Exploring Our National Lakeshores
  • Written by: Alicia O'Connor

  • Photography by: As credited

  • The National Park Service was created 100 years ago to protect and preserve our natural wonders for the enjoyment of all. Over the past century, the range of protected areas has grown to include many of the incredible shorelines of the Great Lakes region. These sights, sculpted by time, wind, and water, have awed Midwesterners for generations. The glaciers that formed the Great Lakes carved spectacular scenery along the shorelines and left behind impressive dunes that offer a unique view of the lakes and islands.  Take some time this year to visit one of these national treasures and witness the genius of preserving these places for all to share.

    Image: Rodney Campbell

    Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore | Climb the Dunes and See the Stars

    In the wildly beautiful northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is Sleeping Bear Dunes where high, sandy bluffs offer sweeping views of Lake Michigan and the dunes provide a physical challenge that is rewarded in a peaceful beach.  This area, formed by glacial movement, was named for a Chippewa legend that claims a mother bear sleeps below the dunes awaiting the return of her lost cubs.

    Enjoy the area with a hike or bike ride through the grassy trails at the top of the dunes. Travel down to the beach for a dip in the chilly water and a challenging climb back up the dune.  Explore the beautiful Leelanau Peninsula and the towns of Glen Arbor and Traverse City.

    The National Park includes the two small islands off the coast, said to represent the lost cubs that the sleeping bear awaits.  North and South Manitou Islands are accessible for a day trip via a short ferry ride from the harbor in Leland.

    Avid star gazers trek to northern Michigan to view the constellations each summer.  As part of the 100-year celebration, the National Park Service will host is first Astronomy Festival on July 23rd, 2016 with a special presentation entitled “The Most Amazing 100 Years of Astronomical Discovery.”  A full day of events is planned for all ages and details can be found online.

    Image: Tom Gill

    Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore | View Migratory Birds and Futuristic Homes

    At the southern tip of Lake Michigan, natural weather patterns create the perfect spot for migratory birds to rest after a long flight.  Each year, an incredible variety of birds pay a visit to the Indiana Dunes and the National Park Service has created an ideal experience for their human admirers.  Hiking trails wander though wooded areas that evolve into marshes, grasslands, tall dunes and wide beaches where visitors may view a wide range of plant and animal life.  Start with a trip to the Visitors’ Center for useful maps and interesting exhibits.

    A unique feature of this park is the five, futuristic Century of Progress homes that were moved to the area from Chicago after the 1933 World’s Fair.  These five homes represent an early 20th-century vision of the future with unique design, building materials, and interior features showcasing the designers’ aspirations for homes of the future.  The homes, which are privately owned, are currently undergoing extensive renovation and are open for public tours one day each year.  Check the Century of Progress Homes website for details.

    Image: Jim Sorbie

    Apostle Islands National Lakeshore | Island Hop to Historic Lighthouses 

    The Midwest’s own archipelago can be found at the tip of Wisconsin along Lake Superior’s southern shore.  The Apostle Islands are a chain of 21 islands formed by glacial movements of the distant past combined with natural weather patterns of the area.  Known for the sea caves that have formed in the sandstone cliffs of the islands, the Apostle Islands are a popular destination for canoeing, kayaking, and even point-to-point sailing adventures. The Grand Tour aboard Apostle Island Cruises is the best way to see the sea caves, local wildlife and some of the Great Lakes most photogenic lighthouses.

    The largest and most developed of the range, Madeline Island, is a charming world unto itself with small resorts, shops, and cafes as well as the picturesque Big Bay State Park.  This locale, a short ferry ride from the mainland, is appealing as either a fun family vacation or an enjoyable day-long adventure. Visitors have several options for exploring the area from small charter boat operations, ferries, to full-service tours. 

    Image: Jodi Grove

    Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore | Explore Wind-Carved Cliffs and Epic Waterfalls 

    Forty-two miles of awe-inspiring scenery await the adventurer who makes the journey to the north shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, named for the uniquely colored sandstone cliffs that rise above the Lake Superior coast, is a must for Great Lakes enthusiasts.  The cliffs derive their varied colors from layered mineral deposits dating back millions of years.  As the groundwater leeches out through waterfalls that range between a delicate trickle and a rushing torrent, the rocks have become streaked in ways that resemble the work of a skilled painter.

    Best viewed from the water, the intricate colors and shapes of Pictured Rocks can be enjoyed up-close by boat or kayak. For a more comfortable seat and the benefit of an expert guide, contact Pictured Rocks Cruises and climb aboard one of their many tours.

    This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Lakeshore Magazine.  Click the cover image below to read the full issue.