sauble Beach, Sauble Beach, ON, Canada

Sunset at Sauble Beach
mangomaxx | Adobe Stock

Drive your car right onto the beach for an easy day of lounging with all of your beach gear within reach. Along the eastern shores of Lake Huron, Sauble Beach is one of Ontario’s favorites and the only Canadian beach featured on this list. For Canadians who don’t wish to leave the country this summer, this is an excellent place to go for a beach vacation in southern Ontario. You’ll also find mountain biking trails nearby for those looking for some adventure.

All airports are about a 2h 30m drive from Sauble Beach, but you’ll find the most options flying into Toronto-Pearson Airport. Look for some low-cost carrier options flying into either London or Hamilton, which may provide a better flight schedule.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, MI

Wooden path at Sleeping Bear Dunes
csterken | Adobe Stock

This could be the most picturesque beach on this list. You’ll find sweeping views of turquoise Lake Michigan water atop 450-foot-high dunes. There are several hiking trails in the area and you can also take in the scenery with a drive along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. On the other side of the dunes, you’ll be able to walk through a forest of greenery that you wouldn’t expect to be in such proximity to the dune formations. If this national treasure wasn’t on your bucket-list, it should be now.

Traverse City is only a short 30-minute drive and is, by far, the closest airport to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Other airports such as Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo are a 2.5 to 3-hour drive away. In a pinch, you could fly into Detroit and drive 4 – 4.5 hours.

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