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I have a love of Lake Michigan that goes back many, many years. I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan and return every year to visit. Lake Michigan is a big lake and is often referred to as such by the locals. “You going to the Big Lake?” Our vacations to Lake Michigan span over 40 years, and I never tire of it.
It often surprises me how many people don’t realize the size and splendor of the lake. It truly is an inland sea by all definitions. You just don’t have the salt water.
About Lake Michigan
While Lake Michigan is not the deepest lake or the largest of the five Great Lakes, that would be Lake Superior, it is located entirely in the United States. Touching Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, vacations to Lake Michigan are different in each of these states.
Lake Michigan is a clean, freshwater lake, and on the western side of the lake, the sand is golden, super soft, and often free of debris such as shells and rocks. The water temperature ranges between 55 and 80 degrees, keeping it cool and clear. The sand dunes are the largest freshwater dune system in the world and rise several hundred feet above the lake. Sand dunes at some popular places below make for some adventurous vacations to Lake Michigan.
The shorelines are dotted with small towns and beach towns, making it a perfect place to enjoy a quiet vacation. In fact, the Michigan side of Lake Michigan does not have any major metropolitan cities. The largest areas on Lake Michigan would be Muskegon at about 38,000 residents and Holland close behind at about 33,000. Green Bay and Milwaukee, Wisconsin as well as Chicago, Illinois would be the bigger metro areas on the lake outside of the state of Michigan.
These Michigan locations are all easily accessible by car. You could fly in and rent a car in Chicago, Grand Rapids, or Traverse City, depending on how far south or north you’re traveling along the lake. In fact, Allegiant Air flies in and out of Grand Rapids on many direct flights from smaller metro hubs across the nation. It’s an easy-in-and-out airport.
Because of the charming towns and beautiful beaches on the Michigan side, we’ll focus only on Michigan locations for our vacations to Lake Michigan.
While actually in Lake Huron, Mackinac Island came up so much in my searches on vacations to Lake Michigan, I thought I better include it. Just on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge is a magical island preserved in time. Home to Victorian-style structures, a fudge-filled main street, stunning geological features, and no automobiles, Mackinac Island retains its charm through bicycles and horse-drawn buggies.
My top choice in Mackinac Island is renting a bike and covering the island, about 8 miles in total. Here you can see Arch Rock, above and below if you choose.
Not to miss are the many fudge shops on main street, where Mackinac Island fudge is a real flavor from the Fudge Capital of the World.
Visit in late summer or early fall, the island does close to visitors in the winter.
- Don’t Miss: Fudge
- Must Do: Rent Bikes
- Splurge Stay: The Grand Hotel
- Waterfront Views: Island House Hotel
Moving south along Lake Michigan, on Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City has become a go-to vacation spot in Michigan. This charming town offers everything you could want in a lakeside getaway, from pristine beaches and sparkling waters to shops, restaurants, and attractions galore. Plus, Traverse City is located within easy driving distance of many other great lake Michigan vacation spots, making it the perfect basecamp for exploring all that the region has to offer.
The National Cherry Festival is held in July every year in Traverse City. In addition to being known for cherries, TC is home to a vibrant wine scene. Seek out some of their tasting rooms here.
Camp – Leelanau Pines Campground
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Traverse City is a perfect place to base yourself for a trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. One of Lake Michigan’s natural wonders, the National Lakeshore (part of the National Parks System) is an ideal spot to marvel at the mountains of sugar sand and miles of shoreline.
At the lakeshore, you can climb the dunes, or walk a paved trail. Hiking, kayaking, biking, and even skiing, and snowshoeing are popular activities making this a year-round vacation destination.
Silver Lake Sand Dunes
One of the few places where you can ride dune buggies on the protected sand dunes is in Silver Lake. The Silver Lake area and sand dunes have both an area for Off-Road Vehicles (ORV), pedestrian hiking areas, as well as a guided dune tour with Mac Wood Dune Rides.
You can bring your own ORV for the sand dunes, but make sure they are dune ready. Additionally, Silver Lake offers plenty of places for you to rend your own and explore the 450 acres set aside for 4-wheel drive, motorcycles, ATVs, and direct bikes. You need a permit to bring your own. Check here for dune buggy rentals or what you need to bring your own.
