The Great Lakes Circle Tour: A Cool Road Trip for a Hot Summer

In most states around the U.S., trusty meteorologists are predicting sweltering summers. Whether the unusual temperatures are due to climate change or the more predictable La Nina conditions, the fact remains that you and your family could be stuck inside for the entirety of July and August ― or you could go on a cool road trip.

The Great Lakes boast some of America’s coolest places, including Chicago, Niagara Falls, and numerous beaches that provide the perfect opportunities to cool off. The Circle Tour circumnavigates all five lakes and connects the lakes region’s best attractions into a single road trip.

You can choose to explore one lake at a time, or you can get away for the whole summer to a land of cool, refreshing fun. Here are some of the can’t-miss spots on the Great Lakes Circle Tour.

Lake Ontario

Traveling from east to west, Lake Ontario is the first of the Great Lakes you will encounter. Technically, the trip around Lake Ontario is not a true circle tour, in that most road trippers do not circumnavigate the lake in one go; rather, they take the U.S.-only Seaway Trail around the southern coast of Ontario and Erie before connecting with another highway that completes the circuit. Still, the Seaway Trail offers unforgettable views and attractions, passing through a number of quaint and quintessential American cities.

Perhaps the best stop along the Seaway Trail is Niagara Falls, which is a destination on nearly every traveler’s bucket list. Here, you can see the world’s largest waterfall from nearly every angle, including above (with Niagara Helicopters), behind (during Journey Behind the Falls) and up-close (on the legendary Maid of the Mist). You might also schedule some time to enjoy the Niagara wine region and sample food and fun available in Clifton Hill.

Lake Erie

From Buffalo, you can connect with the Lake Erie Circle Tour (LECT), which will take you through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario. On this route, you’ll see small, industrial towns, large cities, and plenty of scenes of the lake.

Erie, Pennsylvania is a top stop for most trippers in the region. Though the town it small, it is claims ownership of magnificent Presque Isle State Park ― a long sandy spit that demands a beach break. As you drive through Ohio, you should probably plan a stop in Cleveland to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or you can drive a little farther and devote a day to the world-famous Cedar Point, which boasts the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coasters on Earth; plus, the amusement part is situated right on the shores of Lake Erie, so you’ll have amazing views as you plummet through the air.

Lake Huron

You can meet up with the Lake Huron Circle Tour (LHCT) in Port Huron, Michigan. The least circular of the Great Lakes, Huron boasts many “spurs” that take time and patience to drive round ― especially because you will only journey through back-country Michigan and Ontario.

For the most part, the LHCT takes you through wilderness and small towns. In Ontario, the Bruce Peninsula is a beautiful place to pitch a tent and enjoy nature. In fact, the Bruce Trail ― the longest backpacking trail in Canada ― provides some excellent views of the surrounding forest. Meanwhile, in Michigan, there are a number of places to stop and enjoy the region’s bridges and locks, and the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena is informative, fun, and free.

Lake Superior

The largest of the Great Lakes (and the third-largest freshwater lake in the world) Lake Superior earns its name. With routes through Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, there is plenty to do and see along the Lake Superior Circle Tour (LSCT) ― besides stopping at the beach and splashing in the cool water.

However, Lake Superior is so large that most of the coastline feels like a visit to the ocean; plenty of beaches even rent out surf boards (as well as kayaks and bikes) to those looking to catch waves.

You can stop in Duluth, Minnesota to explore some amazing geology, including ancient lava flows surrounded by waterfalls. More outdoor fun is to be had in Wisconsin, where you can explore by land or water in the Apostle Islands.

Finally, not many road trippers ever make it to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P. or Yoop, for short), but the LSCT takes you straight through this country. There is much to do and see, which means you might reserve any real exploration for another trip.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan is perhaps the best-known and best-liked of the Great Lakes, so the Lake Michigan Circle Tour (LMCT) is well-trodden by road trippers of years passed. This route takes you through some of the region’s biggest and best cities, but you can expect the roads and attractions to be packed during tourist season.

The first must-stop is Wisconsin’s Green Bay, home to the famous football team’s stadium and other important monuments in Cheesehead history. Farther south, you can wander around Milwaukee, or you can continue driving until you reach the capital of the Midwest: Chicago, Illinois. No road tripper should resist the urge to take a picture in front of the Bean (which is actually named “Cloud Gate”) or eat at one of Chi-Town’s 22 Michelin-rated restaurants.