Eight states and two nations border these vast inland seas. Bustling cities stand along their shores. But they also boast waterfront serenity and natural beauty.

By Steve Millburg
March 04, 2004
Matt Brown


Big cities (Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland, Milwaukee, andBuffalo) skirt this five-lake chain, as do smaller cities built onlake-based trade and manufacturing (Erie, Pennsylvania; Toledo,Ohio; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Duluth, Minnesota; and Rochester, NewYork). The area offers mile after mile of undeveloped, quietlyscenic lakefront and time-stopping resort islands. Total shoreline(islands included) measures 10,210 miles.

Glaciers gouged out the Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron,Erie, and Ontario). They touch eight states―Minnesota,Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and NewYork―plus vast Ontario, Canada. Superior has the largestsurface area of any freshwater lake in the world. Even the littleguys, Erie and Ontario, are so large (871 and 712 miles ofshoreline, respectively) they feel more like seas than lakes.


Water sports rule, particularly in summer. Damaging waves anderosion are rare compared with ocean coastlines.

Known for its Midwestern and Canadian friendliness, the regionalso offers easy travel between the United States and Canada.

Excellent wine-growing exists, especially atNiagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; Pelee Island on the Canadian side ofLake Erie; northwest Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula and Old MissionPeninsula; and southwest Michigan.

Dozens of classic lighthouses dot the shore. Parks includeSleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (sand dunes, North and SouthManitou islands) and Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary andUnderwater Preserve (more than 100 shipwrecks), both in Michigan;the Indiana Dunes National Seashore (dunes, beaches, wetlands,wildlife) in Indiana; Apostle Islands National Seashore (hiking,paddling, nature) in Wisconsin; Presque Isle State Park (boating,beaches) in Pennsylvania; Gooseberry Falls State Park on LakeSuperior's North Shore (waterfalls, history, cross-country skiing)in Minnesota; and Point Pelee National Park (unusual mix of plantsand wildlife), jutting into Lake Erie in Ontario.


Winters are bitter, and storms can be ferocious, especially infall and winter. Isolation discourages some would-be residents fromconsidering Michigan's Upper Peninsula, northern Wisconsin, LakeSuperior's North Shore, and many Canadian lakeshore areas.

A few industry-based cities have been experiencing economicstress. Many local economies slow dramatically during coldermonths.

Housing Options:

In and near the cities, you'll find everything from high-risecondos to modest single-family homes. Some commercial waterfrontbuildings are being converted to loft-style housing. Areas withincommuting distance of cities have started to acquire very upscalehomes, though there's still a tendency to retain a rustic feel. Notmany high-rises exist outside the cities. In small towns and ruralareas, housing consists of rustic cabins, vacation homes, andunassuming lakefront single-family houses. Much land is availableto build what you want.

What It Costs:

The few available historic homes on Kelleys Island off Sandusky,Ohio, sell for $200,000 (though work will be needed) to $1 million.Two-bedroom waterfront condominiums in Toronto run $200 Canadian($150 United States) per square foot. Lakefront condos in Erie,Pennsylvania, start at $325,000. Waterfront homes in St. Joseph,Michigan (with views across Lake Michigan to Chicago), go for$350,000 and up.

Your Next-door Neighbors:

City-dwellers, including white- and blue-collar, retreat tosecond homes on or near the water. Almost everyone seems to be anavid hunter, fisherman, or both. Not all retirees abandon theirsnow shovels to flee south. Tourists flock here in summer.Especially in tourist areas, people tend to multitask as, forexample, a combination hunting guide/antiques shop owner/volunteerfirefighter/county commissioner/bartender.

How You'd Spend Your Free Time:

Most folks end up on, in, or near the water: fishing (includingice-fishing), boating, swimming, waterskiing, diving, and in thewinter snowmobiling or dogsledding on the ice. You can evensurf―Sheboygan, Wisconsin, hosts a surfing tournament everyLabor Day.

Historical, cultural, and entertainment attractions call folksto the metropolises. For a strong dose of French culture, visitMontreal or Quebec City, along the St. Lawrence Seaway. LovelyNiagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, affords a taste of British culture,wonderful theater (the Shaw Festival, April through December), andice wine (an intense dessert wine that's a specialty of most of themore than 40 area wineries). At Niagara Falls, the boat tour'sawesome up-close look is worth the drenching.

Take a cruise on one of several small to medium-size ships thatply the lakes during warmer months. Or explore the many resortislands, such as the Lake Erie islands near Sandusky, Ohio, and theThousand Islands where Lake Ontario becomes the St. Lawrence Seaway(birthplace of Thousand Island salad dressing). Or see ManitoulinIsland and its neighbors on the Ontario side of Lake Huron,Mackinac and Bois Blanc islands on the Michigan side of Huron, andBeaver Island and its compatriots on Lake Michigan. There's alsothe Apostle Islands in Wisconsin and Isle Royale off northeasternMinnesota.

For birding, visit such feather-friendly spots as Ohio's westernLake Erie shore and Whitefish Point in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.Explore all the rustic charms of the "U.P.," as the peninsula isknown in these parts.