At six quadrillion gallons and more than 95,000 square miles, the Great Lakes are the largest freshwater body on Earth. Each has a story to tell and a personality all its own.
These lakes—a playground where water sports reign supreme—teem with more than 170 species of fish. Explore the area's sea caves, lighthouses, sand dunes, nature areas and the 4,530 miles of coastline full of raw energy and beauty.
"The feeling of the Great Lakes changes every day and at times every hour; they can be peaceful, calm and soothing in the morning and by evening raging with power," said Joshua Nowicki, a local photographer who lives on the shores of Lake Michigan. "They are always fascinating and awe inspiring. They are for me a place for personal reflection and contemplation during calm or storm."
The Historian: Lake Superior
Because more than 300 streams and rivers empty into Lake Superior, it has a long and storied shipping history. With its proliferation of shipping vessels that come through the major ports of Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, Duluth, Superior and Marquette, Lake Superior has seen its fair share of shipwrecks; a treasure trove of maritime history, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum estimates 6,000 ships lie in a watery grave at the bottom of Lake Superior.
Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world. It has more water than all the other Great Lakes combined; its surface is greater than the areas of Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
At Lake Superior's deepest point, just outside of Munising, you can see a number of shipwrecks from glass-bottomed boats. A few miles down the road, the aptly-named Pictured Rocks provide a stunning view of the natural surroundings and afford exploration activities year-round.
"I dream of someday living near Lake Superior. I have ever since I was a child," said Nowicki. "If I had to choose somewhere to live, it would be somewhere near Munising and Marquette. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is gorgeous and there are so many amazing hiking trails and waterfalls in the area. Furthermore, the view of the night sky and on occasion the Northern Lights are amazing."
The Cool Kid: Lake Michigan
Home to some of the largest cities in the Midwest: Chicago, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids and Green Bay, Lake Michigan is the only Great Lake entirely located in the United States (the others share a border with Canada).
Although the lake-effect snow that comes off this Great Lake can be downright wicked in winter, its environment creates a bountiful growing season that makes Michigan a leader in blueberry, cherry, asparagus and grape crops used for winemaking. The area is also rife with sand dunes that are considered the most pristine in the nation.
Architecture enthusiasts shouldn't miss Racine, at the most southeasterly point of Wisconsin; it's rich in buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, including the SC Johnson building, which just increased its tour schedule. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trail offers additional wonders.
"Wright had been aching to build a taproot tower since 1927," said Racine-based photojournalist and Frank Lloyd Wright expert Mark Hertzberg of Wright's achievement in the stunning SC Johnson Research Tower.
Wright also reached a new level of achievement in his vision for the accompanying SC Johnson Administration Building, said Hertzberg. "His dramatic columns mushroom from 17 feet in diameter at the top to seven inches in diameter at the bottom. He kept piling material on top to see how much it would hold. He stopped at 60 tons. It's an incredible engineering feat."
This weight test, said Hertzberg, was necessary to license Wright's dramatic dendriform columns; the 60 tons was five times more than each column had to support.
The Old-Time Charmer: Lake Huron
Home to Mackinac Island and Fort Michilimackinac, Lake Huron is full of throwbacks to days gone by. The island, between Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas, doesn't allow any motorized transport outside of emergency vehicles, so horse-drawn carriage rides are a must.
Michilimackinac, on the shores of the Straits of Mackinac, is an 18th-century fort and fur-trading village reconstructed from archeological excavations that continue to this day. Full of period furnishings, artifacts and demonstrations, archeologists just might unearth something new during your visit.
On the Canadian side of the lake, Pinery Provincial Park contains a thousands-years-old ecosystem that was formed by glaciers; it contains the majority of the Savannah Oak woodland that can be found in North America. The area is abundant in rare flora and fauna.
Early-risers should know that Lake Huron, which forms the outline of Lower Michigan's thumb, is known for being on Michigan's "sunrise side"—so grab a blanket, a cup of coffee and take a walk along the lake's shores at daybreak.
The Unspoilt Maiden: Lake Ontario
The Iroquois called it "lake of shining waters." We call it gorgeous. It may be the smallest of the Great Lakes, but Lake Ontario is indeed mighty: the water from each one of the Great Lakes flows through Lake Ontario on its way to the Atlantic Ocean, and the lake is so deep, it never completely freezes. And, it just might lull you to a dreamlike state with its “seiche,” a natural rhythmic motion in which water oscillates back and forth.
The shores of Lake Ontario are lined with more than 100 beaches. Thus, it is home to many idyllic resort areas, particularly since it's at the base of Niagara Falls. Niagara-on-the-Lake is one such town, often described as the prettiest town in Ontario for its preserved 19th-century buildings, tree-lined streets and wineries.
Lake Ontario is home to the largest cities in Ontario, among them Toronto, Kingston and St. Catharines, a city known for its friendliness, pride and culture. On the American side, you'll find Rochester, New York, with its diverse culinary scene, festival line-up and family attractions.
Quaint village more your style? Sacketts Harbor is for you.
The Grand Industrialist: Lake Erie
Lake Erie is an industrial powerhouse. The water that flows in from navigation and commerce on the other four Great Lakes, as well precipitation, led to intense industrial development along its shores: think of the industries of Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo and Erie, and you get the picture.
But Lake Erie is also the warmest and most biologically diverse of the Great Lakes, making it a hotspot for anglers: its walleye fishery is considered to be the best in the world. And, as ABC reports, numbers are on the rise.
Among the family-friendly Ohio towns you'll find on Lake Erie's shores are Sandusky, known as the home of roller-coaster mecca Cedar Point—in addition to multiple water parks—and the sleepy beach town of Kelleys Island.