Everything You Must Do on Lake Michigan This Summer

chicago air and water show
©City of Chicago

Those coastal folks can keep their salty, shark-ridden, tropical-storming oceans. Who needs an ocean when there are miles upon miles of pristine, fresh Lake Michigan shoreline for you to explore? Whether you’re embarking on a Midwest circle tour of Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois, or simply planning a weekend getaway, here’s everything you should be doing on the greatest of the Great Lakes this summer.

Take in the Air & Water Show

Chicago, IL  
The annual Air & Water Show is the second-largest festival in Chicago, and arguably the most famous annual event on the lake. It's free to attend, and features both military and civilian daredevil pilots and flight aerobatics, historic aircrafts, and parachute teams, as well as boat-jumping and water-skiing. While much of the activity can be seen from anywhere on the lakefront, the event itself is based on North Avenue Beach... although, let’s be real, the best place to view it is from a boat.

Illinois Beach State Park

Zion, IL
While Illinois Beach State Park’s 39,600ft of beach access make it the longest public swimming area of any state park, many visitors come to hike or stay overnight at the campground. The park’s five miles of hiking trails give visitors the opportunity to explore a unique landscape of marshes, forest life, and prairies complete with prickly pear cacti, which apparently exist in the Midwest. If roughing it on a campground isn’t your style, you can opt to stay at the Illinois Beach Resort, which happens to be the only resort on Lake Michigan.

runner by lake in chicago
©City of Chicago

Ride the 18-mile lakefront trail

Chicago, IL
While Chicagoans don’t always agree on much, there is one thing they can all agree on: the Lakefront Trail is one of the absolute best ways to see the city. The paved lakefront path extends from the Ardmore St in Edgewater on the North Side all the way to 71st St, just south of beautiful Jackson Park. The route will take you past 18 miles of beautifully developed lakefront, including a variety of sandy beaches, recreation areas, harbors, museums, parks, and plenty of opportunities for great shots of the Chicago skyline. Don’t have a bike? No problem! You can rent one on the fly from any one of the countless Divvy stations located throughout the area.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Flickr/Tom Gill

Get lost among the sand dunes  

Chesterton, IN
Despite being just a short ride away from Chicago, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore appears to be worlds away. The park features 15 miles of coastline, great swimmable beaches, majestic dunes, and a whopping 70 miles of hiking trails. Be sure to heed park warnings and check for closures, unless you’re looking to literally get lost inside the sand dunes.

Blue chips casino
Flickr/Poker Photos

Hedge your bets at Blue Chip Casino

Michigan City, IN
Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa is a favorite weekend getaway for those who want a bit more action after a day at the beach. Thanks to Blue Chip's close proximity to Indiana’s best beaches, two golf courses, and Washington Park Zoo, visitors can spend their days in the sun, then hit up the casino’s tables, restaurants, or nightclub in the evening.

Saugatuck Michigan
Brian Morrison/Shutterstock

Explore a beachside artists' haven

Saugatuck, MI
In the late 1800s, this tiny town became a haven for Chicago artists, earning it the nickname “The Art Coast of Michigan." It’s easy to see what first attracted visual artists to the area: Saugatuck's Oval Beach was recently named one of the 25 best shorelines in the world by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Over a century later, the small town maintains its reputation as an artists’ haven by playing host to dozens of independent art galleries.

Silver Lake Sand Dunes Michigan
Dean Pennala/Shutterstock

Go off-roading at Silver Lake Sand Dunes

Mears, MI
While Silver Lake Sand Dunes attracts plenty of beach-goers, many visitors prefer to explore all 2,000 acres of the park’s desert-like terrain by ORV, particularly since they’re the only dunes east of the Mississippi that permit visitors to drive private motorized vehicles during summer months. While there are plenty of vendors offering dune buggy rentals for solo adventures, first-timers -- and those of us who are scared of tipping over -- can opt to take a guided dune ride.

Wineries in Leelanau County in Northern Michigan
Flickr/Joey Lax-Salinas

Drink through a guided tour of the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail  

Leelanau Peninsula, MI
While Midwest wineries certainly don’t have the same reputation as, say, Napa, Michigan actually happens to be an ideal environment to grow wine grapes given that it’s on the same parallel as the wine regions of France and Italy. While there’s a handy Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail Map you can follow, your best bet is to take a guided (read: chauffeured) tour so you can actually sample the goods.

