Mackinac Island, Michigan

8 Best Small Towns To Visit In The Great Lakes Region

The Great Lakes are five impressive bodies of water (some of the largest in the world) that cover significant portions of the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada. Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario (from West to East) overlap with the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York (again from West to East), as well as the Canadian province of Ontario. Given their beauty and generous supply of one of the most valuable resources on the planet, many towns have settled on their shores. These are eight of the best spots to visit in the near future for a great Great Lake adventure. 

Mackinac Island, Michigan (Lake Huron)

Mackinac Island, Michigan
Vacationers on Market Street in Mackinac Island. Editorial credit: Alexey Stiop /

Mackinac Island sits right at the transition point from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan (but tilts into the former), where the Northern waters of each body funnel between Michigan's North and South Peninsulas. This 4.35-square-mile island respite is completely car-free, mostly composed of the titular state park, surrounded by cool viewpoints and formations (such as Arch Rock, the Devil's Kitchen caves, and the aptly-named Sunset Rock), as well as multiple military forts and more – all an easy walk or bike ride away (and there are even horse-drawn carriage rides!). The town itself is there to serve a life of leisure, with world-famous fudge, modest nightlife, a smattering of festivals throughout the year, and of course, fun on the water. 

Beverly Shores, Indiana (Lake Michigan)

: Historic 1933 Chicago World's Fair Century of Progress home
Historic 1933 Chicago World's Fair Century of Progress home in Beverly Shores, Indiana. Editorial credit: Nicola Patterson /

While Michigan itself has no shortage of fabulous Lake Michigan beach towns, the East Coast of Wisconsin, the Northeast corner of Illinois, and a tiny smidge of Northwestern Indiana also get in on the action. In terms of the latter, Beverly Shores brings some unique flavors to the table. Flanked by the wild shoreline and graceful hiking trails of Indiana Dunes State and National Parks and the Southernly waters of this highly-swimmable Great Lake (which can be enjoyed at the string of beaches: Porter, Kemil, and Central), this Porter County town is a reliable summertime hit. Interestingly, amidst the natural beauty, the collection of the 1933 World Fair's Century of Progress Homes (now a Historical Landmark) also catch the eye and are well worth devoting some time to. 

Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario (Lake Ontario)

View of Niagara-on-the-Lake - Canadian town located in Southern Ontario where Niagara River meets Lake Ontario.
View of Niagara-on-the-Lake - Canadian town located in Southern Ontario where Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. Editorial credit: Kiev.Victor /

In the Canadian province of Ontario, Niagara-on-the-Lake, or "NOTL" as it is locally dubbed, has a prime location on the Southwestern shore of Lake Ontario and the Western bank of the international Niagara River (which marks the boundary with New York state). This popular tourist town combines the usual appeal of a lakeside town with a charming Historic Old Town filled with boutique shops and lodgings, decommissioned military forts, and the possibility of popping down to the enthralling Niagara Falls (Horseshoe Falls), which is only 13 miles (or 20 kilometers in Canadian speak) South of here. This wet and wild day trip is a must, but make sure you're back in time for dinner, as Niagara-on-the-Lake is known as ""The culinary capital of Canada," as well as the focal point of Ontario Wine Country.  

Paradise, Michigan (Lake Superior)

Tahquamenon Falls in Paradise Michigan
Tahquamenon Falls in Paradise, Michigan.

It is quite a task to narrow down the list of appealing small lake towns in Michigan, but with a name like Paradise, how can you go wrong? Far from a misnomer, this unincorporated community in Chippewa County (and part of Whitefish Township) is a little slice of heaven on the less-trafficked Lake Superior. Whitefish Bay harbors Paradise from the notoriously capricious waters of this Northernmost Great Lake. Further encasing this underrated spot in natural beauty is Tahquamenon Falls State Park to the West (which is an essential side trip), and part of the expansive Hiawatha National Forest, to the South. The surroundings make Paradise an exceptionally cozy spot, but the rugged beaches, and shipwreck lore (complemented by the Crisp Point Lighthouse and Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum) make it engaging too. 

