With a fifth of the world’s freshwater and covering an area of around 245,000 square kilometres, North America’s five Great Lakes are like inland seas, with major cities on their fringes – including Chicago and Detroit in the US and Toronto in Canada – as well as fishing ports and surfing beaches and historic lighthouses, highways and car-free islands.
The southern shores harbour port cities that were built around epoch-making industries; some have seen better days, but there’s much to fascinate among the ruins of the Rust Belt. Shimmering architecture, hearty gastronomy, a passion for sports and civic pride are mainstays of the Midwestern experience. The region’s musical legacy – notably the blues and Bob Dylan – and authors as varied as Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut are celebrated in museums, trails and libraries.
Natural beauty is in abundance, especially around Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, where rugged cliffs, rocky peninsulas and towering dunes are occasionally punctuated by townships. Less famous – and more tranquil – than Yellowstone or Yosemite, forested national parks and protected areas provide pristine habitats for black bear, moose and white-tailed deer. Spectacular hiking can be had in mountainous areas such as the Porcupine Mountains.
It’s worth heading to a high place to get a sense of the scale of the Great Lakes. Ringed by thousands of lagoons, they were formed about 20,000 years ago when the last continental ice sheet retreated; the same process led to the formation of the escarpment over which the Niagara Falls tumble. Great weather systems form over this immense water land; on occasions, the aurora borealis drapes itself across the night sky.
The Midwest, once the heartland of American identity, as well as the motor of its industry, doesn’t always get a fair press. The Great Lakes provide an opportunity to explore the culture of some fascinating cities and towns, overturn a few stereotypes, and go inland to drive through the corn fields, dairy farms and fruit groves that blanket the region.
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The five Great Lakes – east to west they are Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior – are spread across eight states in America: Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, New York and Pennsylvania and, in Canada, Ontario. Wise visitors choose a region and explore it at a leisurely pace.
Museum and gallery lovers who want some upscale gastronomy should head for the cities. For flora and fauna, Minnesota has more than 1,400 designated wildlife areas.
For watersports, base yourself in south-western Ontario. Michigan has 2,090 kilometres of bike trails. More than 72 million fish a year are caught in Wisconsin’s 15,000 inland lakes and 42,000 rivers and streams.
The Great Lakes present a wonderful opportunity for a driving holiday – which is why many tour firms offer this. With competitive prices, pickups at the main arrival airports – Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis-St Paul, Toronto – and many routes, the roads around the Great Lakes are wide open.
Warm temperatures during summer make beaches and islands attractive, though rainfall is highest then. Spring and autumn are ideal, with impressive displays of foliage in the forested areas, and shoulder-season bargains to be had. Winter can be very cold, with a risk of heavy snows and travel delays.
The smallest in surface area of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario’s tourism revolves around Niagara Falls, formed by the dramatic drop of the Niagara River – at Horsehoe Falls, it’s 50 metres – from Lake Erie to Ontario. Most people come on day trips but if you’re touring the area, you can combine a thrilling boat trip on the Maid of the Mist with visits to the once-prosperous blue-collar city of Buffalo, and tidier, trimmer Rochester, famous for the Kodak company – the International Museum of Photography has a top-class exhibition dedicated to the history of the art form.
Until the arrival of the railway, the Erie Canal – which runs 585 kilometres between Albany and Buffalo – was the principal means for transporting goods between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes. It’s now a popular waterway for pleasure craft – with 36 locks allowing plenty of opportunity for slow gazing at the varied rural and post-industrial landscapes.
Toronto is a lakeside city, though its skyscrapers try to hide the fact. One of the world’s most multicultural melting pots, its cuisine, pubs, art galleries, music and museums rival any across the border; summer is festival season, winter is dreadful.
This shallowest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is in a populated, industrialised zone. Cleveland was once best known for its sprawling port (hence the nickname the “Mistake on the Lake”). But the city is home to the well-regarded Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in recent years has seen a hipster food and retail scene around Ohio City and Tremont. In 2014, it was host city for the Gay Games.
Detroit gets namechecked mainly for crime and decline. But it boasts a vigorous music scene, and incomers are turning abandoned warehouses into hostels and art spaces. It’s worth pit-stopping here to see the enormous Henry Ford Museum, full of oddities as well as vintage cars, and The Motown Museum, housed in Hitsville USA – the Motown label’s recording studio from 1959 to 1972.
The Lake Erie islands – Kelleys Island and the Bass Islands, to the north – were used by the Iroquois as stepping stones en route to Ontario and were later developed for winemaking. They’re popular with party people, bathers and anglers. Pelee Island on the Canadian side has mellow bike tours to see migrant bird populations, salamanders and turtles.
Forming a huge horseshoe, joined by the Mackinac Straits, these two lakes are often grouped together. The Upper Peninsula, isolated from Michigan state by the straits, is home to some of the lake’s most beguiling natural attractions. One of the most photogenic is the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a rich mix of swampland, limestone hills, rolling dunes and multicoloured cliffs – the dramatic forms of the latter carved by ice, wind, rain and sun over millennia.
Chicago’s reputation blows like the winds off Lake Michigan. While no longer an economic and cultural powerhouse, the city has an enviable rock, jazz and blues live music scene, a world-class gallery in the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the most impressive skylines on the planet.
Heading north out of the city, Lake Michigan’s western shore is best known for its beach towns, and Milwaukee, home to an excellent lakeside art gallery – featuring a spectacular wave-inspired extension designed by Santiago Calatrava – and the Harley Davidson Museum.
Highway 31 skirts the eastern shoreline for 590 kilometres. On a bluff jutting out into the lake, quaint St Joseph is the first of several small port towns that have evolved into resorts. Chicago escapees and locals descend on Traverse City for the beautiful beaches, cherry orchards and easy access to the stunning Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Lake Huron, which has some of the cleanest waters in the Great Lakes, is best explored from Canada. The 225-kilometre Highway 21 weaves its way through the farms and forests hugging the shoreline, with some idyllic campsites en route, as well as period mansions turned into B&Bs. A two-hour ride on the car-ferry from Tobermory takes visitors to Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world.
More than 480 kilometres from east to west and covering an area equivalent to Austria, Lake Superior is connected to the Atlantic by the St Lawrence seaway – there’s a popular six-day river cruise from Kingston, Ontario, to Quebec City via Montreal.
Minnesota, the state that wraps around the lake’s westernmost end, is a Sioux word for 'land of sky-tinted water'. It is fed by more than 200 rivers and, thanks to the gusting winds, waves can reach heights of six metres.
For such an immense body of water, the lake boasts relatively few conurbations. Duluth expanded first around the fur trade and later as a trading port for timber and iron ore; now it’s probably best known to outsiders as the birthplace of Bob Dylan, though he was raised in Hibbing – inland, 120 kilometres to the north, and site of a Dylan display in the local museum.
If you want to spend a night with a big window from which to ogle the biggest lake, the luxurious log cabins at Grand Superior Lodge, just south of Gooseberry Falls State Park, and the more contemporary Surfside on Superior at ski-resort town Lutsen are both on the north shore and easily reached from Duluth.
Huge forested parks line the border with Canada. Voyageurs National Park is at the southern tip of the Northern Boreal Forest – comprising about a third of the circumpolar forest – and is a watery wonderland, with osprey and eagles feasting on walleye, bears roaming the riverbanks, and the shimmering, silent lakeside.
On the Canadian side, sea kayaking, boating, fishing and diving operations cluster around Thunder Bay, with some 80 kilometres of hiking trails in the nearby Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, where there’s a chance of seeing moose, wolf, fox, lynx and up to 200 bird species.
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This article was written by Chris Moss from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.