The National Lakeshores of the United States: Which Should You Visit?

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Are you looking for a new outdoor adventure? Well, you’ve come to the right place!

The National Lakeshores of the US are all located in beautiful, scenic areas that offer visitors an opportunity to explore and enjoy nature. Each location has its own unique features and landscapes, so there is absolutely something for everyone!

You can hike through forests, climb along rocks, relax on a sandy beach, or even take a boat out on the water and explore. There’s no better way to spend time outdoors than exploring one of these national lakeshores.

Unfortunately, not everyone knows about these national lakeshores. They’re often overlooked but could be added to anyone’s bucket list. Some say that they haven’t earned “national park” status, but they’re still a part of the whole system and shouldn’t be missed!

If you love being outdoors, then this is the perfect place to go camping with friends and/or family. Make memories that will last a lifetime as you watch beautiful sunsets over Lake Michigan from Sleeping Bear Dunes, or hike to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore’s sea caves on Lake Superior. You won’t want to miss out on any of these incredible experiences! So what are you waiting for?

Here are all the details about our three national lakeshores in the United States!

What is a National Lakeshore?

In the United States, the National Park Service maintains outdoor natural and historical areas across all 50 states. This includes over 85 million acres of land. National park sites protect history, culture, and natural landscapes. Designations include national parks, historic sites, and scenic trails, among others.

One of these areas is called a National Lakeshore. There are currently three of these designated areas in the US.

National Lakeshores are established to protect their natural and cultural resources, and they are visited by millions of people per year.

Please, if you do visit these beautiful lands, please be sure to practice “Leave No Trace” while you’re there. This includes staying on designated trails, picking up your trash (bring a reusable water bottle!), and not feeding the wildlife. In doing so, we can ensure these national lakeshores will stay beautiful forever!

Let’s get back to the details. First, let’s get this out of the way…

What are the 3 National Lakeshores?

The three National Lakeshores in the US are:

  • Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan
  • Apostle Islands on Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula of Lake Superior
  • Pictured Rocks in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

All are part of the United States National Park System and maintained by the National Park Service. They’re similar in area, size-wise, but what makes them different is their location, landscape, and wildlife.

All three offer activities and trails that are accessible to everyone, regardless of age or physical fitness level. This makes them the perfect place to take your family and friends for an active getaway!

What is unique about these sites compared to other national parks?

Unlike most national parks, the three National Lakeshores are all coastal so there is a great deal of water. They actually feature the banks, cliffs, and dunes along their respective lake.

More specifically, they can all be found along the banks of 1 of the 5 Great Lakes! The glaciers that formed these lakes (and thus created the land for the national lakeshores) were also responsible for much of our nation’s coastline. Those glaciers left behind some beautiful landscapes, that’s for sure!

Each of the lakeshores has a unique lakefront formation, one that isn’t exactly copied anywhere else on earth. Some are sand dunes like Sleeping Bear Dunes, some have colorful cliffs like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and others feature underwater sea caves like Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Each national lakeshore has its own unique features whether you’re looking for a remote experience or one with numerous amenities.

Now, let’s get to more of the details and break down each of these National Lakeshores in the United States! (We’ve ordered them alphabetically since they’re all great!)

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Sea caves on Devils Island of Apostle Island National Lakeshore


Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is located near the northernmost point of Wisconsin, Bayfield Peninsula on the shores of Lake Superior.

When was it established?

September 26, 1970

Size (in acres)?

69,371.89 acres

Here are the details…

The Apostle Islands are actually made up of 22 islands, but only 21 of them are managed and included in the National Lakeshore. So there is a lot to see here – each island features different types of rock formations, and some have sand beaches, while others grassy or forested areas.

Must-See Sites

Stockton Island is the largest of the Apostle Islands, so it would be a great spot off the mainland to visit first. It’s a very interesting island because it features 20 million-year-old limestone, which has been eroded into stacks and arches. Visitors can hike miles along this island (and the other islands) to look for seabirds or woodland creatures.

If you’re only visiting for a short time, take a cruise out through the bay around many of the islands with Apostle Islands Cruises. Over a few hours, you can learn the history of the area and see plenty of views of a number of islands.

