The Great Lakes present miles of isles to explore. More specifically, over 35,000 hilltops of land rose above the waterline of the Great Lakes Basin during the last ice age. Today these islands, many of which are only reachable by boat, add the appeal of destinations within a destination. Plus, each of the five Great Lakes boasts its own personality, as do these lake-based islands. Some offer an incredible natural wilderness perfect for scouting on foot or paddling around by kayak, while others are home to resorts with five-star services ready to nurture an incredible vacation. Here are 10 of our favorites and the scoop on what to see, experience and enjoy.
Toes in the sand are easy at the largest island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Nature is the call to visit, and the sand here figures in both beauty and entertainment. Most notable is a scenic sand bridge (called a tombolo), lined with pine forests, lagoons and dunes, that connects Presque Isle Point to the rest of the island. Start a visit at the boat docks near the Point, where a park ranger-manned visitor’s center is open in the summer. You find a few exhibits, information on the 14 miles of hiking trails and camping how-tos. Don’t miss Julian Bay Beach to the east of the Point, which is home to the “barking sands.” In the right weather conditions, the wind blowing over the sand sounds like the baritone bark of a dog. Companies on the mainland offer sightseeing cruises to Stockton and the other 21 Apostle Islands that lie off Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula.
Where to Dock: Apostle Islands Marina
Located only a half-mile off mainland Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it’s the striking scenery — sandstone cliffs, hardwood forests and pristine beaches that gives this 21-square-mile National Recreation Area its grandiose name. The Grand Island Ferry Service offers a two and a half- to three-hour bus tour over the island’s gravel roads in the summer. Otherwise, hiking and biking, with mountain bikes available for rent, are the only ways to get around. Boaters can cruise to the island’s north shore and see the two-story, brick-built Grand Island North Lighthouse. Dating to 1856, its perch atop a 175-foot cliff makes the light the highest above sea level in America. Docks or marinas are not available, but anchoring is permitted and best in Trout or Murray Bays.
Where to Dock: Munising Bayshore Marina
Fly, ferry or float your boat to the largest island in Lake Michigan. At 54 square miles and a year-round population of nearly 600, you can enjoy plenty of creature comforts as well as flora and fauna. Several shops, galleries, a toy museum, a maritime museum, restaurants and a brewery are all within walking distance of the main harbor. Two marinas are here, too. “We have many Beaver Island natural assets, including plentiful sand dunes, beaches and wetlands. We’re also called the Dark Sky Island. Our 32-mile distance from the mainland in Charlevoix means no light pollution. Many evenings, the northern lights appear to put on a show,” says Paul Cole, director of the island’s Chamber of Commerce. The 42-mile Beaver Island Water Trail is ideal for adventure kayakers to circumnavigate, with opportunities for beach camping along the way.
Where to Dock: Beaver Island Municipal Marina
A tour of the Chambers Island Lighthouse, not normally open to the public, is available each June and October as part of Wisconsin’s Door County Lighthouse Festivals. The four-hour tour departs from the town dock in Fish Creek, on the Door Peninsula six miles away, and entails a four-mile, round-trip hike to the light. Docents describe the history of the 1868-built light, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Beyond this, regular ferry service does not run to the island, located in Green Bay, an arm off Lake Michigan. “Chambers Island is mostly private, but the Door County Land Trust protects 900 acres,” tells Jen Rogers, media manager for Destination Door County. “You can take your boat for the day and dock at the public dock. Pack a picnic and enjoy the sandy beach, bike the unpaved roads or hike the trails.”
Where to Dock: Menominee Marina
Take a walk back in time on your own or join the Leelanau Historical Society (in Michigan’s mainland town of Leland) for its annual day-trip, narrated tour to this 22-square mile island a dozen miles offshore. The historic and mostly uninhabited village sits steps away from the public dock. See the U.S. Life-Saving Station, a National Historic Landmark that dates to the late 1800s. Walk down Cottage Row, summer homes built for wealthy Chicagoans. Historians say that the Blossom Cottage, built in 1894, is the early work of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Beyond this bygone civilization, the rest of North Manitou is a wonderful wilderness. It’s part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. You find hiking trails, rustic campsites and good bass fishing in inland Lake Manitou.
