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4 Best National Lakeshores for Epic Days at the Lake

You’re probably familiar with national parks. You might have even been to a few or added a couple to your bucket list. Who doesn’t want to see the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful at least once in their lives? But did you know that America also has national lakeshores?

These protected areas of the Great Lakes offer beautiful scenery, unique biodiversity, and hours of outdoor recreation. Since we used to live in Michigan and play the Great Lakes, this topic is close to our hearts. Let us show you the best national lakeshores for fun on the water!

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What Is a National Lakeshore?

The National Park Service manages over 400 units across the country, ranging from national parks and national monuments to national battlefields and more. One of these designations, the national lakeshore, preserves the shoreline areas of our nation’s Great Lakes. These national lakeshores also provide water recreation for the public to enjoy during all seasons.

Is a National Lakeshore a National Park?

National lakeshores aren’t the same as national parks. They’re under the management of the National Park Service, but they don’t have the same designation. National parks preserve a much broader land area with various resources. However, national lakeshores are more confined spaces that still hold national significance.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Enjoy the stunning shorelines found along the U.S. national lakeshores.

How Many National Lakeshores Are In the US?

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore became the first unit with this title in 1966. Since then, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore have become national park units. In 1966, Indiana Dunes received the special designation, and in 1970, Apostle Islands and Sleeping Bear Dunes received the same designation.

In 2019, the government redesignated Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as a national park, becoming the nation’s 61st park with the top designation. So, nowadays, there are only three national lakeshores in the US: Pictured Rocks, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Apostle Islands National Lakeshores.

Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshores are both located in Michigan, but one is on Lake Superior shoreline and the other on Lake Michigan. The Apostle Islands are in northern Wisconsin in Lake Superior.

Is It Free to Visit National Lakeshores?

It’s not free to visit two of these national lakeshores. Like many of the other national park units in the US, there’s an entrance fee. The purchase of an America the Beautiful pass or other annual pass will allow you to get in for free.

It costs $25 to enter Sleeping Bear Dunes and $20 to enter Pictured Rocks. There is no entrance fee to visit Apostle Islands Lakeshore, but there are user fees for camping, docking, parking, and interpretive programs ranging from $3-40.

Kid walking along national lakeshore
Exploring some of the national lakeshores will require an entrance fee.

4 National Lakeshores for Fun Days On the Water

Although there are only three national lakeshores currently in the National Park System, we’ll also look at Indiana Dunes since it was in that designation until a few years ago. These locations offer some of the best water recreation in the country.

1. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Along the shoreline of Lake Michigan in the northwest corner of Lower Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore protects beaches, bluffs, forests, inland lakes, and the unique vegetation that make up this region. The 450-foot dunes offer breathtaking views across the lake. Charming villages, farms, and light stations create a glimpse into its maritime and agricultural history.

Outdoor activities like hiking, skiing the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, swimming, and sunbathing along the 35 miles of beaches provide hours of fun. Plus, the water recreation from kayaking to boating to fishing brings outdoor enthusiasts to Sleeping Bear Dunes again and again. The cute nearby lake towns of Glen Arbor and Traverse City also have loads of amenities and activities for an amazing summer vacation trip.

Pro Tip: Spend the night at one of these 7 Best Places to Camp While Visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Sleeping Bear Dunes - 17 Things to Do (Dunes Climb, Beaches & More!)

2. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The first lakeshore protects the southern shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore includes ten inland lakes and nearly 100 miles of trails. There are boat tours, kayak tours, ice climbing tours, and backpacking tours by commercial vendors. You can take your own watercraft out to view the rocks as well, but just be careful of Lake Superior’s forecast, as she’s claimed many ships in her quickly changing waters.

In the summer, the beaches offer swimming and sunbathing opportunities. In the fall, the changing colors bring photographers, hikers, and hunters. Snowshoeing, skiing, and ice fishing are trendy in the winter. Spring welcomes the blooms and birds that have been absent for a season. The sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, sand dunes, and deep forests draw visitors year-round.