Staying on the mainland? Head over to Meyers Beach and hike the Lakeshore Trail. Even if you only hike a couple of miles on this trail, you’ll be able to see some of the sea cave formations and cliffs on the mainland.

How much time is recommended for a visit?

1-3 days

Best place to stay?

The town of Bayfield has a few options, but we loved our stay at the cozy Harbor’s Edge Motel, which was located directly across the street from the Madeline Island ferry dock.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Chapel Rock Pictured Rocks Michigan Cruise
Chapel Rock from a Pictured Rocks Michigan Cruise on Lake Superior


Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, near Munising. It is on the southern shore of Lake Superior.

When was it established?

October 15, 1966

Size (in acres)?

73,235.83 acres

Here are the details…

This national lakeshore features a picturesque 42 miles of shoreline along Lake Superior. The shore features cliffs that rise up to 200 feet above the water! There are also unique sandstone and sedimentary rock formations in some places.

Must-See Sites

Miners Castle is a highlight of this national lakeshore – it features tall cliffs with layers of different sandstones, that have eroded into interesting shapes at the top. Some people like to kayak around the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore as well – a few parts are only accessible by water.

For a more difficult hike in Pictured Rocks, definitely check out the Chapel Loop. This loop features two waterfalls, a beautiful beach, and views of some of the colorful cliffs. The hike is around 10 miles long, and it passes through some fantastic landscapes.

Take a ride out on Lake Superior on a Pictured Rocks cruise. It’s the best way to see complete views of the national lakeshore!

When visiting, make sure to stop at the Munising Falls Visitor Center. There are great exhibits here, and the restrooms are typically very clean. Also, plan on spending some time exploring Munising Falls itself – it’s beautiful, and a short walk from the parking area!

How much time is recommended for a visit?

2-4 days

Best place to stay?

The best options are around the town of Munising. The Holiday Inn Express just up the hill from the town center has views of the bay from their balcony rooms, a great place to sip your morning coffee. The Roam Inn also looks great, but we don’t have personal experience.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

One of the most popular views on any Sleeping Bear Dunes Travel Guide


Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located on the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, on the shores of Lake Michigan west of Traverse City.

When was it established?

October 21, 1970

Size (in acres)?

71,198.48 acres

Here are the details…

This national lakeshore features 35 miles of mainland shoreline on Lake Michigan, as well as the two Manitou Islands. In addition to the large sand dunes that are a highlight of this park, there is also plenty of evidence of glacial activity to observe, highlighted by interpretive signs scattered throughout.

Must-See Sites

Sleeping Bear Dunes consists of several parts – there are the dunes along Lake Michigan, as well as plenty of forested areas further on inland. Make sure you check out some of the “kettles” scattered among the lakeshore, too.

What is a kettle, you may ask? It’s a depression, formed when a small body of ice, left behind when stagnant glacier ice detaches from the main sheet and becomes buried in sediment. They are often later filled with water, forming ponds or lakes, known as kettles! They’re typically shallow but can vary greatly in size. Size can vary from mere feet up to miles long!

There are plenty of great hikes in Sleeping Bear Dunes that explore these and other areas.

Don’t miss the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and the Empire Bluffs Trail for amazing views over Lake Michigan!

Spend some time enjoying one of the beautiful beaches on Lake Michigan!

Only have one day in Sleeping Bear Dunes? Still visit! You won’t regret it.

How much time is recommended for a visit?

2-4 days

Best place to stay?

Some great options are situated along M-22 near Empire. Some of the small, independently run options are great, and they’re not found on large booking sites. If you’re not finding anything, expand your search! Many choose to stay in Traverse City, although it’s a little further of a drive.

Honorable Mention: Indiana Dunes National Park


Indiana Dunes National Park is located near Chicago, Illinois. It’s on the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

When was it established?

November 5, 1966 as a National Lakeshore

February 15, 2019, upgraded to a National Park

Size (in acres)?

