Find the Midwest Lake Vacation For You
More than 7 million posts are tagged #lakelife on Instagram. Though it's not in our nature to brag, we think the Midwest has saturated the market for fresh water bliss (in a good way). Four out of the five Great Lakes reside within our region. Their watersheds touch eight states, plus Canada, and more than 30 million people. And that's not all. Lake of the Ozarks has more shoreline than California does coastline, Nebraska boasts white sand beaches, and tens of thousands of smaller lakes make the Upper Midwest look like Swiss cheese from the sky.
You probably already have a favorite lake—maybe a peaceful little one near your home, or the vacation spot where you went back every summer of your childhood—but if you're ready to dive into something new this year, allow us to guide you. Looking for a cool lake in the state next door (or maybe your own)? We've got a map for that. Curious to try wakeboarding or shipwreck hunting? You got it! How about a fun personality quiz to figure out which Great Lake best fits your interests? We're here to help—with bathing suits and sunnies on.
Find Your Great Lake
Which of the big five best matches your personality? Start at the top with your packing list, and we'll tell you where to go.
Huron You love getting your feet wet, you're a history buff and your alarm is set for sunrise. Huron checks all your boxes with its crystal-clear water showcasing hundreds of sunken ships.
Erie We bet you're the "fun one" in your group. Erie matches that with golf cart rides around beach islands, towering roller coasters with stomach-dropping views and brag-worthy sport fishing.
Michigan Talk about a people pleaser. Touched by four states, Lake Michigan offers the diversity of two cosmopolitan cities, cute towns and wineries galore, huge dunes, and a stretch that lives up to its name of Sunset Coast.
Superior Wild and rugged, just like you, Superior is for the nature-lover. Hike tall cliffs, paddle past islands and waterfalls, and end your day at a remote cabin in a boreal forest.
Ontario OK, we can't really claim this one as a Midwest lake, but we couldn't leave out our neighbor to the north—especially when the fishing is so good!
Family Joy Rides
Fact: A funnel cake always tastes better by the lake. Satisfy your carnival cravings—wooden coasters and all—at these nostalgic lakeside amusement parks.
Arnolds Park Amusement Park Take a spin on the Legend, one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the world, at this West Lake Okoboji staple in northwest Iowa. After your ride, grab a Nutty Bar—the park's signature ice cream treat that's been served for over 60 years. Recent upgrades include an Arnolds Park radio broadcast and fresh paint for several rides, but the park hasn't lost its nostalgic spirit.
Indiana Beach This theme park along Lake Shafer in northwest Indiana began as a bathhouse and refreshment stand called Ideal Beach. Its first ride opened in 1927. The Park was on the brink of closure in 2020, but a new owner surprised fans in June by stepping in to save it. Plans for 2021 include two new, restored attractions. Be sure to take a spin on the Shafer Queen paddle-wheeler, a favorite since 1961.
Bay Beach On the beach in Green Bay, Wisconsin, this park has been around for more than a century. Admission is free, and ride tickets are just 25 cents. (Most rides require one or two tickets, but some up to four.) The Zippin Pippin wooden roller coaster was designed after Elvis' favorite coaster in Tennessee.
The family cabin. The first big catch. The sunset to end all sunsets. We dug through our staff's collective shoebox of lake memories for our favorites.
