The best time to visit the Great Lakes National Parks is in the Summer because of the region’s brutal winter climate. When late spring arrives, the National Parks on Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior awaken from a long winter’s nap and prepares for visitors like you to arrive in the summer months.
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The Great Lakes consists of 5 fresh water lakes in the United States. As a kid growing up on Lake Erie, I could always remember all five of them. Not only because it was my area of familiarity but because my geography teacher taught us simple way to remember their names.
In our introductory lesson to Great Lakes geography, she wrote the word HOMES in big white letters on chalkboard. But then it dawned on me what that word or letters meant. HOMES uses the first letter of each of the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.
Now, further into our lesson, I learned that the Great Lakes region is incredibly rich in Native American and Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 history and culture. Also, the Great Lakes are also abundantly wealthy in the geology department.
But, the most treasured is our U.S. National Parks up on the lakeshore. According to the National Park Service, The Great Lakes region contains 4 National Parks. But the fun doesn’t end there. There’s also several National Lakeshores, National Monuments, and National Memorials up in the Great Lakes region.
So, let’s check out why you should visit these 4 amazing National Parks along with the Great Lake’s region National Lakeshores, a National Monument and National Memorial that helped to shape America.
Best Great Lakes National Parks to Visit in the Summer
Voyageurs National Park
Voyageurs National Park, one of America’s forgotten parks, is situated right smack dab in the middle of North America in northern Minnesota. However, while located on any of the Great Lakes, it is less than a day’s drive to Lake Superior.
That said, Voyageurs is known for its’ smaller lakes and islands of forests, rock formations and geological wonders that date back to millions of years ago.
And though it’s surrounded by thousands of miles of lakeshore coastline, motorized personal watercraft is prohibited within Voyageurs National Park; thus, making it the perfect place to take in some kayaking, canoeing, fresh water fishing, and swimming. However, there are commercial boat tours and water taxis that will take you to Kabetogama Peninsula’s interior lakes to explore the interconnected water routes.
If you love camping, Voyageurs National Park doesn’t disappoint with their 270 lakeside campsites. And, if you enjoy a good peaceful hike to explore the North Woods habitats, you’re in for a treat! While some of Voyageur’s hiking trails are accessible by vehicle, others you can only get to by boat.
With it’s beautiful dark skies, although best seen in the winter months, you may catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, also known as the “Northern Lights”.
Hiking Trail & Preserve Etiquette: To ensure a safe and fun trip, please follow the trail and preserve guidelines found here.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located near Cleveland, Ohio on Lake Erie. However, Cuyahoga is a different kind of National Park than what most envision what a typical park is about. There are no impressive mountain views, heart-pounding deep canyons or breathtaking landscapes.
Cuyahoga is more of an urban park situated along the Cuyahoga River. In it’s day, this man-made waterway central was shipping goods and expanding industry across the region and beyond in the 19th century.
Today, Cuyahoga National Park consists of 33,000 acres of protected land. An estimated 3 million visitors come from all over the world to experience this interesting concept of a National Park. The National Park Service manages 14 hiking trails; one of which includes a boardwalk stairway hike to well-known Brandywine Falls. But the park is familiar to locals for the great 87 mile Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail where you can enjoy a stroll or bike ride. Because it’s not a big park, I do recommend arriving on a weekday and early or later in the day that may improve the likelihood of getting a parking space.
Check out our video about our visit to northern Ohio that includes Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Barn Quilts and Covered Bridges auto tours while we were staying at Thousand Trails Kenesee Lake.
Bike Trail & Preserve Etiquette: To ensure a safe and fun trip, please follow the trail and preserve guidelines found here.
Isle Royale National Park
Another lesser known of the Great Lakes National Parks is Isle Royale National Park. This lesser known park is actually a cluster of isolated islands in Michigan on Lake Superior near the United States and Canadian border. And because this Great Lakes National Park endures brutal winter weather, it’s only open to visitors from April 15 to November 1 (dates may very according to NPS).
Isle Royal takes in almost 390 miles of lake shoreline and over 406,000 acres of marine water. And though palm trees don’t exist in this island paradise, there’s miles upon miles of wilderness and vast thick forests pines and deciduous trees. What makes Isle Royale so intriguing is it’s not accessible by car. Its’ island wilderness habitats are home to moose, wolves, red fox, beaver and river otters, just to name a few.
Far from the hustle bustle, it’s the perfect place to heighten your birding, hiking, and kayaking experiences. And if you’re into scuba diving, there’s dive sites in the lake include several shipwrecks.
But for hiking enthusiasts, the 40 mile Greenstone Ridge Trail links the Windigo Harbor in the west and Rock Harbor in the east. The 19th-century Rock Harbor Lighthouse has a small museum. And, speaking of lighthouses, there are two other lighthouses at Isle Royale; Menagerie Island Light, Rock of Ages Light and Passage Island Light. However, they are not accessible by foot.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Indiana Dunes National Park, formerly Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, became America’s 61st National Park in 2019. Located in northwestern Indiana, it’s the perfect summer destination to enjoy 15 miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan’s southern region. And that’s not all! This lakeshore park has a diverse ecosystem of old wilderness and wetlands, prairies and sand dunes.
