The Best Road Trips in America: All the Great Lakes
If you grew up near a Great Lake you were likely drilled with the HOMES acronym in grade school to keep them straight: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior.
Road Trip Itinerary: A Trip to All the Great Lakes
Filled with folklore (hello, shipwrecks!) and rimmed with lighthouses, cultural landmarks, and resort towns, plus—in recent years—a thriving surfing culture and wine regions, these five freshwater lakes easily marvel first-time visitors. No, you cannot see across the lake and yes, these waters are deep. Ticking off five lakes in 10 days might seem ambitious, but hear us out. Using this carefully crafted route, all Great Lakes are seamlessly woven into an easy-to-follow itinerary packed with signature regional eats, blissful hikes, and natural wonders (like Niagara Falls and Indiana Dunes National Park). Opportunities to explore further the waterfront include easy hikes or kayaking sojourns.
At a Glance:
Starting Location: Chicago, Illinois
Ending Location: Chicago, Illinois
Miles Traveled: 1756
Suggested Duration: 10 nights
States Visited: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin
Stop 1: Chicago to Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Stop Locations: Chicago, IL to Indiana Dunes National Park, IN
Total Travel Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Total Miles: 50 miles
Recommended Route: This is one of your easiest driving days, a quick trip of around an hour, traveling south down I-94 then I-90 towards Indiana. No need to set your clocks forward one hour: northwest Indiana, including Indiana Dunes National Park, is on Central Standard Time.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: It’s pretty much a sea of truck stops and fast-food drive-thrus along the route but at the Calumet Ave. exit you will find a refreshing treat at Jodi’s Italian Ice Factory in Hammond, Indiana, as well as at Dairy Belle (vintage ice-cream stand).
Do: Whether you’re a trailblazer or stroller, this new national park (given status in 2019 and Indiana’s only national park) offers both. Hugging 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, its 15,000 acres include 50 miles of trails. Into bicycling? Pack the bikes to explore the Calumet and Porter Brickyard Bike Trails. On the northern tip of the park, Old Lighthouse Museum in Michigan City (run by the local historical society) is the state’s oldest remaining lighthouse.
Eat & Drink: Don’t be fooled: although not as slick as, say, Goose Island’s Chicago taproom, Burn’Em Brewing in Michigan City is a nice surprise for sipping its craft beer in a down-home environment, with a small outdoor patio.
Stay: While there aren’t any boutique hotels of urban caliber near the park, you will find a mix of quaint inns and chains. With a restaurant and wine/martini bar, and a five-minute walk to a private beach, the eight-room Duneland Beach Inn in Michigan City is a posh place to return to at night.
Breakfast: Inspired by regions around the world, Third Coast Spice Café in Chesterton serves up breakfast dishes like Smoked Paprika Chicken Hash and fun drinks like Cinnamon Toast Latte.
Stop 2: Indiana Dunes National Park to Cleveland, Ohio
Stop Locations: Indiana Dunes National Park, IN to Cleveland, OH
Total Travel Time: 4 hours 45 minutes
Total Miles: 304 miles
Recommended Route: Buckle up for your nearly five-hour ride to what many call The North Coast (tacking on an hour for Eastern Standard Time), following I-90 E all the way.
Along the Way:
Town: Michigan City, Indiana’s Uptown Arts District is worth a peek before you get back on the road.
Eat & Drink: Most people know South Bend, Indiana, for the University of Notre Dame but the city also has a food trail highlighting its yummy restaurants, making it the perfect spot to stop for lunch with options like Fiddlers Hearth (family-friendly with Celtic flair and right downtown) and West End Bakery ($.60 doughnuts) in nearby Mishawaka.
Shopping: Shipshewana, Indiana, off I-90 E south of the US-20 E/US-35 S exit, is America’s largest Amish community. Pull over to cull through not only baked goods but also hand-crafted furniture (you cleaned out the trunk to make room, right?) at Brandenberry and Dutchman Log Furniture. If shabby-chic is more your style, check out Cherry Pickers and 2 Chicks and a Chair for reclaimed finds.
Do: Few people know that Cleveland has beaches and—gasp!—islands (Lake Erie Islands : hop a ferry from Sandusky, an hour west of Cleveland, to the chain of 26 islands). Stroll Lake Erie’s shoreline or just chill on the sand at Edgewater Park Beach downtown. If you’re a hard-core music fan, don’t miss Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in downtown Cleveland.
Stay: Since the goal of this road trip is to see the Great Lakes, book a room with a Lake Erie view at Kimpton’s The Schofield Hotel, a boutique hotel in a 1902 building downtown and a short walk the lakeshore.
