Aerial view of Lake Michigan from Elk Rapids, Michigan.

The Most Picturesque Small Towns in the Great Lakes Region

The Great Lakes region encompasses 5 of the biggest freshwater lakes in the world, including Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Erie. A number of Canadian Provinces and American States all touch the shores of these massive lakes, including New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Ontario, and more. This area in Northeastern North America is widely renowned for its natural beauty and abundance of notable landmarks to visit. Whether it is waterfalls, sandy beaches, forested parks, or historic downtown areas, you can be sure that a trip to the Great Lakes will be full of wonderful sights. The best way to take in these sights is through the array of picturesque small towns scattered throughout the region. Here are seven of the best options to explore in the Great Lakes.

Petoskey, Michigan

Aerial view of the town of Petoskey along Little Traverse Bay in Michigan.
Aerial view of the town of Petoskey along Little Traverse Bay in Michigan.

Petoskey is a gorgeous town located on the shores of Little Traverse Bay in Lake Michigan. Known for its waterfront and plethora of historic architecture, Petoskey is sure to provide you with many memorable sights. The Gaslight District, located in the downtown core, features preserved buildings dating back as far as the 19th century and is now home to a collection of shops, restaurants, and galleries. For some more historic adventure, you can explore the Little Traverse History Museum, located in a former train station.

Nearby, the Petoskey State Park provides access to sandy beaches, hiking trails, and opportunities for birdwatching along the bay. The area is also famous for the Petoskey stone, a unique fossilized coral that can be found along the shores and is highly prized by collectors.

Port Stanley, Ontario

A scenic waterway in Port Stanley, Ontario.
Boats docked along a scenic waterway in Port Stanley, Ontario.

Port Stanley, Ontario, is a charming town of about 2,000 residents on the northern shore of Lake Erie. The town's main beach, appropriately named Main Beach, is one of Canada's few Blue Flag-certified beaches. This title means that it is recognized for its clean water and safety standards benefiting both humans and the wildlife that calls this place home. A visit to the Port Stanely Lighthouse, which is just a short walk from the beach, will give you a unique view of the town's skyline and surrounding bluffs from a considerable distance out into the lake.

Port Stanley's historic lift bridge, built in 1939, is a notable landmark that still operates today, connecting both sides of the town across Kettle Creek. The Port Stanley Terminal Rail offers scenic train rides along the shoreline, providing another way to experience the area's natural beauty.

Ephraim, Wisconsin

View of the coast along Ephraim in Wisconsin.
View of the coast along Ephraim in Wisconsin.

Located on the shores of Eagle Harbor in Door County, Ephraim, Wisconsin, is best known for its well-preserved Scandinavian heritage. This town, with a minuscule population of 300 permanent residents, features a collection of unique white-painted buildings that stand out, especially against the scenic backdrop of Lake Michigan. Ephraim is also home to several historic sites, including the Ephraim Historical Foundation and Anderson Dock, where visitors can learn about Ephraim's maritime history and view an art gallery housed in the old warehouse.

To get outside, Peninsula State Park is just a short drive away and offers extensive recreational opportunities, including hiking, biking, and camping, as well as a golf course with stunning views over the lake. If you are looking to stay closer to town, Ephraim’s shoreline provides excellent spots for kayaking and sailing, with breathtaking sunsets over Eagle Harbor.

Elk Rapids, Michigan

Boats docked along the coast of Elk Rapids, Michigan.
Boats docked along the harbor in Elk Rapids, Michigan.

Sitting between Elk Lake and the Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan, Elk Rapids makes for a perfect escape to the water for the weekend. Known for its beautiful waterfront, which offers excellent launches for boating, fishing spots, and swimming, watery fun is always close at hand. The historic Elk Rapids Hydroelectric Dam and the surrounding park are definitely worth a visit, as they provide some of the best views of Lake Michigan and are a peaceful place for a picnic. The nearby Chain of Lakes Water Trail will give visitors a unique paddling experience through interconnected lakes and rivers that weave throughout this area.

For art lovers, the Elk Rapids Day Park in town features the Walk of Art, an outdoor sculpture gallery. For more fun downtown, try to be in Elk Lake during the annual Harbor Days festival at the end of July, an event featuring parades, fireworks, and boat races.

Grand Marais, Minnesota

The U.S. Coast Guard Station along Grand Marais in Lake Superior.
A U.S. Coast Guard Station in Grand Marais, Minnesota along the scenic Lake Superior.

On the North Shore of Lake Superior, Grand Marais is a remote town surrounded by rugged natural beauty. This town is a popular gateway for adventurers seeking access to the Gunflint Trail, a scenic byway leading to the picturesque Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This park area is renowned for its pristine lakes, forests, and abundant wildlife. Along the shore, the Grand Marais Harbor and Artists' Point offer amazing views and are popular spots to embark on nearby hikes and photography excursions.

The town itself is home to the North House Folk School, which gives its visitors classes based on traditional crafts and skills, reflecting the area's heritage as a remote trading outpost. Grand Marais is also home to numerous galleries and studios, like Silverton Gallery, housing the work of local artists. Each year, the town hosts the Grand Marais Arts Festival, attracting artists and visitors from across the region too.

Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio

Aerial view of the shoreline along Geneve on the Lake.
Aerial view of the Lake Erie shoreline along Geneva-on-the-Lake in Ohio.

Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio, is a resort town located on the southern shore of Lake Erie. Renowned as Ohio's first summer resort, it has been a popular destination for vacationers since the early 1900s. There is a vibrant strip along Lake Road in the heart of downtown Geneva-on-the-Lake that is lined with arcades, restaurants, and vintage amusement rides. A trip here will be sure to invoke the nostalgia of classic Americana in the summer.

If you are looking for something a little more outdoor-oriented, Geneva State Park, just southwest of town, is popular for its hiking, fishing, boating, and swimming at its well-maintained beach. The park's marina also provides access to Lake Erie for boaters and anglers. Geneva-on-the-Lake is situated in Ohio’s wine country too, with several local wineries nearby offering tours and tastings. For those who want to stay in town, visit Old Firehouse Winery, a restaurant and tasting room along the lakefront.

Oswego, New York

Buildings along the waterfront area in Oswego, New York.
Buildings along the beautiful riverwalk in Oswego, New York. Editorial credit: debra millet /

Oswego is a historic port city on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. One of Oswego's main features, the Oswego Harbor West Pierhead Lighthouse, is an iconic structure that has guided ships since 1934 and now offers visitors picturesque views of the lake. The Fort Ontario State Historic Site is another notable landmark and will enlighten you about the area’s military history with its well-preserved fortifications dating back to the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War). To learn more, the H. Lee White Maritime Museum, located on the waterfront, showcases Oswego’s nautical history with exhibits on shipwrecks, lighthouse history, and the region’s role in the Underground Railroad.

The city’s waterfront is another focal point, with the Oswego River flowing through the downtown area, offering easy access to boating, fishing, and riverside strolls. Oswego’s vibrant downtown also features a mix of historic architecture, outfitters, restaurants, and venues, such as the Oswego Music Hall, which plays live performances throughout the year.

Set Your Sights on the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes area is one of the most beautiful in the world, not just for its natural scenery but also for the small, welcoming towns that line its shores. From historic forts and museums to extensive waterfronts perfect for long walks, there is no shortage of things to do and see here. Thus, there is something for all kinds of travelers to enjoy along the water. Hopefully, this list will help you as you begin to plan your trip to the lakes this summer.

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