For recreation, summer is the perfect time to hike along the 50 miles of the Park’s hiking trails peppered within its’ 15,000+ acres. Or you can ride your bicycle on the Calumet bike trail (9.2 miles) and Porter Brickyard bike trail (7 miles)
If you’re up for a hiking challenge, check out Diana of the Dunes.; the story of how Alice Mabel Gray hiked and lived in the dunes on her own in an abandoned shanty for over 9 years in the early 1900s and took an interest in the history, ecology, and preservation of Indiana Dunes.
Camping at Indiana Dunes National Park consists of 66 camp-sites; 53 drive-in campsites and 13 walk/carry-in sites.
From birding, beaching and hiking to watching magnificent sunsets, this Great Lakes National Park leaves no stone unturned. Visitors can join a birding expert from the Dunes-Calumet Audubon Society on for a migration birding hike. And if you just want to enjoy a day at the beach, there’s plenty of sand to throw your towel on and take in the summer sun and lake breeze.
Other Great Lakes National Parks worth the visit
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Just east of Miners Beach in Wisconsin’s North Woods on Lake Superior, it’s hard not to noice the colorful mineral stains that streak the sandstone formations. Hence, the obvious explanation of how Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore got it’s name. It happens when the groundwater seeps through the cracks and trickles down onto the rock formations. To get to Pictured Rocks, you can either take a guided kayak tour or a two and a half hour boat tour. But, you can also enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, hunting and sightseeing.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
In Michigan’s lower peninsula, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park sits along Lake Michigan’s northeast shore just southeast of the Manitou Islands. As its’ namesake, it’s known for it’s huge sand dunes. And while it may be a drive from Indianapolis, the adventure that awaits you is totally worth the effort of getting there.
According to Michigan.org, “Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore also contains many cultural features including an 1871 lighthouse, three former Life-Saving Service/Coast Guard Stations and an extensive historic farm district.”
There’s lots to do at Sleeping Bear Dunes. If you’re into hiking, there’s 13 hiking trails that each have their own trailhead parking. Biking is also a fun outdoor activity you and your family can enjoy during your visit. The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail provides over 20 miles of accessible walking and biking trail.
Being a Lakeshore National Park, there’s tons of water recreation to enjoy; fishing, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and swimming. But, the big attraction at Sleeping Bear Dunes is the 450′ tall Dune Climb! The pitch of the dune is a very steep 33 degrees! But, it’s worth it once you schlep yourself to the top.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Located on Wisconsin’s shore of Lake Superior, Apostle Islands National Seashore is worth the trek either by cruise, sail, paddle or your own two feet. But, as you’ll learn as we did, this natural exhibit is more about the marine side of the lakeshore. It includes 21 islands along the 12 mile mainland.
But, Apostle Islands takes the reign as hosting 9 lighthouse towers on 6 of its’ islands. But I gotta say, as an avid kayaker, the real treat is paddling out to the amazing water caves, cliffs and sandstone formations.
Apostle Islands Visitor Tip: The NPS only recommends using a sea kayak while paddling in the Apostle Islands.
Grand Portage National Monument
Located on Lake Superior’s north shore in Minnesota, Grand Portage National Monument is a preservation project of the North American historic fur trading between the Ojibwe Tribe and Northwest Company. Also known as Gichi Onigamiing or the Great Carrying Place, Grand Portage got it’s name from its’ 8.5 mile portage where furtraders and tribal members carried their canoes and gear overland for thousands of years.
Grand Portage National Monument manages and preserves over 700 acres that includes the historic depot located on Lake Superior, the site of Fort Charlotte on the Pigeon River with the Grand Portage connecting the two depots. The 8.5 mile portage corridor and Fort Charlotte contain the majority of the Monument’s semi-wilderness habitat.
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial
Located on Put-in-Bay, an island on Lake Erie off Ohio’s lakeshore, Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial commemorates the most decisive battle in the War of 1812 where Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry led his naval fleet to victory.
Only 5 miles from the U.S. and Canadian border, the 352′ tall International Peace Memorial column rises over Lake Erie. It’s a reminder to celebrate peace between the United States, Canada and Great Britain. The Perry’s Victory Visitor Center has an impressive museum chocked full of artifacts from the Battle of Lake Erie.
But, the only way to get to Put-in-Bay is by ferry boat from the mainland. But once you get there, I highly recommend renting a golf cart to get around the island.
Learn more about the Battle of Lake Erie at The Historic Waterfront Port of Erie, Pennsylvania
Wrapping up why you should visit these Great Lakes National Parks
Wow! What did you think about these amazing National Parks that are nestled along the Great Lakes? Having visited some of them, I can tell you that you shouldn’t compare them to Utah’s Mighty 5, Grand Canyon, Glacier or the Grand Tetons. These Great Lakes National Parks are beautiful in their own suit. We hope you plan to visit several of these in your near future.
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