Stand at the edge of any of the Great Lakes, and it seems almost as if North America has five more oceans right in the middle of the continent. The cold blue waters are as relaxing and exciting as any coastal destination during the summer with the added bonus of hundreds of populated islands just a short ferry ride away, each with its own special character. Most are heavenly for hiking, watersports, hunting, and fishing. But others have wild parties, wineries, and magical ice caves. Whatever your pleasure, here are the nine coolest islands in the Great Lakes.
1. South Bass Island, Ohio — Lake Erie
They call South Bass the “Key West of the North,” which might seem like it’s setting the party bar pretty high. But spend a weekend at Put-in-Bay and you’ll feel like you need a vacation from your vacation. Hit up an epic daytime pool party at spots like The Islander Inn and MIST, then stay out all night at the bars along the waterfront. If drinking your body weight in well vodka isn’t on your preferred itinerary, the island is also home to the world’s largest geode at the Heineman Winery, which also makes some pretty solid red and white blends. South Bass is popular among day-trippers from northern Ohio, so lodging can be tricky. But it’s the best island party you’ll find in the Great Lakes.
2. Mackinac Island, Michigan — Lake Michigan
The Grand Dame of Great Lakes islands is Mackinac (pronounced exactly the same as Mackinaw) where no cars are allowed and horse-drawn carriages are still a legitimate mode of transportation. The centerpiece of the island is the stately Grand Hotel, where the longest outdoor porch in the world serves as the perfect place for sipping an evening cordial at twilight. The rest of the island is a time warp to a different century, with pastel Victorian homes lining the streets. Plus it’s home to the iconic Pink Pony bar, so even though the nightlife is minimal, it’s still got a ton of character.
3. Isle Royale, Michigan — Lake Superior
One of the least-visited national parks in America, this big rock of wilderness hosted a hair over 28,000 visitors last year — for good reason. Getting here requires a three-hour boat ride or 45-minute seaplane flight, which sounds simple until you look up the pricing. But if you’re into untamed northern wilderness, it’s worth every penny. Moose are aplenty here as the Isle Royale is home to the longest-running predator-prey study in America, examining involvement with the island’s wolves. It also has almost-deserted trails through dense fir and spruce trees where visions of the water can be seen through the branches. There’s one lodge here — the Rock Harbor Lodge — and though again not cheap, it’s worth it if isolation makes your vacation.
4. Beaver Island, Michigan — Lake Michigan
Nicknamed “America’s Emerald Isle,” the largest island in Lake Michigan sits a short ferry ride from Charlevoix and is known for its abundance of nature and wildlife. The name doesn’t refer to the green trees that cover the island but rather refers to the massive amount of Irish immigrants who chose to settle here. Its most fascinating aspect, however, is its earlier history when it was home to a Mormon set known as the Strangites. This sect of followers of Joseph Strang had a sort of religious monarchy here for about eight years until Strang was killed by said followers, and other communities pushed them out. Make a stop at the Old Mormon Print Shop Museum to learn the whole bizarre story. Beyond that, wildlife conservationists have kept this island pretty untouched, and it’s become one of the top hunting and fishing destinations in wilderness-heavy Michigan.
5. Grand Island, Michigan — Lake Superior
It seems odd to suggest that anyone go to Michigan in the winter for anything other than a hockey game or a Bob Seger concert, but the ice caves along the shore of Grand Island are some of the most spectacular feats of nature one can see in colder months. The blue-and-green crystalline caves seem almost artificial in their precision and require a treacherous journey across a bay in Superior to reach. Even if you’re not into frozen fun, Grand Island can be just as beautiful in the summer, full of pebble-lined beaches along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. If you want to go, though, plan ahead. This slice of mild-weathered paradise only allows 10,000 visitors per year.
6. Manitoulin Island, Ontario — Lake Huron
This massive island covers over 1,000-square miles and is one of the world’s largest islands situated in a lake. It’s like its own geographical region, with four rivers and 100 lakes, which have islands within an island. The best view of it all is on the Cup and Saucer trail, where seven miles of trail roll along 200-foot cliffs with sweeping vistas of the island. Manitoulin is also full of beaches and lakes, with plenty of deep wilderness kayaking and wildlife encounters. Getting here can be part of the adventure, as well, given that along with ferry and airplane service you can reach the island via the historic Little Current Swing Bridge.
7. Pelee Island, Ontario — Lake Erie
Here’s some bar trivia: Over half of the states in the US lie north of this island, the southernmost populated point in Canada. You’ll pass it on a ferry ride from Sandusky, Ohio, to South Bass Island; it’s hard to miss since it’s the largest island in the lake. The weather here is very un-Canadian, though, and the warm weather has made it a surprising destination for wine tasting. It sits at a similar latitude as Rioja, Porto, and Tuscany, and the largest estate winery in Canada is located here at the 550-acre Pelee Island Winery. Its mid-continental location also makes it a popular spot for migratory birds, and the birders who love them. Fall and winter bring loads of pheasant hunters, as well.
8. Apostle Islands, Wisconsin — Lake Superior
It’s hard to nail down just one of the 22 islands that make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, though the largest one — Madeline — makes a good jumping off point to explore the others, full of golden-sand beaches backed by deep-green forests. But any trip to the Apostle Islands has to include boat trips to the sea caves. These stone cliffs are some of the most fascinating formations in America, and nearby you’ll find the lakes’ best scuba diving in caves underwater. If you’re into thick wetsuit diving, the Apostle Islands also have some notable shipwreck dives, plus eight lighthouses and 240 species of migratory birds.
9. Wolfe Island, Ontario — Lake Ontario
Though it is sadly not awash in cream-based spicy condiments, the largest of the Thousand Islands is home to the Big Sandy Bay Management Area where sand dunes and marshes play host to dozens of protected species of plants and animals. No cars are allowed in the area, meaning nature walks here feel like a step into the wild with a big, sandy lake beach at the end. The island is also home to one of Canada’s most popular corn mazes in the charming little town of Marysville, and it hosts the annual Wolfe Island Music Festival during summer.