When I was 5 or 6, my dad took my younger sister and me fishing at a small lake in eastern Iowa. I felt a tug on my line and was so excited, I yanked it back with all my might, and it flew backward and hooked into my sister's leg. Turns out, the plastic bobber had filled with water, and I'd mistaken it for a nibbling fish. I was racked with guilt, and my sister cried the whole drive home, long after dad removed the hook with surgical precision. Needless to say, many moons passed before we attempted another family fishing adventure. — Allison Vancura, Content Editor
On a crisp fall evening in 2019, I stood on Artists Point in Grand Marais, Minnesota. As Lake Superior crashed unforgivingly against basalt rocks, the most incredible sunset emerged. I felt like I'd been captured in a painting at the edge of the Earth. — Jess Hoffert, Projects Editor
Each summer, we spent a week at my grandparents' yellow cottage on Little Crooked Lake in southwest Michigan, about 2.5 hours from our home in Chicago. It offered the absolute basics: a place to sleep but no TV, AC or even a phone line. One bathroom but no bathtub/shower. Mornings were filled with pedal boat rides and skipping rocks with my dad, afternoons with sandcastle building and swimming races. Today, when I can hardly function without my smartphone, I crave that time when the lake was all we needed. — Madelaine Jerousek-Smith, Copy Editor
My first experience with Lake Superior was a vacation on Minnesota's North Shore. My husband and I built cairns and picnicked on rocky beaches. We explored lighthouses, hiked along the rivers and streams that tumble down into the lake, and watched Superior change personalities from glistening and calm to wind-whipped and angry. We saw double rainbows and sunrises that poured gold over the water. We ate fish every night and slept with the windows open, so we could hear the slapping of water against the shore. — Ginger Crichton, Senior Editor
When I was 8, my family took a summer trip to the Lake of the Ozarks. Arriving at the cabin my dad had rented (probably sight unseen, pre-Internet), we were visibly and vocally underwhelmed—it was small, far from the lake and very, uh, rustic. To our shock, Dad drove to the office and came out with keys to a spacious, mod-look cabin just feet from the water. It must have blown his teacher's-salary vacation budget, but he was our hero. — Gary Thompson, Senior Staff Writer
My family enjoys going to Red Rock Lake in Iowa, a picturesque lake with pretty red sandstone bluffs. We often meet up with friends and tie our boats together to float in the water or hang out on the beach. It's so relaxing—lake friends are the best! — Brenda Kienast, Administrative Assistant
My family used to rent a little brown cabin on Three Lakes-Eagle River in Wisconsin. One evening, it started pouring. My sister and I bolted up the gravel road—the first time I ever beat her running! Our electricity went out, so we played Monopoly by candlelight. — Mary-Beth Rouse, Creative Director
There's a Lake for That
Among the Midwest's thousands of lakes, a few have gained reputations for catering to niche interests. Follow your passions to your next vacation.
You're interested in Rock Climbing
Go to Devil's Lake, Wisconsin
In south-central Wisconsin, a sea of sandstone surrounds a 1.6 billion-year-old quartzite island that rises 500 feet above the surface of Devil's Lake. This anomaly attracts climbers from across the Midwest who come to scale its almost 1,800 identified routes. The slick quartzite rock offers a unique challenge, and the views from the top are breathtaking. You'll also find bouldering routes (no ropes required) throughout the woods in Devil's Lake State Park. Not a climber? You can still savor exceptional panoramas by hiking along the East Bluff and West Bluff trails in the state park.
You're interested in Deep Earth Diving
Go to Billion Gallon Lake, Bonne Terre Mine, Missouri
Bonne Terre, once one of the world's largest lead mines, is now one of the world's largest freshwater dive resorts. Deep within this human-made cavern lies the Billion Gallon Lake, with a max diving depth of 90 feet and 50 dive trails to explore. Stadium lighting creates the effect of dazzling, electric-blue water while illuminating mammoth archways, massive pillars and perfectly preserved mining artifacts. Non-divers can book a guided boat tour to see submerged ore carts through the crystal-clear water. A portion of the tour allows visitors to walk along the same paths miners took in the 1800s.
You're interested in Boatless Wakeboarding
Go to The Quarry Cable Park, Crystal Lake, Illinois
Hang on, if you can. The Quarry is a 32-acre boatless cable park that has one of the longest rides in North America. Riders as young as 5 skim the water on wakeboards while attached to zipline-like cables over the water. The Quarry has two beginner cables, as well as private lessons taught by seasoned instructors. After you're done shredding, relax by the outdoor firepit or hit a volleyball on one of two sand courts. The park has live music on summer weekends.
You're interested in Sailing the Long Tack
Go to Cheney Lake, Kansas
Defying expectation, landlocked Kansas serves up world-class sailing at Cheney Lake, where wind gusts propel colorful boats.The lake has hosted national championship regattas as well as trials for the Olympics and Pan American Games, but most days, you'll find members of the Ninnescah Sailing Association. The NSA has been teaching adult and junior summer classes developed with the U.S. Sailing Association for nearly 40 years. Every Wednesday, they host friendly sailing competitions so crews of all abilities can hone their skills.
You're interested in Sandbar Partying
Go to Torch Lake at Elk River Chain of Lakes, Michigan
Kid Rock's summertime anthem "All Summer Long" includes lyrics about "splashing through the sandbar," rumored to be a reference to Torch Lake. Michigan's answer to the Caribbean, the lake's blue green water and sandbars north of Rapid City attract energetic revelers by the boatload. For a more low-key visit (and to more easily socially distance), hit the lake midweek and on non-holiday weekends.
You're interested in Bird-Watching
Go to Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota
Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge holds the Minnesota record for most waterfowl observed in one location at one time—one million, most of which were ring-necked ducks. They come to feed and rest in the wild rice beds that grow naturally in the lake. Rice Lake has been designated as a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. The best time to see migratory species en masse is October.