15,349 acres

Here are the details…

While there are not many great cliffs to look out over here, this national park is located near Chicago, so it can easily be combined with a visit to the windy city. Many from the Chicago area are frequent visitors of Indiana Dunes. There are about 30 miles of trails and multiple beaches, where visitors can see an interesting variety of wildlife and glacial features making Indiana Dunes worth visiting.

Must-See Sites

Indiana Dunes has a wide assortment of wildlife – since it’s located near Lake Michigan, there’s a lot of aquatic life, along with mammals like porcupines, black bears, otters, and beavers. There are also birds that can be spotted throughout, including eagles!

Take the Diana of the Dunes Dare. It’ll take you through the various phases of the sand dune development, introduce you to beautiful views over Lake Michigan, and end at the sandy beach where you have the opportunity to take a dip in the cool waters.

Additionally, there are several trails that can be easily explored. Try the Cowles Bog Trail to see some unique plants and animals in a bog habitat. Check out the trail at Mount Baldy, the most dynamic dune in the park, for a short hike to a less-visited beach.

How much time is recommended for a visit?

1 day

Best place to stay?

The options are endless in this part of town!

When is the best time to visit these National Lakeshores?

You may be sold on visiting one of these beautiful spots but wondering when is the best time to visit? Here are some helpful things to keep in mind.

Summer is the most popular season, as the warm weather is much better for accessing all of the water featured throughout these parks. With that definitely comes crowds.

If you can plan a fall visit, more people will be leaving to get out of the cold weather coming in and it may be less crowded. This is also a great time to see the leaves change for fall. Each of these spots has some beautiful fall foliage, but especially the northernmost Apostle Islands and Pictured Rocks.

Also, if you’re interested in fishing or diving, spring is a great time to visit for those activities. Some activities are not open until May or even Memorial Day in places, so be sure to check the activities calendars prior to solidifying the dates for your visit.

Winter in these parks is not for the faint of heart! Temperatures can be downright frigid at times, but for those who enjoy ice climbing, cross country skiing, or ice fishing, the winter can also be a great time to visit. Just take the appropriate precautions for visiting with Mother Nature in full force!

If you’re planning to visit during a holiday or other peak time, please make sure to check out the park’s website and plan accordingly. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact that Park Service directly!

What Else to Know Before You Go

Just a few more items that will help you have the best possible experience once you arrive. Here are a few final, but helpful tips to consider before you decide on making your visit:

Depending on the time of year and the location, you may need to get a permit or pay an entrance fee. Sleeping Bear Dunes requires an entry fee per car of $25, which covers visiting for up to 7 days. Visiting Indiana Dunes between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend? That will require a $6 fee per car per day.

A car is definitely recommended to get around the lakeshores. Bicycling is also a great way to get around and it’s perfectly allowed on roadways and some trails with the exception of the beach dunes!

If you’re going during the summer months, be sure to check for updates regarding swimming or other water activities. Many of these spots are only open a few months of the year due to lake temperatures being too chilly for swimming. Conditions also change very quickly, sometimes hour by hour.

On the same note, dress in layers! You never know what mother nature will throw at you, so it’s good to come prepared with warm clothes in removable (or addable) layers and sturdy shoes. These parks aren’t just known for their dunes and lakes – they get wild.

In addition to the great hotel and cabin accommodations, there are also several campgrounds available in or near each of these parks where you can stay overnight and enjoy the time you’ve planned to explore. Be sure to check out their sites for details on what’s available, if you’re interested. Booking early with a reservation is definitely recommended, as sites do fill up, especially during the summer.

A Final Note From the Author: If you still haven’t decided which one to go to…

Here’s our take. All three national lakeshores are definitely worth visiting. As avid backpackers, we can recommend the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for plenty of offshore experiences – it’s remote and undeveloped. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore also has a ton to offer, but since it’s located on Lake Superior, it can be chillier than you expect! Superior is so large, that water stays cold! Sleeping Bear Dunes is great around summertime because of all the beaches and warm temperatures. The Indiana Dunes National Park is definitely best visited during the summer, as well, with the beaches being some of the main stars of the show.

The National Lakeshores are a great way to explore the beauty of America’s natural landscape. Which one will you visit next?

Feel free to leave a comment with your favorite National Lakeshore!