Michigan, split across two separate peninsulas to the north of the USA, is one of the most scenic states in the country. It borders four of the five Great Lakes, giving it some 3,300 miles of coastline, which is more than the USA’s entire eastern seaboard. Explore these coastal areas and you’ll find some of the best things to do in Michigan, and some of North America’s most essential sights.
It’s near impossible to list them all, so we’ve narrowed it down to just a few of our favourite Michigan attractions that sit somewhere on the shoreline of a Great Lake. If you have the time, we recommend hiring a car or motorhome and exploring as thoroughly as you can.
The largest of the Great Lakes effortlessly earns its immodest name, with incredible coastal views, beautiful beaches, and untamed USA wilderness offering some of the best things to do in Michigan. The 1,300-mile Circle Tour is the most thorough way to visit, but here are just a few of the highlights.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
If you want a proper taste of wild Michigan, Pictured Rocks is unmissable. Encompassing beaches, towering sand dunes, imposing cliffs, rushing waterfalls, dense forest and more, this is the area for hiking, exploring, and camping. Visit in spring, when the snow is melting, to see the rivers and waterfalls at their most dramatic.
Anybody visiting Pictured Rocks that just wants somewhere to relax should take to the sweeping white sands of Twelvemile Beach. Lake Superior’s northerly location means its waters can be a little chilly, but the surrounding area is so magnificent that you might hardly notice.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
Lake Superior is so vast (containing more water than the other four Great Lakes combined) that it boasts its own weather, including a history of violent storms. This museum at Whitefish Point charts the fascinating history of ships wrecked here. The highlight is an exhibit about the Edmund Fitzgerald freighter that foundered during a violent storm in 1975, losing its entire crew of 29 men.
Crisp Point Lighthouse
This propensity for extreme weather means that over 30 lighthouses line the coast of Lake Superior. Hardcore road trippers can try and see them all, but if you can only pick one, Crisp Point should be it. Active for almost 90 years, its iconic white cone shape has since been fully restored to give visitors an authentic experience alongside the dazzling views across the water.
It says a lot about the sheer scale of the Great Lakes that Lake Michigan is the third largest of them and is still the fifth largest lake in the world by surface area. It’s also home to some of the state’s (and the country’s) most arresting natural spots.
Road trip US-2
Stretching across the entire north of the USA, US-2 is one of the most scenic roads in the world, thanks in no small part to its Michigan leg between Manistique and St. Ignace. Skimming the edge of Lake Michigan, you’ll be treated to both coastal views and wild forest, with plenty of places to stop and explore along the way. Complete the drive in autumn to see the colour trees erupting with vivid colour.
After reaching St. Ignace, the five-mile long Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan’s north and south peninsulas to deliver you to the rest of the state. The bridge’s 200-foot elevation makes it an attraction in itself, offering staggering views over the Straits of Mackinac until you eventually arrive in Mackinaw City on the southern peninsula.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
You know in American TV shows when everybody heads to the lake on a sunny day? Sleeping Bear is exactly the kind of place they go. It has all the usual beachside activities – swimming, sunbathing, camping and more – while more intrepid visitors can explore the looming sand dunes that rise 150m above the lake or tackle hiking tracks through the area’s wilderness. Frequently voted one of the most beautiful spots in the USA, Sleeping Bear combined all the best things to do in Michigan.
All that wilderness might give you a taste for a city break, and there are few finer than Chicago. You could spend days just wandering the streets and marveling at architectural wonders like the Willis Tower, Tribune Tower, and the Pritzker Pavilion, but you should also take advantage of the Windy City’s delectable food scene, maniacal sports worship, and festivals that run throughout the year. Chicago is something special.
Found to the east of Michigan, the second largest of the Great Lakes is famed for its tranquil sunrises and fearsome weather alike – over 1,000 ships lie wrecked at the bottom of its waters. This makes its beauty all the more captivating to explore.
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Many of the shipwrecks here are considered important historic sites, with some dating back as far as the 19th century. Thunder Bay protects 116 of them, and allows visitors to join snorkelling and scuba diving tours to delve into their secrets. If you’d prefer to stay on the surface, this is also a hugely popular area for kayaking adventures.
Catching a ferry to Mackinac Island to the north of Lake Huron is a little like stepping back in time. Cars are prohibited here, making bikes and horses the preferred methods of transport. The island feels wonderfully nostalgic, topped off by the alluring smell of fresh fudge that permeates the town from numerous shops.
Hoeft State Park
The upside of Hoeft not quite being the most attractive state park in Michigan is that it tends to be relatively uncrowded throughout the year. A mile of golden sands and crisp, clear water means you can choose your ideal spot on the public beach, and inland you’ll have your pick of numerous walking trails across the 300-acre park.
Michigan only shares a relatively small amount of coastline with Lake Erie, but much of it is close to urban areas such as Detroit, which means its attractions can be easier to reach if you’re looking for a day or weekend trip.
Sterling State Park
An easy drive from Detroit brings you to the only state park Michigan has beside Lake Erie. In many ways this is a classic American lake destination: a lovely beachfront offers excellent swimming, bathing, and boating conditions, and there are great fishing opportunities either from the shore or by taking a fishing charter.
Lake Erie Metropark
The Metropark’s three miles of Lake Erie shoreline are largely formed of coastal marshes, wetland, and lagoons, making it a great place to spot native wildlife: keep your eyes peeled for turtles, muskrat, waterfowl, and birds of prey. Visit in September to be treated to Hawkfest, where you might see up to 50,000 migrating hawks in a single day.
River Raisin National Battlefield Park
This recently designated national park aims to preserve and commemorate the pivotal battle of the War of 1812 that took place here, where the USA suffered its greatest defeat of the conflict. The free visitor centre on the well-tended grounds offers engrossing insight into the battle itself and the lasting impact it had on Michigan as a whole.