Kelleys Island, Ohio (Lake Erie)

Sunset from the shores of Kelleys Island over Lake Erie in Ohio.
Sunset from the shores of Kelleys Island over Lake Erie in Ohio.

Kelleys Island brings the state of Ohio and the fifth (and because it's the shallowest, the warmest) Great Lake into the mix. This overlooked village shares the same name as the lovely rock floating in the Southwestern wing of Lake Erie. Only a few hundred people live here, and "Lake Erie's Emerald Isle" can only be reached by ferry, making this Erie County settlement a relaxing place to unwind. While cars are allowed on this island, the preferred modes of transportation are bicycles and golf carts (both of which can be rented upon arrival). Use these slow-going, open-air machines to visit Kelleys Island State Park and the Glacial Grooves State Memorial before cutting over to explore the East Quarry, and then figure out if you'd prefer to scuba dive, visit the monarch butterfly greenhouse, sample some adult beverages, or just join in on the fun and games around town. 

Saugatuck, Michigan (Lake Michigan)

Aerial view of Saugatuck, Michigan
Aerial view of Saugatuck, Michigan.

Another magical Michigan beach town is the super small city (less than 1,000 residents) of Saugatuck. This Allen County community not only basks in the bounty of Lake Michigan (Southeastern Shore), but has the added asset of Lake Kalamazoo, which is fed by the Kalamazoo River on its way out to the Great Lake. To complement all these fresh and welcoming waters are 12 miles of Award-Winning beaches, including Douglas, Laketown, Pier Cove, and Oval, as well as grassy, wind-swept sand dunes. To truly appreciate the latter, pop up to Saugatuck Dunes State Park (where the drifting mountains reach 200 feet), which sits just North of town. Nature's idyllic sculptings combined with the local creatives (across the culinary, winemaking, and painting spectrum) have led to the Saugatuck region being named "The Art Coast." 

Tobermory, Ontario (Lake Huron)

Shipwreck at Tobermory, Ontario.
Shipwreck at Tobermory, Ontario.

At the tip of Southern Ontario's scenic Bruce Peninsula, which parts the waters of Lake Huron to the West, and Georgian Bay (i.e. "the sixth Great Lake") to the East, the humble fishing village of Tobermory is considered the "crown jewel" of the region, and deservedly so. Bruce Peninsula National Park showcases world-class hiking (led by the long-haul Bruce Trail), and scuba divers love exploring the many near-shore shipwrecks within the Fathom Five National Marine Park (which together make up part of the UNESCO Niagara Escarpment Biosphere Reserve). Indulge in freshly caught fish n' chips, walk out to the Big Tub Lighthouse, paddle across to Flowerpot Island, or ride the famous Chi-cheemaun ferry to Manitoulin Island (the largest lake island in the world). 

Bayfield, Wisconsin (Lake Superior)

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

Northern Wisconsin's cute city of Bayfield is a perfect getaway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Sitting on the Western shore of Lake Superior, Bayfield is protected by many of the 21 large, rocky, rugged, and gorgeous islands comprising this cherished archipelago (once again deemed the "crown jewels" of the area – common verbiage, yes, but always warranted when it comes to the Great Lakes). Some of the best kayaking and sailing on the continent can be done here, thanks to the Redstone sea caves that contrast the exceptionally clear waters of Lake Superior (which is not only the largest but cleanest of the Great Lakes). Diving the multitude of shipwrecks is once again a popular pastime. Visitors can also take a short ferry ride to the largest of the lot, Madeline Island, to explore the hiking trails, viewpoints, and beaches of Big Bay State Park. 

These eight Great Lake towns cover all five glacially-formed juggernauts and many of the distinct geopolitical regions within their grasp. Each lake experience offers something a little bit different: ranges of permanent populations (or lack thereof), swells of summer tourism (or lack thereof), welcomed remoteness or ease of accessibility, mainland communities or island villages, inviting weather or invigorating winds, etc. A proper exploration of the Great Lakes requires the crossing of state lines and international borders and a lifetime's worth of seasons, but these are the best places to kick things off.

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