The Ultimate Summer Driving Tour of Michigan Lakes

With more than 11,000 inland lakes that are five acres or larger and 3,288 miles of shoreline, visitors to Michigan are never more than more than six miles from an inland lake or 85 miles from one of the Great Lakes.  If you're looking for unbridled beauty mixed with adventure and wilderness this summer, consider touring the Great Lakes state to experience some of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. You can fly into the Detroit International Airport and rent a car from Alamo Rent A Car. Starting in the metro Detroit area, you can take a 10-day trip from the bustling city to the Upper Peninsula and back, exploring four of the five Great Lakes, the many beach towns and even the famous Mackinac Island along the way. The following travel guide provides insider tips on must-visit lakes as well as what to do, where to stay and the best eats. Happy driving!

Lake St. Clair

This freshwater lake connects Lake Huron to the north with Lake Erie to the south, through the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, respectively. Just a short drive from the airport, spend a day here relaxing before embarking on your driving trip. Head over to Lake St. Clair Metropark to enjoy the beach. The park also features a paved trail along the shore for biking and skating; boat access; a squirt zone playground; and an Olympic-sized pool with waterslides. Visit nearby Belle Isle, just south along the Detroit River, which has free access to an aquarium, museums, an arboretum and playgrounds. Be sure to check out the River Rat Restaurant for dinner, but do not let the name fool you – they serve up delicious Italian-American dishes and offer a great atmosphere for families.

Lake Huron

With 23,000 square miles of surface area that stretch all the way to the eastern side of Upper Peninsula, Lake Huron is the second largest of the Great Lakes and the final resting place for more than 1,000 shipwrecks, making it a popular destination for scuba divers, snorkelers and kayakers hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious ships.

Lake Huron Exploring the waters of Lake Huron from the pier in Lexington, Mich.

While there are plenty of towns to see along the shores of Lake Huron, the quiet beach town of Oscoda offers a wide selection of beautiful lakefront lodging options, including the cozy La Mer Douce Family Beach Resort that features beachfront cabins with stunning views. There are also plenty of campsites in the wooded forests just a short drive away from the lake. Visitors can choose from activities like hiking at Iargo Springs, canoeing, kayaking, fishing and golfing (the course at Lakewood Shores was ranked #1 Best New Resort Course in the U.S. by Golf Digest). Take a ride on the paddle wheel boat known as the AuSable River Queen or explore local museums and memorial monuments dedicated to Oscoda’s long history. The beach in neighboring Tawas Point State Park features a lighthouse and museum where visitors can camp or spend the day exploring the area. Swing by G's Pizzeria for amazing pizza, burgers and more.

Lake Superior

For outdoor lovers, drive north and cross Mackinac Bridge – the fifth largest suspension bridge in the world – into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP). Home of Lake Superior, the UP offers plenty of open space for unlimited adventures like hiking, hunting, fishing and boating. On the way from Oscoda to the UP, stop in Mackinaw City to shop, get Mackinac fudge and even take a short ferry ride to explore Mackinac Island. Known for its complete lack of automobiles, island visitors can rent bikes, hike and explore Fort Mackinac. Stop at the Pink Pony for amazing drinks and a variety of food before continuing over the bridge into the Upper Peninsula to experience Lake Superior.

Lake Superior Epic views of Lake Superior and the Pictured Rocks from the Pictured Rock Cruise.

Lake Superior is home to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which features massive multicolored cliff sides and rock formations. Visitors can buy tickets for a tour boat that goes out into Lake Superior to provide stellar views of the gorgeous shoreline cliffs. The park offers three drive-in campsites as well as a backcountry campsite. For those who prefer a hotel, the Pictured Rocks Inn & Suites is located within close proximity to the National Lakeshore. Throughout the UP, state parks and national forests provide the perfect setting for a secluded outdoor vacation with amazing views and peaceful solitude.

Torch Lake Overlooking the Straits of Mackinac near the Arch Rock at Mackinac Island State Park.

Torch Lake

Nineteen-mile long Torch Lake is near the cities of Rapid City, Alden and Bellaire, just northeast of Traverse City. The small lake’s lime marl bottom makes the water glitter in beautiful shades of aquamarine that have inspired lyrics by Kid Rock. For a quiet getaway, rent one of the many houses along the lake or stay at Northwind Resort for an affordable room and a private lakefront beach. Drive to the William K. Good Day Park to take advantage of the park’s boat launch, pavilion, picnic tables and swimming. Then grab dinner and drinks at the Torch Lake Café, where you can enjoy live entertainment.

  • Drive Time: About 4 hours from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
  • Recommended Stay: 1 Day
  • Where to Stay: Northwind Resort
Lake Michigan The Mission Point Lighthouse on Old Mission Peninsula that juts into West Grand Traverse Bay in Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan

Running the length of the west side of the state, Lake Michigan’s “lake effect” creates the perfect environment for agricultural growth such as cherries, wine grapes, blueberries and asparagus.  Lake Michigan’s beaches feature soft, white sands and more than 40 lighthouses. The Sugar Beach Resort Hotel in Traverse City sits right on Traverse Bay and has a beautiful private beach. Traverse City also offers great shopping, dining, museums and local wine or craft beer tours. As Michigan’s cherry capital, Traverse City is also known for its annual Cherry Festival featuring local vendors, an air show and live entertainment all along the miles of beach. Head to the Red Mesa Grill for exciting Latin American cuisine and amazing drinks.

Michigan Lake Shores Beautiful Lake Michigan from the shores of Charlevoix on the west side of the state.

To see more of Lake Michigan on your way back to Detroit, follow the shore along US 31 South and check out  popular towns such as the artsy Saugatuck, called the "Best Coastal Small Town" by USA Today; Holland, with its fine dining and sand dunes; Grand Haven, known for beautiful beaches and parks; and Frankfort, famous for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. When you are ready to head back to Detroit, take I-75 back to the city.

Lake Erie

Before heading home, make one last stop in Detroit to see Lake Erie. Sterling State Park is the only park that offers access to Lake Erie and is just a 30-minute drive from the airport. With 256 modern campsites featuring electrical hookups for just $35 a night, the park is a great place to spend a long weekend hiking, boating, fishing and enjoying more than a mile of beachfront. Or spend the day at Lake Erie before heading back the GreekTown Casino-Hotel, which features great amenities and is located right on the Detroit People Mover transport line. Catch your final vacation meal in one of the city’s great restaurants like the Dime Store, famous for carefully made artisan dishes.

  • Drive Time: About 4 hours from Traverse City
  • Recommended Stay: 1-2 Days
  • Where to stay: GreekTown Casino
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Jeana Nioxin

About the Author

Rarely caught without a camera, Jeana is an adventurous traveler with a passion for people, cultures and food that has taken her to 35 countries in five years. Recently named by Social Media Week as one of eight people who have more social influence than some large travel brands, Jeana is also consistently listed in Klout’s Top 10 Travel Influencers. When she's not using her powers for social good, Jeana enjoys crafting delicious recipes and cuddling with her son.