Lake Michigan has been called the Cape Cod of the Midwest. A visit to any of these small towns will make you understand why.
It's one of the largest—and perhaps the most beautiful—freshwater lakes in the world. Remnants of the inland shipping industry that once dominated the Great Lakes can be found inside charming lighthouses and small-town historic museums, but today, visits to the shore of Lake Michigan are for swimming and sport fishing. City dwellers in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Indianapolis know that Lake Michigan has a deep catalog of seasonal destinations, but for everyone else, it’s still under-the-radar. As such, now’s the time to plan a summer escape “up north,” as locals call it, where Victorian cottages, boating festivals, and fireworks make the area feel like a midwestern Cape Cod. There are countless ways to spend your time: explore the outdoors on a camping, swimming, or hiking trip in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or Wisconsin’s most remote island state parks, sample locally caught wild whitefish, take a gay-resort holiday, find a favorite microbrewery, or traverse miles of uninterrupted coastline. So what are you waiting for?
1. Manistique, Michigan
At With just over 3,000 residents, Manistique is a population center—albeit small—of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The town at the mouth of the Manistique River on Lake Michigan borders Hiawatha National Forest, nearly 900,000 acres of wilderness spanning the peninsula between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. Camping, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing on the Manistique River or the inland Indian Lake lets you stay close to town. Savor Michigan’s fast-growing microbrewing culture at Hops on the Harbor, a statewide craft beer festival that takes place each August. Or, to dive into the real wilderness-culture of the area, find the legendary Kitsch-iti-kipi spring to learn the Chippewa Indians’ culture. An hour’s drive north takes you to Pictured Rocks, a national park with dramatic cliffs and wild dunes on Lake Superior's shore.
2. Rock Island, Wisconsin
Nestled off the northwestern shore of Wisconsin, Rock Island is accessible only by ferry or personal kayak from neighboring Washington Island. Once owned by an Icelandic immigrant who made his fortune in electronics in Chicago, the mostly undeveloped island is now a state park. Its limited beach camping allows intrepid travelers to spend the night under the stars in stillness and isolation. Day visitors can hike the trail left by its former owner, who built small cottages and a stone boathouse modeled after Iceland’s parliament building. Elsewhere on the island, Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse, named after the Potawatomi tribe who first settled the island, is maintained by volunteer docents who give tours with excellent lake views. But the real treat on Rock Island is the splendid isolation.
3. Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Indiana has the smallest slice of Lake Michigan coastline, but you wouldn’t know it when visiting Indiana Dunes National Park, where the shore appears to stretch endlessly across 15,000 acres between Michigan City and Gary. Seasonal camping and fishing make the park a popular summer getaway, but hikers are rewarded any time of year as they traverse the sandy dunes all the way to the beach or hike the waterfront trail near Portage Beach. As the southernmost point on Lake Michigan, temperatures in the water are usually balmy here earlier in the season, making it a solid choice for a June escape. Away from the beach, the park encompasses historic homes built for the 1933 World’s Fair. The Bailly Homestead, a fur-trading post and meeting place for Native and Anglo-Americans in the early 1800s, is a landmark site that you can explore with a guided tour.
4. Harbor Springs, Michigan
The twin towns on either side of Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay, Petoskey and Harbor Springs, sit near the top of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Harbor Springs, a town of about 2,000, swells during the summer months as vacationers pour in ahead of the annual regatta in July. Ugotta Regatta, paints the bay with hundreds of yachts and sailboats, while spectators take advantage of the charming, historic downtown fudge and ice cream shops in Petoskey, on the south side of the bay, generations of Victorian summer cottages founded as a Methodist church camp in the nineteenth century make up the community of Bay View. Stay at the Bay View Inn or historic Perry Hotel in downtown Petoskey to experience the charm of another era. For a touch of the contemporary, try the local microbrewery, Beards.
5. Saugatuck, Michigan
The lakeside village of fewer less than 1,000 inhabitants has been a cultural draw for more than a century. Saugatuck made its name over a century ago with the Ox-Bow art colony during the Arts and Crafts Movement, and continues to attract artists and curious visitors. Today, this lakeside village of fewer than 1,000 residents is easily the buzziest LGBTQ destination in Michigan. The Dunes and CampIt, a duo of welcoming gay resorts, sit across Kalamazoo Lake in Douglas, Saugatuck’s twin village. The club at The Dunes, covered in disco balls and hot pants, hosts parties every night, but in the summer months, every day on the beach feels like a party, too. Hike through beautiful wooded dunes to the peaceful beach at Saugatuck Dunes State Park, or take a swim at Douglas Beach. For something more chill, check out the retro-style paddlewheel boat cruise down the Kalamazoo River.
6. Two Rivers, Wisconsin
Although it was known through most of the 20th century as a fishing and inland shipping hub, Two Rivers isn’t your typical port town. Said to be the birth place of the ice cream sundae (a claim the town’s historical society takes very seriously) no visit here is complete without dessert at the old-fashioned ice cream saloon in Washington House. The only museum dedicated to wood-type printing, Hamilton Wood Type, hosts letterpress workshops and other hands-on events. Design lovers should make a reservation at the Schwartz House, Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. Don’t miss locally caught fish, whether you catch your own on the shore of Point Beach State Forest or order them at Water’s Edge Restaurant, a popular spot known for its panoramic view of Lake Michigan.
7. Charlevoix, Michigan
The charming drawbridge that divides downtown Charlevoix makes the town a small but busy shipping port for tall ships seeking access from Lake Michigan to the interior lakes on the other side of the channel. The drawbridge action, on the half-hour, always packs this tiny community of 2,000 within tight quarters. You can witness it perfectly from Weathervane Restaurant, while eating locally-caught whitefish and other seasonal items. Locals don’t seem to mind though. You can find them in the Victorian homes around the scenic natural harbor or the charming “mushroom house” built by self-taught architect Earl Young. The round stone structures, which look curiously like hobbit homes, are made of materials found in the area and blend perfectly into the woods. At the end of July, the eight-day Venetian Festival includes a boat parade, live music, beach festival, and fireworks.
8. Port Washington, Wisconsin
It might be the classical brick downtown dating from the early 1800s, the vintage Art Deco pier light, or the neighborly village feel of this harbor community, but Port Washington’s motto, “New England charm and Midwestern friendliness,” fulfills its promise. Visitors to this resort town, 30 miles north of Milwaukee, can swim or yacht on the Lake Michigan shoreline, or head deeper with Port Deco Divers weekend scuba diving trips, which explore one of more than a dozen local shipwreck sites at the bottom of the lake. Since 1964, the town’s largest annual festival, Port Fish Day, celebrates the Lake Michigan fishing tradition with a parade, rock bands, fish and chips stands, and fireworks. Turn up for the atmosphere, stay for the people.