The Great Lakes Offer Culture, History, and One of the Most Unique Ecosystems

From charming lake towns to expedition cruises, there are many good reasons to explore the Greats.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan

Towering bluffs and sweeping sand dunes define the landscape at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan.

Photo by Christina Holmes

A native of Michigan, I have a birthright bond to the Great Lakes, the magnificent five that span two countries and eight states, from New York in the east to Minnesota in the west. Michigan, which claims shoreline on four of the five lakes, always seemed like both the center of it all and a remote peninsula, buffered by its treasures. During high school, when my family had moved to a suburban Detroit home near a smaller lake that connects the Greats, I would fall asleep to the faint bass notes of freighters’ foghorns, the songs of vast waters you can’t see across, inland seas at once familiar and strange.

All these years later, they remain a place to splash in the calm shallows each summer or brave the waves by kayak. Winter brings ephemeral ice caves and adaptations such as iceboats, or sailboats on blades. “Great” describes not just their size but their influence on culture, history, and our climate future.

The lakes form the planet’s largest freshwater system, and the world is waking up to their wonders. As the climate warms, cities such as Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior are being revitalized by newcomers eager to live and play where water is abundant. Last summer, small-ship cruise lines launched on the lakes, calling at tranquil bays, resort towns, and lively cities. New options for exploring this relatively untrammeled part of the United States feature offerings from American Queen Voyages, which recently began operating a pair of 202-passenger ships on the Great Lakes, and Viking, whose 378-passenger Viking Octantis and its twin, Viking Polaris, both debuted in 2022. Port highlights include Niagara Falls; Thunder Bay, Ontario; and Michigan’s Mackinac Island.

Robert Buffalo, chief of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

Robert Buffalo, hereditary chief of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, greets visitors from the Viking Octantis in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

Photo by Jenn Ackerman

The new Viking ships take a scientific approach to the lake system, with onboard labs for collecting data and monitoring fish populations, a practice more commonly found on Antarctic expedition vessels. “We’re reimagining what a ‘ship of opportunity’ is,” says Damon Stanwell-Smith, a marine biologist who serves as the head of science and sustainability at Viking. Last summer, one ship sent up a weather balloon daily and reported back to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to aid with weather forecasting and climate studies. “It’s one of the most remarkable ecosystems on the North American continent, and there’s a sense that travel within the Great Lakes has been a little overlooked,” he notes.

Long before European contact, many Native Americans transited the lakes, establishing such communities as Green Bay and Chicago that were eventually colonized by Europeans. Trappers and explorers learned mastery of the waterways from the Indigenous tribes that had lived there for thousands of years. Later developments, from historic forts to industrial plants, owed their existence to the chain of lakes as ready, albeit dangerous, transportation channels that have led to an estimated 10,000 shipwrecks since the 17th century. As part of her job as a maritime archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, Tamara Thomsen investigates shipwrecks. The lakes’ dark, anoxic conditions help preserve the wrecks, some of which are now part of the newly designated Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Michigan.

Lost to powerful storms, fire, ice damage, or navigational error, the wrecks “tell the story of Wisconsin,” she says, citing a 20th-century railroad ferry, a Nash automobile freighter, and a Christmas tree schooner. “Before there were roads, even before there were trains, the easiest way to get people and products here was by water.”

Lake caves near Cornucopia, Wisconsin

Kayakers explore the sea caves near Cornucopia, Wisconsin, the western gateway to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Photo by Jenn Ackerman

Though the Greats often get lumped together, each remains distinct. Lake Ontario in the east is largely rural on the U.S. side but bustling in Canada, and Torontonians rent coastal cottages in beachy Prince Edward County. Industrial Lake Erie is inseparable from Cleveland, once a center for auto and steel manufacturing; it’s still a great place to watch freighters navigating the Cuyahoga River as you relax at Alley Cat Oyster Bar or Merwin’s Wharf on the waterfront. Hike along glaciated Lake Huron, with 30,000-plus islands and trilobite fossils along its shale shelves, and finish with a swim in the turquoise waters of a natural cave. Brave the searing sand dunes—some 450 feet high at Sleeping Bear Dunes—then sprint down to the cool of Lake Michigan, a recreational playground. Northernmost and largest, Lake Superior is the wild child, where you can skirt color-banded sandstone cliffs by kayak for an afternoon or camp for days along deserted bays in the coastal wilderness of Isle Royale National Park.

Today, I live in Chicago, where Lake Michigan cools the city in summer and warms it in winter, another magical property of these massive bodies of water. It’s a physical benefit of a Great Lake, but there are spiritual ones, too. Ken Cole, a psychologist who lives in Milwaukee and surfs Lake Michigan, often sends clients to the lakefront. “Ninety-five percent of surfing is sitting on your board, facing the horizon, being immersed in nature, the sunrise, the birds,” he says. “When you turn your back to the land, you can clear your head.”

Tips for planning your trip

  • How to get there: Via the gateway cities of Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Toronto, Buffalo, N.Y., and Thunder Bay, Ontario.
  • Required eating: Don’t miss lake-caught whitefish from a “fish boil” in Wisconsin’s Door County or the Cornish meat pies known as pasties at Lehto’s in St. Ignace, Michigan.
  • Required reading: The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004)
  • How to remember them: Super Heroes Must Eat Oats is the mnemonic for Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario.
Elaine Glusac is a freelance writer, the Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times, and on Instagram @eglusac.
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