25 Coolest Midwest Lake Vacation Spots
Cooler by the lake
Your perfect lake might be a pool only you and the loons know about. Or a serpentine reservoir ruffled by the wake of speedboats. Or one of the mighty Great Lakes, with beaches as fine as any ocean's. The following 25 vacation spots are each cool for a different reason, but they've got one thing in common: a liquid heart.
Pictured: Marblehead Lighthouse on Ohio's Lake Erie shore.
Cool community: Door County, Wisconsin
On a jagged peninsula that's just 70 miles long and 10 miles wide, you'll find the "Cape Cod of the Midwest." Why the nickname? Well, to start, there are lighthouses (10, including Cana Island light at left), beaches (about 30) and forested state parks (5) along more than 300 miles of shoreline.
There are pretty little towns, too, clustered around glittering Lake Michigan bays. The county's 30,000 or so year-round residents work hard to pique visitors' interest. Even as residents welcome new art galleries and upscale clothing and home-decor boutiques, they haven't forgotten their past.
Folks still gather for evening fish boils; hand-laid stone walls still divide pastures; and cherry orchards that date to the 1800s are still carefully tended and brought to bloom. Just the simple act of eating a fresh slice of cherry pie or taking a bike ride along the shore in Peninsula State Park makes you part of the community.
More cool community: Traverse City, Michigan
During the summertime National Cherry Festival, Traverse City's population swells from 14,000 to more than 500,000. What's amazing, though, is that this gentrified vacation spot (140 miles north of Grand Rapids) feels even more like a small town during the fest. Lake Michigan glitters behind a packed lineup of parades, country-fair-style contests and teddy-bear teas. People here love their town—and they love to share it, even with huge crowds. The National Cherry Festival (pictured) draws up to 500,000 visitors.
Cool community in South Haven, Michigan
Park your car in South Haven, and then say good-bye to it. This cute Lake Michigan town (60 miles southwest of Grand Rapids) is completely walkable, so it's easy to stroll between sandy beaches, fun restaurants, cool galleries and pretty bed and breakfasts.
Cool for kids: Minocqua, Wisconsin
This northern Wisconsin resort town (165 miles northwest of Green Bay) has all the ingredients of a great family vacation - including more than 3,000 lakes in Vilas and Oneida counties. Minocqua's quieter lakes are perfect for swimming lessons and sand castles. Meanwhile, you can zip across big Lake Minocqua on a wakeboard or check out the Min-Aqua Bats ski team.
Kids love cheering at Scheer's Lumberjack Show or digging into an ice cream cone at Hoggie Doggie's. And the lodgings here understand what a family lake vacation is all about—no one minds a little sand tracked in.
More cool for kids: Wisconsin Dells
The nickname "Water Park Capital of the World" is a pretty good clue to the kid-appeal of this hilly vacation area near Lake Delton (50 miles northwest of Madison). Water-park resorts (such as Mount Olympus Water & Theme Park, left), plus old-fashioned amusement parks, top most itineraries.
But The Dells also has three state parks and plenty of spots for grown-up relaxation. Try to find time to see the Dells, the unique, craggy bluffs rising over the Wisconsin River like stacks of sandstone pancakes. Some of the best views are from double-decker excursion boats. For a Dells-style adventure, bounce your way through the woods and splash into the river on the Wisconsin Ducks -- amphibious transport vehicles from World War II.
Kid cool in Lake Erie Shores and Islands, Ohio
No doubt, the family-friendly heart of Ohio's Lake Erie shore is Sandusky (60 miles east of Toledo). It's home to gigantic Cedar Point amusement park (pictured), as well as four indoor water-park resorts.
Kids will also love riding ferries to area islands like South Bass and Kelly's, looking for birds at state parks, visiting the Merry-Go-Round Museum, climbing the stairs in Marblehead Lighthouse—and, of course, swimming in the lake.
Cool art: Saugatuck, Michigan
One clue that this little Lake Michigan town (40 miles southwest of Grand Rapids) has an artsy soul: You'll see cool sculptures everywhere. Artists have congregated in Saugatuck (population: 1,000) for a century now, so it's no surprise that art has become part of the fabric of the community.