Breakfast: Stray from the downtown area to the super-cute Luna Bakery & Cafe, in Cleveland Heights, for everything from a flaky, buttery croissant to a breakfast burrito or smoked-salmon toast.
Stop 3: Cleveland to Buffalo, New York
Stop Locations: Cleveland, OH to Buffalo, NY
Total Travel Time: 3 hours
Total Miles: 189 miles
Recommended Route: I-90 E takes you the entire way there, with a few tolls en route. You also pass through Pennsylvania.
Along the Way:
Nature: Angola on the Lake, New York, is a popular vacation hamlet and second-home community, and adjacent to Lake Erie Beach Park.
Eat & Drink: Just before you hit Buffalo are several lakefront options, including lunch (from Corona-battered cod to a Portobello Goddess sandwich, plus salads) at Bedrock in Hamburg, right on the shoreline with outdoor dining as well as walls of windows in the indoor space.
Do: One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs (Graycliff) hugs Lake Erie’s bluffs in nearby Derby, 20 minutes south of downtown Buffalo. This vacation/summer home for the Martins (their main house—the recently restored Martin House Complex —also Wright-designed, is in Buffalo) offers four different tours, with the hour-long Standard Tour best for those pressed for time.
Eat & Drink: It’s a fact: Buffalo’s chicken wings are delicious. There’s even a Buffalo Wing Trail. Looking for something else that’s tasty and on the fly? West Side Bazaar is a project providing recent immigrants a boost for their food stands or artisan booths.
Stay: One of the most intriguing hotels in Buffalo is also among its finest. The 88-room Hotel Henry is a former asylum and set on 42 sprawling acres in a Romanesque-style building.
Breakfast: Flapjacks drizzled with New York maple syrup or mini-donuts and omelets at the vintage-y Swan Street Diner —tucked into a 1937 former diner car—will get you fueled up for another day of driving.
Marjoram51(CC BY-SA 4.0)/WikimediaCommons
Stop 4: Buffalo to Niagara Falls, New York
Stop Locations: Buffalo, NY to Niagara Falls, NY
Total Travel Time: 25 minutes
Total Miles: 20 miles
Recommended Route: Don’t be fooled by the short drive along I-190 N (hop off at exit #21): you’ll need all that extra time to explore Niagara Falls, which straddles the U.S. and Canada, and where Lake Erie drains into Lake Ontario. Don’t forget to pack your passport, though, if you plan to cross the border so you can return to New York with ease! If you’d rather leave the car behind, book a one-day tour with Gray Line, which offers three different tours.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: Tiny Lewiston, New York, is along the drive and boasts Orange Cat Coffee Co., perfect if you plan to depart Buffalo early in the day. Just look for the white house with the black shutters.
Do: Two of the three falls are in the U.S.: Bridal Veil Falls and American Falls. The other (Horseshoe Falls, the largest) lies in Ontario, Canada. The Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Niagara Falls State Park —the country’s oldest state park—offers a mix of overlooks (viewing sites) as well as trails to hike. Drop by the visitor center to get your bearings. Old Falls Street, USA, is a three-block entertainment district lined with Adirondack chairs and food vendors. Every Friday night during summer is a live-music concert.
Eat & Drink: Craving an ethnic meal? The Kasbah is a farm-to-table Greek, Italian, and Armenian restaurant in Niagara Falls, owned by an Armenian émigré. Leave decisions to the chef with a prix-fixe dinner menu. It’s also open for lunch. In a sea of chains, Milestones on the Falls is refreshing, with views of the falls and a nice wine list, plus a happy-hour menu.
Stay: Given that Niagara Falls is a popular group-tour spot and also attracts honeymooners, the lodging stock is a mix of quaint inns and chains. Old Stone Inn Boutique Hotel, a former flour mill dating back to 1904, lies somewhere between, with a chic restaurant and bar flaunting steampunk décor.
Breakfast: Linger over three-egg omelets and Belgian waffles at The Flying Saucer, a quirky alternative to the local IHOP and Denny’s with a diner-like ambiance.
Stop 5: Niagara Falls to Bay City, Michigan
Stop Locations: Niagara Falls, NY to Bay City, MI
Total Travel Time: 4 hours 50 minutes
Total Miles: 313 miles
Recommended Route: Bypassing Detroit—via I-69 W in Michigan—to reach this cozy town along Lake Huron is a decision you won’t regret. You’ll pass through many charming towns on this easy-to-drive route relatively free of traffic congestion.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: You can’t leave Canada without sampling poutine! Smoke’s Poutinerie London in London, Ontario, is a quick in-and-out option.
Town: Flint has been in the news a lot lately but not for its art museum. Flint Institute of Arts (referred to as FIA) is Michigan’s second-largest art museum.
Do: With just 34,000 residents, Bay City is not a place with nightlife but it does have beautiful beaches nearby (such as Bay City State Park, home to Tobico Marsh, the largest remaining freshwater, coastal wetlands along the Great Lakes) and is where the Saginaw Bay meets Lake Huron. It’s also where “Madonna” Louise Veronica Ciccone was raised by her grandma. Craving some culture? Saginaw Art Museum, in nearby Saginaw, is a hidden gem.
Eat & Drink: Tucked into the former city hall, Old City Hall (open for lunch and dinner, serving everything from jambalaya to bibimbop ) flaunts an incredible wine list as well as 23 beers on tap (many from Michigan).
Stay: The Historic Webster House is a Victorian-era b&b with eight rooms featuring stone walls, fireplaces, and jacuzzi tubs. Each night there’s a free wine-and-cheese reception.
Breakfast: While Harless + Hugh’s brunch menu is tiny, it’s done well: choose from avocado toast, waffles with berries or waffles with bananas and chocolate, paired with a coffee or espresso drink.
Stop 6: Bay City to Traverse City, Michigan
Stop Locations: Bay City, MI to Traverse City, MI
Total Travel Time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Total Miles: 146 miles
Recommended Route: I-75 N to M-72 W takes you to Traverse City, passing through a series of small towns along the way.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: Just before you reach Traverse City, the cottage offers the ultimate in comfort food:
Nature: The 314-acre Seven Bridges Nature Area in Kalkaska offers easy hiking trails within a wetlands area, plus the remains of an 1882 sawmill.
Do: If you love wine, Traverse City is your jam as it’s the state’s most developed (and revered) wine regions with two AVAs: Old Mission Peninsula AVA and Leelanau Peninsula AVA. The town of 16,000 residents also hugs Lake Michigan along the shores of Grand Traverse Bay. Tasting rooms are akin to Napa and Sonoma with food-pairing packages, vineyards on-site, and grand tasting rooms. Green Bird Organic Cellars is a cute winery stop; it’s on a 67-acre farm setting and the owners produce both estate wines and hard ciders.
Eat & Drink: This town offers a lot of diverse dining but you shouldn’t drive away without sampling locally grown cherries, woven into dinner entrees and desserts alike, or at the two Grand Traverse Pie Company cafes. Do a taste-around at The Little Fleet, a food-truck yard. Or opt for a water view at Harrington’s By the Bay or Boathouse Restaurant for a fine-dining dinner, paired with local wine. For something more casual, Smoke & Porter Public House won’t disappoint, from its smoked beef brisket to Indian Mahani curry.
Stay: Switch things up on your trip by bunking at a winery’s guest house, like the six-room Inn at Chateau Grand Traverse, at a winery dating back to 1974. A hot breakfast is included in rates.
Breakfast: Jump on over to France (or at least its cuisine) via Patisserie Amie with Croque Madame or Croque Monsieur, crêpes, tarte flambée, or foie-gras sautée for an elegant breakfast.
Gary Richard Ennis/Shutterstock
Stop 7: Traverse City to Mackinac Island, Michigan
Stop Locations: Traverse City, MI to Mackinac Island, MI
Total Travel Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Total Miles: 117 miles
Recommended Route: Leaving Traverse City, travel north on I-75 N to Mackinaw City, driving through the Gaylord State Forest Area. You’ll hop the Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry ($29 round-trip) to car-free Mackinac Island. The ferry trip takes 18 minutes and parking is available near the ferry’s departure point.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: Gaylord is an outdoorsy community with many restaurants as well as Big Buck Brewery (and a robust menu of salads, burgers, and pizza).
Roadside Attraction: Just outside of downtown Traverse City is “the world’s largest cherry pie pan.” Find it at the Sara Lee Bakery Group, 3424 Cass Road.
Do: Even if you aren’t staying at Grand Hotel, pop over for a self-guided tour of the grand estate, one of Mackinac Island’s most photographed buildings. Two lighthouses are on the island: McGulpin Point Lighthouse and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. A horse-drawn carriage tour is a fun way to explore the island in less than a day.
Eat & Drink: Fudge crafted on the island is a beloved souvenir. Locals love Millie’s on Main downtown for pub fare and drinks at Pink Pony Bar, perched above the water and with cute pink umbrellas. Pink Pony serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Stay: Inn on Mackinac, a vibrantly colored nine-room Victorian inn in the historic Marina District, also features an outdoor pool.
Breakfast: Lucky Bean is a sleek and modern coffeehouse serving not only coffee and espresso drinks but also bagels, pastries, and oatmeal to start your day off right.
Stop 8: Mackinac Island to Marquette, Michigan
Stop Locations: Mackinac Island, MI to Marquette, MI
Total Travel Time: 2 hours 50 minutes
Total Miles: 162 miles
Recommended Route: Today you’ll cross into Michigan’s UP (Upper Peninsula) and drive through Seney National Wildlife Refuge on M-77 N.
Along the Way:
Nature: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore —named for the mineral stains on its cliffs—in Munising is convenient to the route and hugs the South Shore of Lake Superior.
Eat & Drink: Smoked fish is a delicacy in these parts. Try for yourself at Cap’n Ron’s Smoked Fish in Munising, which sells smoked whitefish, smoked-fish dip, and smoked-fish “sausage” to go and also pasties (another signature food of the UP).
Do: This quintessential college town along Lake Superior (across the water from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada), and with a vibrant downtown lined with a natural-foods co-op and vintage stores, is also surrounded by protected forests—including Hiawatha National Forest and Presque Isle Park—for easy day hikes. Stroll to the end of downtown for a neat glimpse at the mouth of Lake Superior.
Eat & Drink: Tucked into a former movie theater in downtown Marquette, Delft Bistro is a chic, fun lunch and dinner spot while Lagniappe is a taste of New Orleans’ Cajun cuisine (there’s even a Voodoo Bar, pouring 20 Michigan craft beers).
Stay: Most of Marquette’s lodging choices are chains although The Landmark Inn downtown is not. With 66 rooms, the inn also has a restaurant, pub, and lounge, and frames beautiful views of Lake Superior.
Breakfast: Café Bodega serves all-day breakfast every day of the week with a special focus on vegan/vegetarian and locally sourced ingredients, whether it’s a yogurt Sunday or huevos ranchero .
Stop 9: Marquette to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Stop Locations: Marquette, MI to Sturgeon Bay, WI
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 45 minutes
Total Miles: 217 miles
Recommended Route: 41-S traces the western shoreline of Green Bay through Wisconsin until you hit the city of Green Bay, before curling northeast to Sturgeon Bay. This is the largest city in Door County, a resort community popular with Chicagoans and Milwaukeeans and on the southern portion between Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: Pick up Mexican lunch at Blue Bike Burrito in Marinette and find a spot along the waterfront to dine.
Do: Learn more about the region’s shipbuilding industry and Swedish heritage via a visit to Door County Maritime Museum and Cana Island Lighthouse. Door County is home to five state parks with easy hikes and stunning water views. Closest to Sturgeon Bay are Whitefish Dunes State Park (on the Lake Michigan side) and Peninsula State Park (on the Green Bay side).
Eat & Drink: Door County Creamery’s to-go sandwiches are heavenly and you can enjoy right next door at Sister Bay Beach, along Green Bay’s shoreline. The goat-cheese producer also sells gelato and cheese. Fish boils are a local tradition: try one out at Old Post Office Restaurant or Pelletier’s Restaurant in Fish Creek for dinner. Numerous farm stands sell fresh or frozen cherries, depending on the season, along with cherry pies and other desserts.
Breakfast: It’s worth the half-hour drive north of Sturgeon Bay to view goats grazing on a grass roof at Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay. You might even have time to stay for the Swedish pancakes. Across the street is Green Bay (the water, not the city).
Stop 10: Sturgeon Bay to Chicago, Illinois
Stop Locations: Sturgeon Bay, WI to Chicago, IL
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 45 minutes
Total Miles: 245 miles
Recommended Route: I-43 S takes you straight to Chicago (merging with I-94 S just south of downtown Milwaukee) but for a route that rims Lake Michigan, take I-42 S through the towns of Kewaunee and Two Rivers, before switching to I-43 S in Manitowoc.
Along the Way:
Town: The company town of Kohler, Wisconsin, is home base for the luxury plumbing manufacturer and also a popular weekend getaway for urbanites with world-class golf, a spa, a tony resort and a design center (free).
Roadside Attraction: Want to take some artisan Wisconsin cheese home with you? You can’t miss the castle-motif Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha County, right on I-94 S at exit 340 (WI-142/County Rd S). About 400 varieties of Wisconsin cheese are sold here. Sweet!
Eat and Drink: Milwaukee is known for its custard. Exit I-94 S at W Holt Avenue and make your way to Leon’s Frozen Custard, a vintage stand stuck in its 1940s roots.