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Lake Michigan: Ultimate Travel Guide

sleeping bear point
Sleeping Bear Point on Lake Michigan

Discover Lake Michigan

Wide, sugar sand beaches sloping down to a sparkling blue surf; towering sand dunes cascading into an azure blue freshwater sea…welcome to Lake Michigan.

As the fifth largest lake in the world (!), Lake Michigan is big. It’s big in size, big on fun and big in the opportunities for making lasting travel memories. You’ll have no problem finding a spot for a long vacation or romantic getaway along Lake Michigan’s beautiful shores.

Lake Michigan: Freshwater Playground

With about 1000 miles of freshwater from which to choose, you’ll love exploring this stunning Great Lake in Michigan. From gorgeous beaches and bustling beach towns to endless miles of quiet dune trails and wide-open vistas, the entire coast is an adventure waiting to happen.

If you need a Michigan trip idea, we’ve got everything you need to plan your Lake Michigan beach vacation: the best sandy beaches; the best winery tours; tours of craft breweries; cabin rentals; campgrounds on Lake Michigan and the best Lake Michigan beach towns.

I’ve lived in Michigan my entire life and grew up splashing along the shores. Let me share some insider’s tips to help you discover this magical Michigan shoreline.

Read on and use our Lake Michigan Travel Guide to help you plan an amazing visit!

Point betsie lighthouse
Point Betsie in Frankfort, MI

Explore the Lake Michigan Coast


If you’re new to the Great Lakes region and Lake Michigan’s freshwater coast, you’re in for a treat.
Imagine a sparkling ocean, with no salt, no sharks…just pure Michigan natural beauty.

We’re talking aqua-striped waters clear enough to reflect the blues of the sky above. We’re talking wild waves crashing on to a sandy shoreline or calm, rolling surf gently lapping the shores.

In fact, it’s hard to believe this stunning shoreline exists in the Midwest of the United States, just a short drive from Chicago. Discover the beauty that thousands of generations of visitors have found along the shores of Lake Michigan.

Whether you’re planning a relaxing beach vacation, taking a Lake Michigan lighthouse tour, sport fishing or seeking a fun beach town for quick getaway, Lake Michigan has something for you.

Lake Michigan: Perfect Vacation Travel Destination

From the Indiana Dunes up to the Grand Traverse region to Charlevoix, Petoskey and beyond, Lake Michigan’s shores are simply a perfect sandy playground for visitors year around.

The beaches and beach towns are some of the top travel destinations in the country. These fun spots are filled with endless outdoor recreation opportunities, tourist attractions and wide, sandy, public beaches…everything you need for your perfect beach vacation.

sleeping bear bay
Lake Michigan in Glen Arbor

Where to Start Your Lake Michigan Vacation Adventure

This gorgeous coast extends from Sawyer and New Buffalo in the south all the way to the Mackinac Bridge. The north shore of Lake Michigan the Upper Peninsula is equally beautiful with a diverse coastline from St. Ignace to Manistique to Escanaba.

The coast is dotted with fun beach towns that swell with visitors through the summer and fall, and you’ll also find natural areas, unspoiled by development.

You can also find many beautiful bodies of water: inland lakes and rivers fed by the waters of Lake Michigan. These are all spots worth exploring.

Here is a brief guide to some of the must-see spots along the Lake Michigan coastline, you can click on each location find more information and an in-depth vacation guide to each spot on the map.

You can also use our interactive Michigan Travel and Beach Map for more places to visit in Michigan.

lake michigan beach map

New Buffalo (Harbor Country)

Just 90 minutes from Chicago, you’ll find a beautiful public beach. The real draw, however, is the town and surrounding area, filled with wineries, boutiques, country markets, eateries and more. The Galien River is perfect for kayaking and paddle boarding.

St. Joseph

They don’t call it the “Riviera of the Midwest” for nothing. Set on a high bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state. The picturesque lighthouse guides large yachts and fishing boats into the beautiful downtown harbor. You’ll find a charming downtown, chic restaurants and shops, wineries, museums and lots to do with kids, too.

South Haven

You’ll find some beautiful beaches and a charming, walkable downtown with fun shops, cafes, and wineries. Walking the long pier to the pretty red lighthouse is a summer rite of passage for many vacationers who return here year after year.

Saugatuck- Douglas

Home to Oval Beach, named one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Saugatuck is THE place to be in the summer. Also known as Michigan’s “Art Coast,” this area is home to a cute shopping district lined with chic boutiques and eateries.

Holland

Holland is working city with a cute downtown shopping area and well-manicured parks. It’s also home to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state: the ADA-Accessible Holland State Park. Add it to your Michigan travel bucket list, you won’t want to miss seeing the “Big Red” Lighthouse.

Grand Haven

Its one of the most popular Michigan beach towns, home to not just one but two wide, sandy Lake Michigan beaches open to the public. It’s a very touristy pot but grand have manages to retain the charm, too. With a boardwalk leading to a long pier and lighthouse, it’s a spot you won’t want to miss.