Some 40 galleries showcase local art and pieces from around the world. Many of the galleries are also studios, so it's easy to catch an artist at work. If you feel the creative impulse while you're in town, check out the classes at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts and the visitors' events at the Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists' Residency.
Summer brings acclaimed film, jazz and chamber music festivals. Visitors come to enjoy those, plus all the things that lured artists here in the first place: boats bobbing in the marinas, white sand and gentle waves on Oval Beach (pictured), lush foliage in the trees and the ever-changing blue of Lake Michigan.
More cool art: Grand Marais, Minnesota
Tucked into a natural Lake Superior harbor (110 miles northeast of Duluth), this town of 1,400 has a surprising arts scene. You can poke around galleries downtown—such as the Siverson Art Gallery, pictured—or head to the North House Folk School for classes (topics include boat-building and basket-weaving), films and even concerts.
The creative spirit extends to area restaurants, where chefs work culinary magic with fresh-caught lake fish. Grand Marais also is a gateway to the Gunflint Trail, which reaches deep into Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Cool art in Petoskey, Michigan
Petoskey sits 70 miles northeast of Traverse City, near the top of Michigan's "mitten." Around town, you'll find murals, galleries and the Crooked Tree Arts Center, a hub for exhibitions and art classes of every stripe. It even has a 235-seat theater. Be sure to take a drive along US-31 for shimmering blue Lake Michigan scenery.
Cool mix: Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
Missouri's largest lake has 1,150 miles of shoreline—and just about as many ways to get out and enjoy it. The lake was formed in 1931, with the completion of Bagnell Dam. Developed over the years since then, "the Strip" evolved into a colorful kitsch-central, with fudge shops, old-time photo studios and souvenir shops.
But the lake is still the biggest draw, and fishing here is fabulous. Nearly 50 full-service marinas can hook you up with boat rentals. On shore, you can play 261 holes of golf or tour the ruins of a mansion at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, ride horseback at Lake of the Ozarks State Park or take a lantern tour of Ozark Caverns. And with more than 100 restaurants (including great sandwiches at On the Rise Bakery and fine dining at the Blue Heron), you'll have plenty of options to try during your trip.
More cool mix: Branson, Missouri
Chill on Table Rock Lake, take a cruise on the Showboat Branson Belle, then settle in for one of this southwest Missouri town's glittering live music shows. Silver Dollar City theme park (pictured) includes craft demonstrations and restaurants. Branson's historic downtown is loaded with little souvenir shops and cafes, while Branson Landing is a posh outdoor shopping mall.
Cool mix at Brainerd, Minnesota
Just 125 miles north of the Twin Cities, Brainerd is firmly in the lakelands—lots of pine trees and plenty of kitschy Paul Bunyan fun. The shores here are sprinkled with resorts (from old-school to woodsy chic), shops, restaurants, state parks and trails. Tee off on one of the Brainerd Golf Trail's 11 courses (180 total holes), including Madden's on Gull Lake (pictured), or relax at Glacial Waters Spa.
Cool solitude: Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
How do you get around a 218,000-acre national park that doesn't have any roads? The answer is the main reason people visit this park on the Canadian border: boats.
To explore Voyageurs' 30-some lakes (Rainy and Namekan are the biggest) and find the solitude this park is famous for, you need something that floats. Some folks spend a day on a guided walleye fishing trip and stay at a resort in one of the shore towns of International Falls or Ranier (160 miles north of Duluth). Others motor around on houseboats, watching for moose by day and anchoring at a different island each night for sunset and a campfire.
Cool retro chic: East Tawas and Tawas City, Michigan
Spending a weekend in this pair of Lake Huron beach towns feels a little like dropping into the 1950s. Several generations of Detroiters, many of them autoworkers, have come to the cottage resorts along these sugar-sand shores for affordable, close-to-home family vacations—and they still do.
In Tawas Point State Park, kids build sand castles and splash in jade-color shallows. Sandy Hook Nature Trail winds past meadows of wildflowers and marshes teeming with birds. The Tawas Point Lighthouse stands over a 200-site campground.
A bike path connects the park to nearby East Tawas and Tawas City (180 miles north of Detroit). The lineup in East Tawas is simple but fun: souvenir and gift shops, a 60-year-old ice cream parlor and the 1910 Family Theater, which still shows flicks. Put away your cell phone, squint a little, and the decades just melt away.