Silver Lake is certainly one of the more adventurous vacations to Lake Michigan and yet another great place for some spectacular sunsets. A short drive away is the Au Sable lighthouse, located on the closest point from Michigan to Wisconsin. I’ve climbed it, you still can’t see across the lake.
Muskegon is the largest city along Lake Michigan, making it a prime location for your Lake Michigan vacation. My hometown is filled with both sandy beaches, city life, and historic sites. It’s about mid-way between Traverse City and Chicago.
Learn more about Muskegon’s outdoor activities, including fun festivals here.
Grand Haven is another one of my favorite small towns in Michigan thanks to its location on the lake. The Grand Haven State Park is one of the few state parks in which you can camp directly on the beach. Grand Haven also has a walkable, charming downtown area, and is home to the Coast Guard Festival.
Holland, named for its large Dutch heritage population, includes a working windmill, wooden shoe or Klompen dancing at Nelis Dutch Village, and even a yearly Tulip Time Festival. Visiting Holland gives you both a lakeside village with the same lighthouses and beaches offered throughout the region, with the added flavor of a European vacation.
You may also know Holland for their popular New Holland brewing company. Just one of many breweries in the Greater Grand Rapids area.
Saugatuck is a popular LGBT+ friendly location with an open-minded culture and thriving art scene. Think Provincetown, Massachusetts for the Third Coast. Saugatuck, along with its neighbor Douglas, is on the shores of both Lake Michigan and Kalamazoo Lake and River. Endless water activities are just part of the appeal of Saugatuck. Dozens of art galleries and artists’ studios call the downtown area home. Don’t miss the Fall Gallery Stroll, a 45-year-old tradition and highly anticipated art event.
Must Do: Visit Everyday People Cafe
And if you’re 21 and up and want an inviting place to stay, check out the largest LGBTQ+ resort in the midwest, at The Dunes Resort
Seriously, how many more charming small towns does Michigan have? South Haven is next on the list, just a 2-hour drive from Chicago. South Haven is another on the list of Lake Michigan vacations that provide endless nature, walkable downtowns, and even more miles of sandy beach alongside an incredibly photogenic lighthouse.
Indiana Dunes National Park
While not in Michigan, the Indiana Dunes National Park is worth mentioning as one of the nation’s newest National Parks. The only National Park along Lake Michigan (remember, Sleeping Bear Dunes is a National Seashore), the park has several beach areas with lifeguards throughout the summer.
Note that there are entrance fees to the National Park. Currently, it is $25 and valid for 7 days. The Americal the Beautiful Annual National Park passes are also accepted at the park.
Dunewood Campground offers 66 campsites if you wish to stay inside the park.
When to travel to Lake Michigan
There is no bad time of year to visit Lake Michigan. Each season has its own unique charms. Spring is a great time to visit if you enjoy watching the flowers bloom and the animals come out of hibernation. Summer is perfect for swimming, boating, and enjoying all the outdoor activities the lake has to offer. Fall is a beautiful time of year to see the leaves change color and go on hikes in the crisp air. Winter is a magical time to see the snowfall and ice sculptures.
Most of the recommendations above are best seen in the summer months, but I wouldn’t count out an autumn color tour of Lake Michigan or Winter vacations to Lake Michigan. Each season shows off the stunning wonderland that is both Michigan and Lake Michigan.
Weather in Lake Michigan
Michigan enjoys all four seasons with a range of temperatures from the north to the southern end of Lake Michigan. Temps can dip as low as 15 degrees in the winter with highs in the mid-eighties in the summer. Snowfall varies along the shoreline with up to 2 feet in January in the Traverse City area. Rain is about 3 inches per month.
The weather year-round is fairly mild in most of the towns listed in this article, making it a truly special place.
How to Get to Lake Michigan
The major city of Chicago is anywhere from an hour away to Indiana Dunes National Park to five hours away by car to Traverse City. Detroit is a little less than 4 hours away by car. Most airlines fly into one of these two big cities.
Grand Rapids is about 45 minutes drive from Muskegon and Grand Haven and has many non-stop flights.
Traverse City and Muskegon also have small airports if you do not wish to rent a car.