Where to Dock: Leland Township Marina
Star of many movies, like the 1980s romantic drama Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, this four-plus square mile island and its focal point Grand Hotel definitely offers A-list features. Mackinac was named the Best Island in the Continental United States in Travel + Leisure’s 2022 World’s Best awards. This national landmark’s attraction is its slow pace owing to a ban on motor vehicles in favor of horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. “The island is home to Fort Mackinac, a Revolutionary-era fort, natural rock formations, world-famous Mackinac Island fudge, diverse dining, unique shopping and entertaining nightlife,” invites Steph Castelein, the events and marketing manager at the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau. Arrive by ferry or flight, or dock your yacht at the public marina where many of the 80-slips are available for transient use.
Where to Dock: Mackinac Island State Harbor
At 134 square miles, this is the second largest freshwater island in the United States. More than 1,000 residents live here, with vacationers swelling the population each summer. Accommodations span from resorts to B&Bs, plus restaurants, shops, parks, a nature preserve and a wildlife refuge. Boating-friendly is a big yes. “Drummond offers the amazing setting of dozens of smaller offshore islands and locations where you can stay either on the hook or at one of the island’s marinas,” says Tom Gibbons at the Drummond Island Tourism Association. Particularly, “The North Channel, hugging the island’s northern shoreline, offers special destination points like the Fossil Ledges, Marble Head and Pilot Cove, the latter of which you can pull up for a shore lunch and throw a fishing line in the water.” Some people are so taken by the beauty, Gibbons adds, that they boat around all 142 miles of Drummond’s shoreline.
Where to Dock: Drummond Island Yacht Haven
Quaint paints a mental picture of the vibe on this tiny 3.7-mile-long by 1.5-mile-wide island, reached by a 20-minute ferry ride from Port Clinton, OH. In fact, the village of Put-In-Bay is often described as the Key West of Lake Erie, with its fun and funky bars, restaurants and shops. The destination especially comes alive for its annual Pyrate Fest, June 23-25, 2023. Parades, cannon firing demonstrations, a bar crawl, cardboard boat race and the Best Pirate Costume Contest bolster the fun. BYOB (bring your own boat). Public docks and private marinas offer many places to tie up. “Rent a golf cart and take a ride to the top of Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial. It’s a can’t-miss experience,” says Mark Mathys, on behalf of the Put-In-Bay Visitors & Convention Bureau.
Where to Dock: Miller Marina
Eat, drink and merrily boat to this 4.4-mile destination, the largest of the American Lake Erie islands. By ferry, it’s only four miles north of Marblehead and 12 miles from Sandusky, both in western Ohio. Or dock at places such as Dockers, the Casino or West Bay, and go ashore for a bite to eat. A short distance away on the island’s south coast is the Crooked Tree Vineyard, with its handcrafted vintage wines and tasting room open from May to September. “Visitors should also check out our state park, the famous glacial grooves, history museum and sculpture garden,” says Joseph Sugalski, executive director of the Kelleys Island Chamber.
Where to Dock: Seaway Marina or Portside Marina
Once home to a General Electric execs retreat, a YMCA summer camp and a training center for the 1976 U.S. Olympic sailing team, this 65-acre island sits at the tip of the Stony Point peninsula in New York’s Thousand Islands. It’s connected to the mainland by a two-lane causeway, thus making it the perfect surf and turf vacation destination. Arrive by boat, tie up in the 60-slip marina and rent a deluxe cabin. Or drive over and park your RV lakefront. A general store, swimming pool, playground and dog park add to the enjoyment. “You can also schedule an excursion through our on-site fishing charter, take advantage of pontoon boat and kayak rentals, or grab a meal at the Black Catte,” says Neal Gulkis, Sun Communities’ public relations manager.
Where to Dock: Association Island RV Campground & Marina (with campground reservations only)
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