Muskegon

The sprawling Pere Marquette Park beach, with its playground, volleyball courts and restaurant, may be the one of the best-kept secrets on the entire coastline, but let’s keep that between us. Muskegon has long been more of an industrial city than beach town, but that has changed in recent years. You’ll find a vibrant beach-town vibe here in the summer, with lots to do.

Silver Lake Sand Dunes

You can never have too much beach, and miles of sandy beach is what you’ll find here. You’ll find dune buggy rides, hiking trails and small towns: Whitehall and Montague, both worth checking out. It’s the pristine beach and pretty, pink Little Sable Point Lighthouse that you’ll want to visit. It’s one of my personal favorite beaches.

big sable point in ludington on lake michigan
Big Sable Point in Ludington

Ludington

Home to two major attractions, the S.S. Badger Carferry to Milwaukee and Ludington State Park, this is one of the most-visited towns in the summer in Michigan. With good reason, too. You’ll find gorgeous wide-open beach, hiking trails and busy fishing scene. The campground at Ludington State Park is one of the best in the state, very ADA-accessible, too.

Manistee

Charming little Manistee, set on a beautiful stretch of coastline along the Manistee River, is a must-visit. This pretty spot is more than just a beach town; it’s home to an old-fashioned downtown that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Surrounded by grand, restored (mostly) Victorian mansions, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

Frankfort

You’ve probably seen the iconic Point Betsie Lighthouse on a windswept bit of shoreline on a calendar or photo somewhere. It’s one of the most picturesque Michigan lighthouses. Don’t miss this, or the cute town of Frankfort (complete with it’s own craft brewery).

sleeping bear dunes on lake michigan
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Empire, Glen Arbor)

Named the “Most Beautiful Place in the United States,” Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a must-on any Lake Michigan travel bucket list. You’ll find 26 miles of pristine, sandy beach; towering dunes; wooded trails through lofty hardwood forests and an aqua-blue lake.

Leelanau Peninsula

Start in Leland, home to the famous “Fishtown,” and travel though Michigan’s wine country. You’ll find pretty lighthouses, beached scattered with Petoskey Stones and “Leelanau Blues,” and charming little towns like Suttons Bay.

Traverse City

The largest city in northern Michigan, Traverse City is set on a stunning Grand Traverse Bay. Despite a giant growth surge, this popular vacation spot has managed to retain some small-town charm while still celebrating the natural beauty that surrounds it. There are tons of stuff to do in Traverse City year-round, from shopping and dining to hiking, biking and skiing. Explore the Old Mission peninsula wineries, the TART trail and don’t miss Front Street.

good hart and cross village beach
Beach at Good Hart

Charlevoix

Known as “Charlevoix the Beautiful,” it’s easy to fall in love with this upscale resort town. The well-manicured downtown area is filled overflowing baskets of flowers in the summer and sits exactly between Lake Michigan and picturesque Round Lake. In addition to the pretty beaches, you’ll find top-notch golf courses and fishing charters, too.

Petoskey and Harbor Springs

Set across from each other on picturesque Little Traverse Bay in Northern Michigan, these two top Michigan beach towns both home to gorgeous waterfront parks. Harbor Springs is a little more upscale, with a smaller downtown shopping district with art galleries and boutiques. Petoskey is an outdoors-lovers paradise, with endless hiking and biking trails, and the popular Petoskey State Park.

Good Hart and Cross Village

Drive through Michigan’s famous “Tunnel of Trees” from Harbor Springs to Cross Village a scenic road trip. You’ll pass Good Hart (don’t miss the Good Hart General Store and it’s delicious cookies) as you head toward Cross Village. The shore is wilder here, be sure and stop at Legs Inn. This restaurants serves some of the best Polish food in the state and has long been a draw for travelers in the area.

lake michigan web cam

About Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan is one of the largest lakes in the world, and one of five Great Lakes: Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Superior are the others.

The western shore of Lake Michigan begins with the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and continues north to the Chicago River, where it eventually spills out into the Mississippi River. It makes it way up the Chicago lakefront, passing many a north shore Illinois beach before heading up to Door County and Green Bay.

Lake Michigan Facts

  • The largest freshwater system in the world, these interconnected lakes connect the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence seaway and provide more than one-fifth of the world’s freshwater.
  • It’s part of the Lake Michigan basin, which covers almost 50,000 squares miles and includes part of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.
  • The second largest Great Lake by volume with just under 1,180 cubic miles of water, it’s the only Great Lake entirely within the United States.
  • This massive body of water has a water surface of 22,300 square miles and is home to several small island including Beaver Island, North Manitou and South Manitou.
beaches on lake michigan

Best Lake Michigan Beaches

We’re sharing some of the best beaches here, and you might also want to check out our Guide to the Best Family-Friendly Beaches and our Guide to 10 Secret, Must See Beaches, too.

