Summer 2021, my mom and I were blessed to spend eight days exploring Lake Michigan from the shores of picturesque Door County Wisconsin, the bustling city of Chicago and windswept Sleeping Bear Dunes NP in Michigan and beyond. I hope you enjoy my diary of these adventures
July 31st, 2021 (Saturday) – Part One
Fueled on coffee and a hunger for adventure my mom and I boarded a 5 a.m. flight from Raleigh Durham to Chicago Illinois. We are bound for a 9-day Great Lake adventure – exploring the coasts of Lake Michigan from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan.
Visiting the Great Lakes has been on our bucket list for many years, and now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, we felt confident to book the trip. The Great Lakes region covers a vast area – five lakes – Erie, Ontario, Huron, Michigan and Superior– across two countries and seven* states.
The massive lakes were formed during the last ice age as glaciers advanced then retreated across the region. The Great Lakes collectively make up 21% of the world’s freshwater. Once you stand on the edge of a Great Lake, it is easy to understand why the Great Lakes are ‘The Third Coast’ of North America. In scope, grandeur, and vastness – you feel like you are at the ocean (without the salt and sharks). (This is coming from a NC gal who spends a lot of time on the Atlantic coast)
It would be impossible to tour all these wondrous lakes in one trip, so we decided to focus this itinerary on Lake Michigan. Like many travelers, this is our first flight since the pandemic. I am grateful to be fully vaccinated and be able to fly safely.
Lake Michigan is truly a Great Lake, its name is derived from the Ojibwa tribe’s word ‘Mishigami,’ meaning ‘ large lake.’ It is 307 miles long by 118 miles wide with 1,640 miles of coastline. It is the third largest Great Lake by surface area (22,300 square miles) and second largest in volume (1180 cubic miles). It averages a depth of 275 feet with the deepest portion of the lake delving 925 into the deep blue abyss.
This all-American lake is bound by four states: Wisconsin (west), Illinois (south), Indiana (south), Michigan (southeast, east, north). 12 million people live on the shores of Lake Michigan. Major metropolitan areas like Chicago and Milwaukee were build on the backbone of the lake and shipping industry. Most of the lakeshore though is desolate and wild and seeped in untamed beauty. State and National Parks preserve and protect the lake’s ecosystem, and dunes. As well encounter in this journey, Lake Michigan has 275,000 sand dunes – more than any other freshwater habitats in the world!
As the airplane hovered over Chicago – sunrise emerging against a sea of clouds and blue sky, my mom and I first spotted Lake Michigan…
“Wow.” We both were in awe at the sheer size of the lake, even from the clouds and the towering city skyline below.
Once we landed at O’Hare International Airport, we navigated the maze of directions to baggage claim, grabbed our bags and asked directions to ‘Enterprise’ and rental car agencies.
“You need to take the shuttle,” a helpful father and son – motioned. They explained they were flying in as the son goes to Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana and Chicago is only an hour west of the university town.
We picked up our rental car around 7:30 a.m. – now in Central time (an hour earlier) and relying on God’s grace and GPS we headed down the highway…our first stop – Door County Wisconsin.
Up to this point, Wisconsin is one of only five states I’ve not visited (others being: Nevada, Louisiana, Hawaii, and Alaska). I was super excited to cross the state line and step foot on Wisconsin ‘badger’ soil.
When people outside of the Midwest think about Wisconsin they think about cheese and endless miles of ambling land with dairy farms. Many do not connect the dots that Wisconsin’s Great Lake borders – make it one of the prettiest vacation spots in the US. It is truly a stunning and diverse state from rolling farmland to clear crystal waters and cliffs. I fell in love instantly.
The trip from Chicago to Door County is about four hours. We stopped briefly outside of Milwaukee, WI in the Port Washington area for breakfast at First Watch. Fun fact – Port Washington is the home of the Lamberts on 1990s hit Step by Step – TGIF – so I was pretty-excited from a pop culture standpoint.
Two and a half hours into our trip, driving on Interstate 43 – the farmland stretched for miles. The GPS showed the interstate skirting Lake Michigan just to the east – barely outside of our view.
“Let’s get gas and then see if we can go down a backroad to see the lake,” My mom and I discussed. “After all we’re here to see the lake.”
The gas station we stopped in was across from a dairy farm and included a nice ‘to-go’ restaurant and friendly staff. They guided us on a quick route to see Lake Michigan at a nearby county park and boat launch, off Sauk Trail.
It is mind-boggling that barely a mile from the interstate you travel down a country road to find a hidden beach that feels like an ocean view. My mom and I got out of the Ford Escape and took in the view. Families were enjoying the swim area, while the boaters launched their craft for water recreation. I could have said on the beach enjoying the view for hours, but we pressed on…miles to go and scenery to traverse.
*I took photo of Lake Michigan off Sauk Trail – County Park, Wisconsin