Cheboygan Michigan Front Range Light lighthouse tower. Image credit Dennis MacDonald via Shutterstock

10 Unforgettable Small Towns to Visit in the Great Lakes Region

The Great Lakes region is a hub of life and activity, known for its chain of deep freshwater lakes in east-central North America, including Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. This region contains the world's five largest lakes and is home to 35 million people in the US and Canada, as well as over 3,500 species of animals and plants! The marvel of the Great Lakes Region is best appreciated by touring its small towns, from the quaintness of Niagara-On-The-Lake in Southern Ontario to the town of Leland along Lake Michigan.

Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario

Street view in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario.
Downtown Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario. Image credit sockagphoto via

The quaintness and small-town vibes at Niagara-On-The-Lake draw plenty of travelers every year. This Southern Ontario town is a great stay for tourists visiting Niagara Falls, sitting comfortably on Lake Ontario at the tip of the Niagara Peninsula.

The town's attractions are a mix of historical landmarks and natural attractions. Explore 250 years of Canadian history at the Fort George National Historic Site or admire the Niagara Gorge within the local Carolinian forest at the Niagara Glen Nature Centre.

Niagara-On-The-Lake conveniently sits in the heart of Ontario's Wine Country, making it effortless for visitors to tour the region's collection of over 30 vineyards and wineries. Don't forget to sample the region's specialty ice wine, famous for its sweetness!

Midland, Ontario

Midland town located on Georgian Bay in Simcoe County, Ontario, Canada.
Midland, on Georgian Bay in Simcoe County, Ontario, Canada. Image credit eskystudio via Shutterstock

Midland is the heart of North Simcoe in Ontario, inviting visitors to explore its history and heritage along the shores of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay. Visitors can soak in local history (and art) by perusing the Historic Murals of Downtown Midland. These murals were mostly painted by the late artist Fred Lenz, who painted the town's history over the decades. Travelers can also find North America's largest mural, 80 by 50 feet!

Travelers who visit Midland in the warmer months can spoil themselves silly at the Midland Butter Tart Festival, also known as Ontario's Butter Tart Festival. Sample through dozens of unique butter tart flavors, a delectable Canadian dessert! This annual event draws 60,000 visitors yearly and hosts over 200 vendors with live music, buskers, and more.

In the summer, the Midland Harbour is a great way to soak in the festivities by the waterfront. This local landmark is one of North America's deepest freshwater harbors and is a popular docking point for many cruise ships and boaters. The harbor becomes even more lively thanks to its summer festivals!

Munising, Michigan

Pictured Rocks in Munising, Michigan
Pictured Rocks in Munising, Michigan.

Michigan's Munising on the shores of Lake Superior in the heart of Hiawatha National Forest (and surrounded by the Munising Bay) is a gateway to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Fans of the outdoors can escape the city lights and enjoy their time backcountry camping, hiking, and relaxing amongst the Pictured Rocks and sandstone cliffs at this national jewel. Visit the 140-foot beauty of Bridalveil Falls along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Witness stunning views of the falls by taking a cruise, especially during Spring.

The Alger County Underwater Preserve is another local gem in Munising Bay and a favorite attraction amongst scuba divers for its landscape of old shipwrecks!

Petoskey, Michigan

The historic business district on Mitchell Street, Petoskey, Michigan.
The historic business district on Mitchell Street, Petoskey, Michigan. Image credit Roberto Galan via Shutterstock

Petoskey once made a name for itself as a lumber town. Today, this town at the top of Michigan's Lower Peninsula on Little Traverse Bay is a center for tourism (and small manufacturing). 

Tourists can "shop til they drop" at the Gaslight Shopping District, offering over 170 stores and restaurants, including historic gems like Grandpa Shorter's, a shop that has been around since 1946. Downtown Petoskey also has plenty of highlights worth seeing besides its shops, from the artistic galleries at the Crooked Tree Arts Center to the insightful historic stops downtown to learn about the life of Ernest Hemingway.

After satiating all shopping needs, it's time to hunt for the Petoskey Stones, round and gray stones that are remnants of Petoskey's geological history. The stones are not just pretty because of their hexagonal shape; they are evidence of an ancient coral colony that thrived 350 million years ago. To find these incredible stones, visit Petoskey State Park on Little Traverse Bay along Lake Michigan.

Bayfield, Wisconsin

Cityscape view of Bayfield Wisconsin, as seen from the shores of Lake Superior
Downtown Bayfield Wisconsin, as seen from the shores of Lake Superior.

Wisconsin's Bayfield is a premier kayaking destination on the waters of Lake Superior, studded with sea caves, islands, lighthouses, and more. This harbor town is small in population but is abundant in history and nature with its 22 coastal islands and six historical lighthouses. Bayfield is also a tourist's Gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore!

Foodies can sample locally-grown fruit through the Fruit Loop on the bluffs of Bayfield, a collection of farms with berries and apple orchards. To enjoy even more fruits, tourists can visit Bayfield in the fall season for the Bayfield Apple Festival, which welcomes over 50,000 people!

Tour the islands by embarking on the Apostle Island Cruise. More adventurous souls can kayak their way to the Apostle Islands! The outdoor enthusiast can make an adventure out of their Bayfield visit by exploring sea caves, admiring the sandstone cliffs, and sailing.

