Great Lakes Natural Wonders

Great Lakes

Roughly 100 years ago, mile-thick glaciers gradually melted away to unveil massive bodies of water carved into the ground beneath them, known today as North America’s Great Lakes. Sometimes referred to as inland seas, these colossal bodies make up more than a fifth of the world’s unfrozen surface freshwater and provide livelihood and recreation for tens of millions of North Americans. Boaters typically hit the lakes from late May through mid-September, with July and August providing ideal conditions on the water.

Because of the exceptional way they were formed, the Great Lakes offer a swath of natural wonders to explore, from mind-boggling rock formations to dramatic waterfalls. A diverse range of ecosystems are explored throughout the lakes from thousand-year-old forests to marshes, wetlands and Sahara-like dunes. These combined environments support more than 3,500 plant and animal species.

If you plan to cruise the Great Lakes anytime soon, check out these eight natural waterfront wonders.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin

Apostle Island kayaking Credit Tim Wilson on Flickr

This Lake Superior archipelago off the coast of Wisconsin’s picturesque Bayfield Peninsula bestows 22 unique islands to explore. Known for gorgeous red rock formations stacked like layer cakes, the Apostle Islands are composed of sandstone deposits left during the Precambrian era — from almost a billion years ago until about 660 million years ago.

Cemented over millions of years, the resulting coves and caves can be explored by kayak and afoot. Captivating rock formations are complemented by pristine beaches and ancient old-growth forests, while lighthouses peppered throughout the islands add a historic charm. A must- see on your excursion to the Apostle Islands, Devils Island offers majestic sea caves, crimson cliffs and dramatic arches jutting from crystal-clear waters, all overlooked by its historic lighthouse. Dockage options for visiting boaters are plentiful as many marinas line the Bayfield Peninsula.

Bruce Peninsula National Park Beach Credit Mhsheikholeslami on Wikimedia Commons

Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario

In the remote, unspoiled waters of Lake Huron, Bruce Peninsula National Park sits at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula in Georgian Bay. Gray cliffs frame pale turquoise waters to give the bay an almost Mediterranean feel. Nearby hiking routes such as Bruce Lake, Marr Lake and Cyprus Lake trails immerse visitors in the vibrant native ecosystem and provide gorgeous panoramas of the bay. Bask on sandy beaches, kayak through mysterious coves, or take a dip in Indian Head Cove, an idyllic swimming hole. A visit to the iconic Grotto, where the aquamarine water appears to glow from reflected sunlight, is essential.

For you daredevils out there, it’s also a prime location for cliff-jumping! After sunset, gaze upward for spectacular views of the Milky Way and countless stars. Designated by the Royal Astronomical Society as a Dark Sky Preserve, Bruce Peninsula National Park offers clear skies and waters. The nearest place to dock is Living Water Marina in Collingwood, Ontario, offering slips from May to October and accommodating boats up to 80 feet.

Isle Royale Park bull moose Credit Ray Dumas on Flickr

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Situated in Lake Superior north of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, this rugged island group is home to grand forests, abundant wildlife and fascinating shipwrecks. Although it’s one of America's least-visited national parks, low attendance does not reflect the park's natural beauty. Only accessible by boat or seaplane, Isle Royale is only open from mid-April through late October. The park is best enjoyed by water, and boaters can discover stunning cliffs, secluded coves, tucked-away beaches and postcard-worthy vistas — all while reveling in pristine, transparent waters.

The park’s Rock Harbor Marina, found on the northeastern end of the main island, has more than 450 feet of dockage and accommodates vessels up to 65 feet. Isle Royale is considered a prime location for spotting wildlife including moose, wolves and foxes. At night the park serves as a prime location for Northern Lights viewing.

Kitch-iti-kipi, Michigan

Found in the heart of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Kitch-iti- kipi means “big cold spring” in Ojibwe, and the site is sometimes referred to as The Big Spring or Mirror of Heaven. After catching a glimpse of the natural spring’s glass-still, clear turquoise water, you’ll see why. Not just a wonder for the eyes, Kitch-iti-kipi boasts the largest freshwater spring in Michigan, gushing 10,000 gallons of water per minute through fissures in its limestone floor. The overflow from the spring rushes downstream, winding its way through the surrounding Manistique Forest before emptying into Indian Lake.

