The Atlantic and Pacific coastlines may get all the glory but what a lot of people don't realize is that the Third Coast (what locals call Lake Michigan's shorelines in Michigan and Wisconsin) is just as gorgeous. As a Milwaukee resident I'm often asked while traveling: Can you see to the other side of the lake? (Answer: No. At 22,400 square miles, and 307 miles wide, it's the largest lake entirely within one country.)
Another surprising factoid is this: while standing on the shoreline, it really does feel like you are on the cusp of Florida or California, especially during the summer months, which is when these Lake Michigan beaches attract tourists. With 1,600 feet of shoreline, however, it takes a local to suss out the best of the best. You're welcome.
2400 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
It was not until three years ago that private developers, in cooperation with the city of Milwaukee, amped up this stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline which is adjacent to the East Side, a trendy neighborhood marked by bars, historic movie houses, restaurants, boutiques, and vintage-clothing shops. Today there are amenities like tiki bars with thatch-hut roofs; a burger and frozen-custard stand from a local restaurant group (The Bartolotta Group); cabana rentals offering massages (Saturdays and Sundays) and yoga classes (Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings), as well as food and beverage service; and volleyball nets.
Free parking is available along Lincoln Memorial Drive, or you can take advantage of a new beach shuttle ($1) departing from three spots, including Discovery World. Stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking are offered as well.
Whitefish Dunes State Park
3275 Clark Lake Road, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
White-sand beaches are typically associated with regions like Carmel, some Florida beaches, and the Caribbean, but the 865-acre Whitefish park on the Door County peninsula–about three hours north of Milwaukee–boasts sugar-fine white sand too. Conveniently located off State Highway 57, which is the main artery to the Midwest's version of Cape Cod, you'll need either an annual vehicle-entrance permit or a day-use permit (both can be purchased at the park).
On Saturday and Sunday the nature center is open, appealing to science buffs, of course, but also for tips on what you might spot crawling in the sand or flying overhead. A boardwalk makes beachside hikes along the dunes easy for all ages. In contrast to Milwaukee's Bradford Beach, where loud music and booze are among the attractions, this is a quiet, peaceful shoreline where the weekend afternoons see clusters of kids building sandcastles and groups of friends catching up while sprawled across beach towels.
Pere Marquette Park Beach
Beach Street, Muskegon, Michigan
As a nationally certified "clean" beach—one of only three along the Great Lakes, it earned this recognition in 2004—Muskegon is about three and a half hours from Chicago, making it very convenient for urban dwellers who seek a weekend beach getaway (while there are few hotels, there are many vacation homes for rent).
Once at Pere Marquette Park Beach, you can rent a beach umbrella and chair, which provide the means to kick back on the white sandy beach and enjoy the view. Fire pits allow for marshmallow roasts or grilling of meats. There are 40 sand volleyball courts, a playground, and snack bar too. The 2.5 miles of shoreline is just part of Pere Marquette Park's 27.5 acres of green space. Entering the park is free.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
9922 Front St., Empire, Michigan
A whopping 33 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline at the pristine Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is divided into several sections, including D.H. Day Park, North Bar Lake, Good Harbor Bay, and Manitou Lake. About 20 miles west of Traverse City (a quaint area worth a stop for its winery tasting rooms, surprisingly great cuisine, and just-picked cherries, if in season) is the Philip Hart Visitor Center where you can get a better idea of what awaits you in the 70,000-acre park.
A seven-day park pass costs $10; and an annual pass, $20. Overnight camping is an option whether you're a seasoned back-camper and want to check out backcountry sites, or like the luxuries of electricity and running water (Platte River Campground). As an in-between option, the D.H. Day Campground is rustic (yet not in the backcountry) and does not provide electricity or running water. Still not convinced this is paradise? You'll probably spot Mario Batali, who has a summer house there and is a huge fan of the place.
Photo Credits: Bradford Beach: Courtesy of Bradford Beach; Whitefish Dunes State Park: Whitefish Dunes by Attribution-NoDerivs License; Pere Marquette Park Beach: Pere Marquette state park by Attribution-NoDerivs License; Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau