North America

Experience the Great Lakes on one epic road trip


A happy marriage of open road and open water, of blacktop and blue swells, a looping tour of the Great Lakes – beginning and ending in Chicago – can take in five states and four of the lakes.

As much country as it is town, this road trip delivers all the hazy, lazy romance of a beach holiday while staying firmly inland.


Chicago, Illinois, to Toledo, Ohio

Stick close to the Lake Michigan shoreline and it’s just 20 miles from Chicago to Indiana. A few more and you’re in Gary, a once-prosperous steel town that still has its fans – most of them musical.

Fenced off from the public and currently missing its tribute stone, 2300 Jackson St only stands out because it is one of the few tended properties in a rundown, largely forsaken neighborhood.

Michael Jackson may be a contentious figure these days, but it is nonetheless sobering to visit the two-bedroom bungalow where he and his nine siblings grew up and the Jackson 5 was launched.

Gary is the western bookend of Indiana Dunes National Park, one of the country's newest national parks and a patchwork of beaches, marshland, prairie and forest running alongside Lake Michigan.

There you can swim, hike, ride horses and spot rare plants and birds, and bed down at Dunewood Campground.

Head east on Interstate 80, to Toledo, Ohio, at the western tip of Lake Erie. Toledo was once an industrial metropolis and something of a safe space for mobsters and bootleggers during Prohibition.

Now it has recovered its mojo recently, bringing in art lovers (the Toledo Museum of Art is world class) and sports fans (the Toledo Mud Hens Minor League Baseball team packs out their stadium).


Toledo, Ohio, to Bay City, Michigan

Before you head up Hwy 23 to Ann Arbor, where you'll find art, vegan cuisine and radical politics, make a detour to Luna Pier, a resort town just over the Michigan state line. Here be surfing.

Yes, you can surf on the Great Lakes any time, but you’re more likely to get the right conditions to do so in fall, winter and early spring. Lunar Pier has some of Lake Erie’s most popular breaks.

From Ann Arbor, pick up Interstate 69 at Flint and at Port Huron join Hwy 25, which clutches Lake Huron’s supremely scenic western shore – "the sunrise side" – all the way to Saginaw Bay.

The coast is punctuated by quaint towns – Lexington and Ports Sanilac, Hope and Austin – and their beaches, lighthouses, marinas and charter fishing.

Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is referred to as "the mitten," and Saginaw Bay separates the thumb of that mitten from the rest. Bay City, the birthplace of Madonna, sits in the crook of that thumb.