  • Esch Road Beach in Empire
  • Grand Haven City Beach
  • Holland State Park
  • P.J. Hoffmaster State Park
  • Silver Beach in St. Joseph
  • Stearns Park Beach in Ludington
  • Zoll Street Beach in Harbor Springs

ADA and Wheelchair Beach Access

Many Lake Michigan beaches offer accessibility to the shoreline and surrounding areas to users of wheelchairs and other devices.

Ramps and wide, paved walkways as well as beach wheelchairs and mobility mats are available at some locations to provide improved access. My Michigan Beach is committed to helping improve accessibility to Michigan’s Great Lakes beaches.

Dog-Friendly Beaches on Lake Michigan

Michigan is a dog-loving state, and many beaches along the Lake Michigan shoreline welcome furry companions. Be sure to observe leash regulations for the safety of your pup and others.

Check the Michigan Beach Map for more specific locations for dog-friendly beaches.

dog-friendly beaches

Where to Stay on Lake Michigan

Start planning your summer vacation now: the beach towns along Lake Michigan’s coast offer a wide variety of lodging options for summer getaways, fall road trips and an extended day trip in the winter.

There are lake shore resorts in Michigan located right on the beach and many nearby offering outdoor adventure, serene relaxation and a short walk to the Lake Michigan beach.

You can also find private beachfront rentals, lake homes and cabin rentals, hotels and motels, full-service resorts and campgrounds.

There’s something for everyone’s lodging tastes along the Lake Michigan shore: you can opt for beachfront luxury or more practical and affordable options, such as Michigan State Park cabins and campgrounds.

cabin on lake michigan

Lake Michigan Cabin Rentals

You can save a little money without sacrificing fun for your Michigan vacation rental, by exploring lodging options that are in town or not directly located on the water.

lf you don’t mind staying in town or short distance from the water, there are beautiful accommodations awaiting you on the Lake Michigan freshwater coast.

In addition, many beachtowns along the coast offer lodging information through their visitors bureaus.

Local real estate offices, as well as agencies specializing in the Michigan vacation rentals are also great places to check.

lake michigan car ferry

Lake Michigan Ferry

Two ferry services offer transportation across Lake Michigan, both originating from Wisconsin and landing on the middle of the west Michigan coast.

The S.S. Badger Carferry

This carferry, named the S.S. Badger, operates May through mid-October and travels between ports at Ludington, Michigan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

The carferry crosses the lake comfortably, and each trip averages about 4.5 hours an offers a range of accommodations.

A cruise on the SS Badger from the carferry port in Manitowoc to the port in Ludington Michigan is a great way to travel across Lake Michigan for all ages, and provides a shortcut for travelers hoping to avoid the traffic of Chicago and Milwaukee.

It’s worth noting that this historic badger carferry is designated a continuance of route U.S.10, a highway which traverses the Midwest beginning in Michigan.

The SS Badger carferry is a majestic sight when its visiting port, and people gather in Ludington to watch as it ferry across Lake Michigan, bringing visitors and their automobiles.

As the last coal-fired passenger vessel operating on the Great Lakes, and was designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Lake Express

Also known as the “fast-ferry” shortcut, this high-speed auto passenger ferry travels between Muskegon, Michigan (just north of Grand Haven) and downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This speed ferry sails across Lake Michigan in 2.5 hours and also offers a wide variety of accommodations. You can take a Michigan Circle tour shortcut aboard the lake express ferry and bypass traffic in Chicago and Milwaukee, too.

F.A.Q.

Are there Sharks in Lake Michigan?

No, there are no sharks in Lake Michigan. There is also no salt in Lake Michigan: it is a freshwater lake, and the Michigan sea grant works with commercial fisheries and sets policy to combat issues around invasive species, ensuring the lake remains clean.

What is Lake Michigan’s Water Temperature?

Lake Michigan’s water temp varies throughout the year. In 2021, July water temperatures were roughly averaging 74 degrees, although they are much colder in the winter months.
Annual reports from the EPA and lakes commission on climate change indicate that surface water temperatures have increased slightly for each of the Great Lakes since 1995.

What is Lake Michigan-Huron?

Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are connected by the Straits of Mackinac, and are considered one lake from a hydrological standpoint.

How Deep is Lake Michigan?

Lake Michigan has a depth of 922 feet at its deepest point.

Why is Lake Michigan So Dangerous?

Waves along Lake Michigan can create dangerous rip currents. According to Jamie Racklyeft, the executive director of the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, winds tend to blow from west to east, building big waves across the lake.
These waves generate the rip currents. Never swim along and pay attention to water temperatures and water conditions.
Find tips for staying safe in Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes HERE.

Does Lake Michigan Provide Drinking Water?

Lake Michigan provides drinking water for more than a million people in surrounding communities.