For an up-close look at Kitch-iti-kipi’s waters and aquatic life, take the crank-propelled observation raft and glide across the spring’s surface. The water is so clear you can see right through to the spring’s 40-foot-deep floor as trout race past. Open from mid-May through mid-October, Northern Escape Marina offers daily slip rates for visiting boaters.

Mackinac Island Arch Rock Credit Corey Seeman on Flickr

Mackinac Island State Park, Michigan

This extraordinary island in the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, offers legendary limestone formations, stunning panoramas, mysterious caves and lush forests. Amid the park’s 70 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, visitors discover a plethora of natural spectacles. Gaze through Arch Rock, an immense natural archway more than 50 feet wide and towering 146 feet above the water, or marvel at Sugar Loaf, a 75-foot-high rock formation that juts out from the ground like a natural obelisk.

Complimenting the park’s natural wonders, Mackinac Island’s charming town transports guests to a bygone era with French Rustic, Colonial, Gothic, Victorian, Tudor and other architectural styles on display. Wander car-free streets to the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages as you try world- famous Mackinac Island fudge, then check out the 26,372- foot Mackinac Bridge, the third longest suspension bridge in the world. Mackinac Island State Harbor offers daily dockage from mid-May to mid-October.

Niagara Falls State Park, New York

One of the most recognized natural phenomena in North America, Niagara Falls is also the oldest state park in the United States. Composed of three separate falls — American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls — Niagara Falls delivers an awe-inspiring presentation. While the Canadian side provides a more comprehensive view of all three falls at once, the American side allows visitors to get up close and personal with the water. Witness firsthand the power of 6 million cubic feet of water cascading over with each passing minute, the ground beneath you rumbling as a cool mist brushes your skin.

For a more intimate experience, hop aboard the Maid of the Mist (American side) or Hornblower (Canadian side) boat tours, which take you right up to the falls. The American side offers the best hiking trails, and the falls can be enjoyed from the comfort of a nearby patio or rooftop. Skylon Tower in Canada makes for a breathtaking bird’s-eye view. Visiting boaters can dock at Chute Marine, a family-owned marina offering 26 slips, or check out private memberships at local yacht clubs.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Colorful cliffs and enchanting arches line the blue-green waters of Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The result of unforgiving wind, water, ice and extreme weather for millennia, vivid sandstone walls display vertical stripes in a mesmerizing palette of mineral-stained reds, greens and blues — hence the name Pictured Rocks. The best way to see the park’s natural features is by kayak. Paddle through Rainbow Cave, the largest cave along the park’s shoreline, or glide through the legendary Kissing Rock, a slender crevice formed by two gigantic boulders.

And you can’t miss Lovers Leap Arch, the most photographed feature of Pictured Rocks. For those who love exploring nooks and crannies, this park’s got you covered. Along with geological formations that inspire the imagination, serene beaches, adventurous hiking trails, cascading falls and an active lighthouse provide endless discovery within the park’s 15+ miles of shoreline in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Dock at the 101-slip Cinder Pond Marina in Marquette, located east of the park.

Sleeping Bear Dunes north end Credit JIm on Flickr

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Encompassing a 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan’s eastern coastline, as well as North and South Manitou Islands, this park draws almost 2 million visitors a year. After seeing the sheer size and grandeur of the dunes, it’s no wonder why. Sleeping Bear’s most mountainous dune towers 450 feet above Lake Michigan, providing enough altitude for hang gliders to take flight. Hike the dunes and bravely amble down to get your juices flowing or take a leisurely approach and stroll along the beaches. For a comprehensive experience, scope out the park’s wildlife, old-growth cedar forests, and spectacular views of the lake while cruising the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Sleeping Bear Dunes also offers a historic lighthouse, coastal villages and quaint farmsteads to explore.

Learn about the park’s rich seafaring history at the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum. Leland Harbor provides the closest dockage to the park, a full-service marina with slips for vessels up to 45 feet.

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