Put it in Cruise
Let someone else take the wheel while you kick back and savor the sights on these lake cruises.
Somewhere Beyond the Sea With waves, far-off horizons and a surface area topping 94,000 square miles, the Great Lakes feel like oceans. Six cruise lines, including Pearl Seas and Hapag-Lloyd, currently operate multi-day cruises on the Great Lakes. In 2022, luxe Viking Expeditions joins the fleet.
You've Got Mail Among its menu of tours, Wisconsin's Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers a mail delivery cruise. Passengers ride along on a U.S. Mailboat while it delivers to 75 lakefront homes (historic mansions, mostly—prepare to ogle).
Bon Voyage In way-north Minnesota, the National Park Service and Voyageurs Outfitters each operate guided tours and sunset cruises in Voyageurs National Park. Stick around until dark—while it's not a guarantee you'll see the northern lights, many visitors have.
Wet Your Appetite Dine aboard Indiana's largest boat while cruising Lake Freeman. The 300-ton Madam Carroll offers dinner cruises catered by the historic Sportsman Inn, plus entertainment sails with drinks and dancing for the 21+ crowd.
Door (County) Prize Hop aboard a Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tour and choose one of five routes in the waters surrounding Door County, Wisconsin. See lighthouses and caves or simply relax on a sunset live music cruise.
Other "Great" Lakes
Hey, they might not be the absolute largest splotches of blue on the Midwest map, but these favorites (often, though not always, the biggest lakes in their states) deserve a nod too.
South Dakota, Sylvan Lake Rent a paddleboat or climb on the rock formations around this spectacularly scenic lake in the Black Hills.
North Dakota, Lake Sakakawea A dammed section of the Missouri River, this 180-mile lake (and several surrounding state parks) lures anglers and boaters.
Minnesota, Gull Lake If Paul Bunyan were to ride a Jet Ski, it would be on the largest lake in one of the state's busiest vacation hubs, Brainerd Lakes.
Wisconsin, Lakes Monona and Mendota In Madison, both the state Capitol and the University of Wisconsin rise from an isthmus between these twin lakes, an urban-recreational match made in heaven.
Michigan, Houghton Lake Families flock to Michigan's largest inland lake for resorts, fishing, go-karts, historic sites and an annual summer art festival.
Ohio, Lake Hope Like a Monet painting come to life, this lake is covered in lily pads dotted with bright pink blooms each summer.
Indiana, Lake Monroe Geodes sparkle along the shore of Indiana's largest inland lake, near the college town of Bloomington.
Illinois, Rend Lake Play beach volleyball or lounge under an umbrella on the large sandy shore at South Sandusky Beach, the main draw of this 13-mile-long lake.
Missouri, Lake of the Ozarks Pull your boat into one of this snaking lake's hundreds of coves. Join the fun at Party Cove or find your own peaceful haven.
Iowa, Okoboji Dubbed the Iowa Great Lakes by locals, this cluster of natural glacial lakes is mega-popular for boating and resort vacays.
Kansas, Wilson Lake Dramatic stacked rock formations and scenic cliffs rim this lake, which also has several swimming beaches and hiking trails in the parks around it.
Nebraska, Lake McConaughy Campers love pitching their tents on the white sand beaches of this 30,000-acre lake.
Don't be left high and dry! Treat yourself to new essentials fora weekend at the lake.
1. Sol Survivor Shirt Don't let harmful rays cramp your style with this tailored, breezy, UV-blocking button-down. $75. duluthtrading.com
2. Beach Towel Vera Bradley charm pops on oversized towels, designed in Indiana. From $40. verabradley.com
3. Lager of the Lakes A Michigan pilsner as refreshing as a swim in the Great Lakes. $11 for a six-pack. bellsbeer.com
5. Backpack Cooler Say goodbye to lopsided lugging with this primo backpack cooler that will stay cold on even the hottest day. $300. yeti.com
6. Lake Surfer Look Ma, no hands! Let the rope go and try wakesurfing—like wakeboarding but with more balance skills. Hang ten on this skim-style board from Minnesota. $499. paddlenorth.com
7. Waterproof Playing Cards Because who wants to play Go Fish with soggy cards? $6. bicyclecards.com
8. Slim Flip Flops We have to say it: These super comfy and durable flips won't be a flop. From $26. havaianas.com
9. Ball Cap Celebrate a day on the water with this cap from Wisconsin's Lake Effect Co. $32. lakeeffectco.com
10. Pop-Up Tent All it takes is a zip and a toss, and you've got instant shade. $65. food52.com
11. Bogg Bag These sturdy bags won't tip over in the sand or on a swaying boat. From $75. boggbag.com