Castle Farms michigan
Flickr/Charles Dawley

Dine in a French Renaissance castle

Charlevoix, MI
Charlevoix is one of the more unique beach towns located along Lake Michigan. While you can get your fill of sun, surf, and sand at beautiful Fisherman's Island State Park, it’s worth setting aside plenty of time to explore the town itself, which features a plethora of funky little “mushroom houses” that look like something straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Speaking of fairy tales: visitors can book a tour and dinner at Castle Farms, a French Renaissance-style castle built in 1918 by Albert Henry Loeb, former VP of Sears, Roebuck and Company.

Fort Mackinac Michigan
Susan Montgomery / Shutterstock.com

Celebrate the 4th of July at an original Revolutionary War fort

Mackinac Island, MI
If you’re going to celebrate Independence Day, there’s no better place to do it than at Fort Mackinac, which was occupied by the Brits throughout the Revolutionary War. Visitors can witness a 38-gun salute and soldier demonstrations, then enjoy fireworks from the shoreline or one of several fireworks cruises. Best of all, Mackinac Island -- which is located on the border between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan -- is 100% car-free, meaning you won’t get stuck in hellacious post-fireworks traffic. While you’re there, be sure to stop by The Pink Pony Bar & Grill, one of the most iconic bars in Michigan.  

Hiawatha National Forest upper peninsula michigan
Craig Sterken/Shutterstock

Pitch a tent at Hiawatha National Forest

Gladstone, MI
Spanning a whopping 880,000 acres, Hiawatha National Forest offers diverse scenery, featuring acres of beautiful forest, as well as white sand beaches and spans of beautiful, undeveloped shoreline. In addition to offering cabins as well as a traditional campground, there’s also the option to partake in what the Department of Agriculture refers to as "primitive camping", something probably best saved for people who either didn’t drop out of Boy/Girl Scouts, or wish to pretend they’re on an episode of Alaskan Bush People.

Washington Island Wisconsin
Flickr/Joshua Mayer

Take a ferry to Washington Island and Rock Island State Park

Door County, WI
Located six miles off mainland, Washington Island is the largest and most popular of Door County’s 30 islands. Home to just 660 permanent residents, the island is the only one inhabited year-round. From Washington Island, visitors can take a passenger ferry to the historic, uninhabited island of Rock Island State Park. Before heading back to mainland, be sure to stop and get your “Bitters Club Card” at Nelsen's Hall Bitters Pub on Washington Island.

Cave Point County Park  wisconsin
Kenneth Keifer/Shutterstock

Sturgeon Bay, WI
Yes, that is really Wisconsin. Cave Point County Park is adjacent to the more popular Whitefish Dunes State Park, yet tends to get missed by many visitors. One of the absolute best ways to visit the park is by kayak, as this gives you the chance to explore the sea caves, which aren’t visible by land. According to Door County Kayak Tours, the water in this area is calm, making it a great tour for beginners.

Door County, Wisconsin
Flickr/Elvis Kennedy

Ponder the origins of the name Egg Harbor while picking cherries  

Door County, WI
Not only is Door County famous for its tart Montmorency cherries, but it's probably one of the more beautiful areas in the US to go cherry-picking. Once you’ve nabbed enough cherries to last you a lifetime, head over to Egg Harbor and sip some Door County Cherry Wheat beer at Shipwrecked Brew Pub. Does anyone else picture Humpty Dumpty being floated into a dock when they hear the name Egg Harbor, or are we just weird?

Cherry kringle
O&H Danish Bakery

Eat a kringle on North Beach

Racine, WI
Given that Racine happens to be the kringle capital of the US, and North Beach happens to be one of the top beaches in America according to USA Today, it’s only natural to combine both together for maximum sun/sugar-coma pleasure. While you’ll find a handful of bakeries offering Kringle in Racine, O&H Danish Bakery is one of the more popular options. While exploring all 2,500 acres of shoreline at North Beach, be sure to stop by the Beachside Oasis, which features live music, food, cocktails, and a kids’ play area.   

Lake Michigan with Milwaukee at horizon
Wikimedia/Mike Strande

Learn how to fish with Brew City Charters

Milwaukee, WI
If you’ve always wanted to try open-water fishing, but are completely clueless, the team at Brew City Charters is more than happy to act as the grandpa you never had. They’ll teach you everything from how to identify fish to how to rig a boat and use GPS. While you may not walk away a fishing pro, you’ll likely come home with some delicious salmon or trout. Plus, you can always head to Lakefront Brewing for a brewery tour, some cold ones, and a fish fry.

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Lisa Chatroop calls shotgun on your next road trip to the beach. Tweet her your vacation pics: @Chicagoista or check out more summer travel tips on DailyUrbanista.com.