Take the Madeline Island Ferry Line to set sail to Madeline Island for a day, known by its Anishinaabe name, Mooningwanekaaning. Madeline Island is the largest of the Apostle Islands and is not included in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Cheboygan, Michigan

Overlooking the Cheboygan Michigan Port.
Cheboygan Michigan Port and Lighthouse.

Travelers who love the outdoors will get a kick out of Cheboygan in Michigan. Sitting along the Cheboygan River at the entrance of Lake Huron, this Northern Michigan town is a gateway to the Inland Waterway, a network of navigable waterways comprising three rivers, four lakes, and 42 miles for inland boating pleasure.

Cheboygan offers plenty of outdoor pursuits for nature enthusiasts. Plan an itinerary to the Black Mountain Recreation Area, an attraction surrounded by lush forests and ideal for hunting, fishing, camping, skiing, hiking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, and off-roading. The Black Mountain is a terrain for all outdoor recreational pursuits, with over 30 miles of it for hiking, 60 miles reserved for off-road vehicles, and 80 miles of groomed trails for snowmobiling!

Scenic views of Lake Huron are best seen at the Cheboygan State Park. Venture along the Huron Shores Heritage Route for 200 miles of breathtaking lake views along US-23. This park is open year-round and is popular for lodging, modern camping, boating, fishing, and more. Cheboygan State Park's focal point is the Cheboygan Point Light, a once-operating lighthouse built in 1851!

    Oregon, Ohio

    Boardwalk at Maumee Bay State Park, Ohio
    Boardwalk at Maumee Bay State Park, Ohio.

    You don't have to travel to the Pacific Northwest to travel to Oregon! This Ohio town is known as "Oregon on the Bay" and is famous for its water sports and recreation offerings, thanks to its proximity to Lake Erie.

    A visit to the Maumee Bay State Park is necessary for those seeking to unwind and relax. This state park features 1,336 acres of area, including a section along the Lake Erie shoreline, a network of nature trails, campsites, and an 18-hole golf course. The 10-day Biggest Week in American Birding Festival also happens here!

    The Pearson Metropark is another attraction to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, with its preserved remnants of the Great Black Swamp forest that once covered much of Northwest Ohio.

    Complete your visit to Oregon by experiencing the vibrancy of the Annual Ethnic American-German Festival, a 3-day event held every August since 1966. The festival aims to promote German and Swiss cultures, featuring folk music, dancing, and authentic German and Swiss fare offerings. Every year, over 30,000 visitors enjoy this Oregon event!

    Michigan City, Indiana

    Michigan City view in Indiana
    Michigan City, Indiana.

    Michigan City along the southern end of Lake Michigan once thrived as a lumber port. Today, it thrives as one of Indiana's most popular vacation spots. The town emanates a coastal vibe due to the ocean-like waters of Lake Michigan!

    Visitors can easily enjoy the spoils of nature in this small Great Lakes town. The Indiana Dunes National Park encompasses 15,000 acres of land teeming with a melange of woodlands, rivers, bogs, and rich wetlands. Over 350 bird species call this national park home, making it a popular birding spot. Around 16 miles worth of trails are waiting for the avid hiker, including the famous 3 Dune Challenge, a 1.5-mile route encompassing the three tallest dunes.

    Admire sweeping views of the city's lakefront at Washington Park, which also has two lighthouses, including the historic Old Lighthouse from 1858 and the first of its kind in the Great Lakes!

    End your visit to Michigan City with a tour of the Barker Mansion, an English-style manor from 1857. Now a functioning museum, the mansion was once home to John H. Barker, a railroad industrialist and philanthropist. Even in the modern age, the home maintains its timeless elegance with its opulent art and decor, fitting for its location in the stylish Uptown Arts District.

    Ashland, Wisconsin

    Aerial view of the small town of Ashland, Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Superior
    Overlooking the small town of Ashland, Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Superior.

    Ashland is famous for being a port on Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior but is also known for its rich history dating back to the First World War. Discover the "Historic Mural Capital of Wisconsin" through the eight-block Main Street District, winding your way through Ashland's history (and art). These historical murals are also on the National Register of Historic Places!

    Ashland also draws the outdoor-loving tourist with its Lake Superior Waterfront Trail connecting Maslowski Beach on the west to Bayview Park on the east. Tourists can also chase waterfalls at Ashland County by visiting the Copper Falls State Park, featuring Morgan Falls, the second-highest waterfall in Wisconsin.

    Leland, Michigan

    Boats docked in the harbor at LeLand, Michigan.
    Boats docked in the harbor at Leland, Michigan.

    Charm is Leland's specialty, dazzling visitors with views of Lake Michigan in Michigan's Leelanau County. Leland has the oldest and largest Ottawa Village on the Leelanau Peninsula and is famous for its historical preservation. Fishtown is a relic of the town's fishing heritage along the Leland River. The waterfront retains its weathered shanties, fish tugs, charter boats, and smokehouses, standing the test of time for over 150 years!

    Breathe in the fresh air at the Whaleback Natural Area, which encompasses 40 acres of hiking trails and views of the magnificent Lake Michigan. Then, journey across the lake on the Manitou Island Transit to the North and South Manitou Islands, where the ruggedness of the Michigan wilderness awaits.

    There is no shortage of activities to enjoy in the Great Lakes Region. While one traveler tours Ontario's Wine Country by Niagara-On-The-Lake along Lake Ontario, another tourist can appreciate the Michigan wilderness with a visit to Leland on Lake Michigan. The small towns in the Great Lakes Region add dashes of charm to North America's famous chain of freshwater lakes!

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