The Great Lakes hold 21% of the world’s freshwater, create their own weather patterns, and have some of the most unique geology in the entire Midwest. These lakes are home to two American national parks, and three national lakeshores, and countless waterfalls. When it comes down to it, the Great Lakes are the one of the world’s most underrated spots for outdoor recreation, and a well-kept secret.
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I grew up in the area, and worked as a sea kayaking guide in the Apostle Islands sea caves. Now, I’m lucky enough to live on Minnesota’s beautiful North Shore. After exploring this area for years, here are the best hidden gems to add to your Great Lakes Road Trip:
Stop One: Sleeping Bear Dunes
There’s no better place to start off your dream road trip than Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, just south of Traverse City. Sleeping Bear is known for massive sand dunes over Lake Michigan, incredible sunsets, and hiking. The lakeshore also has spring wildflowers, dark skies, and some of the best beaches in the world.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is the perfect starting point for your dream Great Lakes Road Trip. My favorite part of Sleeping Bear? That tropical-looking water.
For a hard hike, check out the Dune Climb, Manitou Islands, or Alligator Hill. For handicap accessible spots, check out the Pierce Stocking Scenic drive.
Stop Two: Torch Lake and the Grass River
Next, head north to an overlooked section of Michigan, the Chain of Lakes. This is a great spot to hide from the busy summer tourism season, tackle some more intense hikes like the Jordan River Trail, paddle on flat water, and spot wildlife. After, stop by Short’s Brewery for some Michigan beer and food! My favorite meal is the White Pepper Sandwich paired with a flight of whatever is on tap.
Looking to see river otter? Head over to the Grass River Natural Area and hike the Sedge Meadow Trail, a true Michigan hidden gem. The Grass River Natural Area has handicap accessible trails, as well as an adaptive trail for the visually impaired.
Stop Three: Tahquamenon Falls
One of the largest waterfalls this side of the Mississippi, this iconic river drops nearly 50 feet at the Upper Falls. Tahquamenon Falls is a must-see on your Great Lakes Road Trip. Tannins from trees stain the water reddish brown, and in the winter large ice formations build around the falls. The state park offers a variety of hiking trails varying in length from 1 to 8 miles, with several handicap accessible trails to the Upper Falls.
Stop Four: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Tucked away in Munising, Michigan, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is home to sandstone cliffs towering over Lake Superior, some of the most iconic views in Michigan, and at least seven waterfalls. The Pictured Rocks is a must see section of the Lake Superior shoreline, with beautiful kayaking and hiking, and an important stop on any Great Lakes Road Trip.
Hike along the 10.5 mile Chapel-Basin Loop to get the best taste of the cliffs including waterfalls, beaches, and the only section of trail in the park where the cliffs can be seen from land.
Both the Munising Falls Trail and Miner’s Castle Trail are handicap accessible and can easily be accessed from near the Munising Falls Visitors Center.
Stop Five: The Keweenaw Peninsula and Copper Harbor
From Munising, head north along Superior to Copper Harbor, Michigan. Check out the mountain biking trails, incredible white sand beaches like Bete Grise, and cutest brewery in Michigan, Brickside.
To watch the sunset, enjoy the Brockway Mountain Scenic Drive.
Stop Six: Bond Falls
Deep in the Upper Peninsula woods and off the beaten path, Bond Falls is one of the most unique waterfalls in Michigan. It’s a quick and easy hike out to both the upper and lower falls, with multiple viewing platforms for different angles of the falls. Bond Falls is a must-see on any Great Lakes Road Trip.
Bond Falls is considered fully wheelchair accessible.
Stop Seven: Potato River Falls and Copper Falls
As you enter the Wisconsin Northwoods, be on the lookout for hidden waterfalls. Copper Falls State Park is a wildly popular hiking system and for good reason– the park is home to three large waterfalls and countless smaller cascades. A half-mile of the trail, including that which features Brownstone and Copper Falls, is wheelchair accessible.
While Copper Falls is likely to be crowded in summer months, Potato River Falls is tucked away in the woods. With a dramatic upper and lower set of falls, this hidden gem is worth the detour.
Stop Eight: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
One of the dreamiest kayaking destinations in the world, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is home to Lake Superior sea caves, 21 islands, and incredible beaches and shoreline. These big lake gems belong on just about every bucket list.
In Bayfield, visit Maggie’s for flamingo-themed fun and the best sweet potato fries of your life.
Stop Nine: Amnicon Falls
Amnicon Falls is an off the beaten path Northwoods gem that will have you feeling like you stepped out of a fairytale. Walk through the forest along the Amnicon River, and pass through a covered bridge above the falls. Visit in the early morning or camp at the campground near the falls to experience the area at sunrise. This park offers a handicap accessible trail as well as picnic area.
Stop Ten: Two Harbors, MN
Head north of Duluth, Minnesota to begin the North Shore section of your Great Lakes road trip. Around Two Harbors, visit Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Tettegouche State Park. Looking for a challenge? Head out to backpack the Superior Hiking Trail for several days.
Much of Gooseberry Falls is accessible by wheelchair, as is the guided tour of Split Rock Lighthouse in Split Rock State Park. The Two Harbors Light, pictured below, is also handicap accessible.
Stop Eleven: Grand Marias, MN
Continue along the North Shore to the small town of Grand Marais, MN. Visit Cascade River State Park for beautiful waterfalls, and hike the Superior Hiking Trail to Pincushion Mountain Overlook. In the morning, stop for coffee at Java Moose, and watch the sunrise at the Grand Marias Light (Artist’s Point).
For handicap access, visit Grand Marais Harbor, or head up to Grand Portage to see High Falls on the Pigeon River.
Grand Marais is the perfect spot to end your Great Lakes Road Trip, with countless trails to explore and waterfalls to stumble upon.
Bonus: Isle Royale National Park
Looking for more adventure? Head up to Grand Portage, MN and take the ferry over to Isle Royale National Park for wildlife, world-class backpacking, and beautiful wilderness.
Looking for the best hikes, paddles and hidden gems of the Upper Midwest?
Check out my book, Hidden Gems of the Northern Great Lakes: A Trail and Paddling Guide. Let me help you find not only the best adventures for your skill and comfort level, but also semi-secret photography spots, countless waterfalls in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Northern Wisconsin, intrepid canoe routes near Traverse City, Michigan, hidden sea caves, and some of the best campsites the region has to offer.