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10 adventures in the Great Lakes: an under-the-radar outdoor paradise

Go on an adventure in the Midwest to paddle, hike, and look for wildlife around the Great Lakes.

By: Shalee Blackmer + Save to a List

The Great Lakes Region has almost 11,000 miles of coastal shoreline, which includes towering sand dunes, jagged cliffs, fairy-tale lighthouses, and thousands of miles of hiking trails. This diverse area is often overlooked as an adventure destination. 

America’s five Great Lakes are all magical places, where people can spend the day swimming or snorkeling around shipwrecks and spend the night gazing into a million stars. Check out our list of the 10 best adventures in the Great Lakes and get ready to explore this under-the-radar adventure paradise.

1. Hike to Big Sable Point Lighthouse | Michigan, Lake Michigan

A lighthouse towers over a body of water.
Photo: Shalee Blackmer

Distance: 3.6 Miles
Type: Out-and-back

Big Sable Point Lighthouse is quite possibly one of the most scenic locations in Michigan, however its remote location keeps crowd levels to a minimum. Located in within Ludington State Park, the lighthouse is a 3.6 mile round-trip hike along the sand dunes of Lake Michigan. It is the perfect location to watch a sunset, and during spring and fall months the surrounding beaches are virtually empty. 

2. Camp on South Manitou Island | Michigan, Lake Michigan

A sand dune next to a teal and blue lake
Photo: Shalee Blackmer

Distance: 10 Miles
Type: Loop

South Manitou Island is perfect for the adventurer who enjoys roughing it. A ferry boat makes a trip once daily to the island, and then leaves you stranded. The most recommended hike is the 10 mile shoreline loop, which brings you by shipwrecks, hundred foot sand dunes, and stunning beaches. 

A strip of light tan sand sits between dark water and light blue water.
Photo: Michael Wigle

3. Hike Superior's Pictured Rocks Shore to Au Sable Lighthouse | Michigan, Lake Michigan

Distance: 27.32 Miles
Type: Point-to-point

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is filled with towering cliffs, hidden sea caves, quiet beaches, and killer scenery. Standing on rock overhangs hundreds of feet above the water will make any heart skip a beat. It’s the perfect place to feel completely disconnected (with the help of no cell phone service) and to get your daily dose of adrenaline with cliff jumping.

4. Cliff Jump at the Grotto | Tobermory, Canada, Lake Huron

Two pockmarked, rocky cliffs rise from teal water.
Photo: Shalee Blackmer

Distance: 3.6 Miles
Type: Out-and-back

On the tip of the Bruce Peninsula sits an extremely unique area. It includes a natural grotto, where adventurers can free dive through underwater caves, and cliff jumping from heights of 70 feet. The shoreline hiking trail is part of the Bruce Trail System, and extends for hundreds of miles through various landscapes.

5. Hike the Escarpment Trail | Michigan, Lake of the Clouds

Two people are walking a trail above a long skinny lake.
Photo: Allison Herreid

Distance: 8.6 Miles
Type: Out-and-back

Porcupine Mountain State Park is situated along the Lake Superior shoreline in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It encompasses miles of hiking trails and offers stunning views of the surrounding landscapes. The area is perfect for backcountry camping, rock climbing, and mountain biking.

6. Explore Point Pelee | Canada, Lake Erie

The sun is rising or setting over a lake.
Photo: Carolyn Stearns

This is an adventure for those looking for some peace, quiet, and reflection. Pointe Pelee is a National Park peninsula in Ontario where sounds of daily life are far in the distance. The location offers both sunrises and sunsets over Lake Erie and is the perfect location for paddle boarding.

7. Backpack Across Isle Royale National Park | Michigan, Lake Superior

The sun is rising or setting over a calm body of water.
Photo: Joe Whitson

Distance: 41.12 Miles
Type: Point-to-point

Isle Royale National Park is the least visited national park in the country, welcoming only 17,000 visitors annually. This isn’t for lack of beauty, but lack of access. Many must drive hours from the closest city, and then journey out on Lake Superior during a 4 hour ferry ride. The small 9 mile island is home to intriguing wildlife including wolves, coyotes, and moose.

8. Kayak to Turnip Rock | Michigan, Lake Huron

A triangular-shaped rock island rises from a lake with one point in the water. The top part is several stories out of the water and home to 10 or so trees. A red kayak paddles by behind the island.
Photo: Shalee Blackmer

Distance: 3 to 9 Miles
Type: Out-and-back

Turnip rock is accessed only by a 3 mile kayaking journey on Lake Huron. During winter months, adventurers can ice walk to the formation and spend the evening relaxing and the night stargazing before heading home for a hot cup of coffee. Its formation stuns and causes wonder and curiosity by all visitors, and has been recognized globally for its uniqueness.

9. Hike Split Rock Lighthouse State Park | Minnesota, Lake Superior

A tree-covered island is surrounded by blue water.
Photo: Joe Whitson

Distance: 35.8 Miles
Type: Out-and-back

The park holds a trail that leads almost 6 miles to Corundum Point and encompasses steep cliffs that are not for the faint of heart. Beautiful shorelines, rocky scrambles, and ruins of an old Midwest settlement all are found throughout the journey. The area is also known for its sea caves and kayaking adventures through the nearby Apostle Islands.

10. Explore the High Falls of the Pigeon River | Minnesota, Lake Superior

Two waterfalls cascade down a dark rock face surrounded by greenery and trees.
Photo: Allison Herreid

Distance: 1 Mile
Type: Out-and-back

Along the United States/Canadian border on Lake Superior is Grand Portage State Park. Here is where explorers will find the 120-foot High Falls. It is the tallest waterfall in the state of Minnesota and is surrounded by a jagged and rocky landscape. The .5 mile trail leading to the falls is fit for all explorers, and after visiting one can take a chilly dip in nearby Lake Superior.

Don't see your favorite Great Lakes adventure on The Outbound? Show us by creating an adventure.

Remember to always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and be sure to brush up on LNT principles for backcountry fires as well.

Feature image of hiking the Escarpment Trail by Allison Herreid.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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