Resources: Tawas Bay Tourist and Convention Bureau
More cool retro chic: Detroit Lakes, Minnesota
Tucked among north-central Minnesota's trees and lakes, you'll find generations-old resorts (such as Fair Hills Resort, pictured) built around screen-door cabins and a refusal to gentrify. Downtown Detroit Lakes features a mile-long beach near streets of everyday shops, not just gift stores. Throw in simple pleasures like water-skiing lessons, a huge flea market and a county fair, and you don't get much more Parent Trap (Hayley Mills version) than this—and that's why people love it.
- Photo by Richard Swearinger.
Cool retro chic at Okoboji, Iowa
Some people might be surprised by this classic vacation spot 210 miles northwest of Des Moines. A string of glacial lakes covers about 15,000 acres, forming the "Iowa Great Lakes." Families return year after year, fishing off docks and hopping on carnival rides at Arnolds Park, a turn-of-the-last-century theme park that's as retro as they come. Okoboji Boat Works, a popular stop between the west and east lakes, offers a swimming beach, a playground and glass-bottom boat tours.
Cool island attitude: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Rearing out of Lake Superior, and surrounded by hundreds of smaller islets, Isle Royale National Park is a 45-mile-long bastion of protected wilderness.
It's not an easy place to get to. Isle Royale is buffered from the mainland by miles of chilly Lake Superior, and that has helped this rocky island maintain its near-pristine state. Though there were once summer homes, resorts and even mining operations, only a single lodge remains for visitors. There are no roads.
And for most of the people who come here, that's the attraction. Isle Royale is an outdoor-lover's paradise. You can hike on 165 miles of trails, kayak around the rocky shoreline or take water taxis to remote campsites. For travelers who want a little education with their adventure, rangers lead walks and boat excursions.
More cool island attitude: Mackinac Island, Michigan
Cars aren't allowed on this idyllic island located between Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas (120 miles northeast of Traverse City). Instead, horse-drawn carriages meet visitors at the ferry docks, and bike rentals are plentiful— perfect for burning off the island's famous fudge.
Many people stay in town, but they're missing out on one of the island's real treasures—peaceful lake-view hikes in gorgeous Mackinac Island State Park (pictured).
Cool island attitude at Apostle Islands, Wisconsin
These ruggedly beautiful islands sit off the shore of Bayfield, Wisconsin, in Lake Superior (80 miles east of Duluth). Only one, Madeline Island, has any commercial development. But that doesn't stop most travelers, who happily explore the other islands by kayak or sailboat.
Cool in the city: Milwaukee
You won't feel as if you've escaped from civilization at Milwaukee's 15-acre Bradford Beach, but that's the point: You get all the fun and relaxation of a Lake Michigan beach, plus the vibrant energy of a cosmopolitan city.
When you're ready to pack up the towel and sunscreen, a pulsing city awaits, with museums, shopping, great restaurants, pro sports teams and plush hotels. The Historic Third Ward district offers galleries and boutiques, while the Harley-Davidson Museum honors the city's motorcycle heritage. And throughout the summer, this city of 605,000 hosts one outdoor party after another along the lakefront, luring visitors for food, music and drinks. Ethnic festivals offer a globe-trotting tour of Milwaukee's immigrant communities, while Summerfest is the world's largest music festival.
More cool in the city: Chicago, Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and Racine, Wisconsin
Chicago Many of the city's biggest attractions (including Lincoln Park Zoo, John G. Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum and Navy Pier) are within sight of Lake Michigan. Chill out on a sandy beach, or ride bikes (left) along the Lakefront Trail. Resources: Midwest Living's Chicago Trip Guide; Chicago Office of Tourism
Minneapolis/Saint Paul Locals love to bike, jog and skate through the parks and gardens linked by Minneapolis' Chain of Lakes. In Saint Paul, Lake Como has a conservatory and zoo. Resources: Midwest Living's Minneapolis/Saint Paul Trip Guide; Meet Minneapolis; Visit Saint Paul
Racine, Wisconsin Along Lake Michigan, Racine's North Beach (20 miles south of Milwaukee) is one of the nicest urban public beaches you'll see -- clean, white sand, with easy access to downtown's shops and restaurants. Resources: Real Racine
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