Camping Tip: You can find some awesome campgrounds in the nearby town of Munising to visit the Pictured Rocks.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore | 10 Things to Do

3. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Called the “Jewels of Lake Superior,” the Apostle Islands are remote and inaccessible except by kayak or boat. If you want to venture out alone, you can take your sea kayak or personal boat or book a trip with an outfitter. Commercial services offer water taxis, cruises, and charters. There are no roads on any of the 21 Apostle Islands.

Because of its remote nature, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is one of the least-visited park units in the country. However, it’s well worth a trip to northern Wisconsin to view the mainland ice caves or view underwater rock formations and shipwrecks. Fishing, kayaking, scuba diving, boating, and camping are all standard activities here.

Pro Tip: If you’re planning an adventure to Apostle Islands, use this Ultimate Weekend Guide to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore - Things to Do and See When You Go

4. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (Now Indiana Dunes National Park)

Indiana Dunes became Indiana Dunes National Park in 2019. It protects the southern shoreline of Lake Michigan in Indiana. The Indiana Dunes Birding Festival in May is one of the busiest times to visit when the park highlights the rich biodiversity of the area and creates special bird viewing opportunities.

Like the other lakeshores, Indiana Dunes has year-round recreational opportunities from snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter to swimming and sunbathing in the summer. The 50 miles of hiking trails are open all year and provide glimpses into the various habitats and cultural history of the region.

Indiana added the unit to the list of national parks when congressmen wanted to bring more recognition to the park. Typically, when parks receive the national park title, they see increased revenue in tourism. Although officials from the NPS wanted to keep its previous designation because it had more in common with national lakeshores than national parks, President Trump signed the bill on February 15, 2019.

24 Hours In Indiana Dunes National Park (Hiking, Dunes, Historic Homes & the Chicago Skyline)

Is Swimming Permitted At the Lakeshores?

Swimming is one of the trendiest summer activities at national lakeshores. Because all these lakeshores are along the coastline of the Great Lakes, the summers tend to be pleasant. Visitors wanting to escape the heat of the south vacation here for more enjoyable summers. You can swim, build sandcastles, kayak, paddleboard, and sunbathe as much as you want at these lakeshores.

However, we speak from experience when we say the Lake Superior will shock you with its cool temperatures. While very refreshing on a hot summer day, you may want a wet suit for longer times in the water. While they are lakes, they are the biggest lakes you’ve ever seen and should be treated more like freshwater inland seas. Some days you can surf the waves.

Is Motorized Boating Permitted At the Lakeshores?

Like swimming, boating is very popular at national lakeshores. The most significant concern with boating in the Great Lakes region is the weather and size of the waves. So boaters must pay attention to the local forecasts in any season, especially in the northern Apostle Islands, where Lake Superior is notorious for quickly changing and violent weather.

It’s also crucial for boaters to know where they can launch. For example, officials prohibit the launching of motorized boats from lands within Indiana Dunes National Park. You can travel into the park via your boat, but you cannot launch it from the park grounds.

Pro Tip: After exploring the national lakeshores, check out these 5 Amazing National Seashores You Need to Visit.

Is Fishing Allowed At National Lakeshores?

Officials permit fishing and hunting at national lakeshores. Some of the best trout and salmon fishing in the lower 48 is at the Great Lakes. At Apostle Islands, you’ll need a Wisconsin fishing license and Great Lakes trout/salmon stamp. A valid Michigan fishing license is necessary to fish in Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks. To fish in Indiana Dunes National Park, you’ll need an Indiana fishing license and a stamp if fishing for trout and salmon.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Before you cast a line along a national lakeshore, make sure you have a permit.

Spend the Summer On the Water of America’s National Lakeshores

If you want to escape the summer heat of Florida, Texas, or Arizona, head north to the Great Lakes and make family memories at one of America’s national lakeshores. Or, if you’d like to experience ice fishing or explore ice caves, perhaps a winter trip is in order. No matter what season, you’ll enjoy the beauty of America’s treasured lakeshores and the recreational activities that connect us with nature.

Have you ever visited one of these lakeshores? Tell us where you went in the comments!

Want to keep exploring the Great Lakes State? Check out the Best National Parks in Michigan.

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About Cait Morton

Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

Believe it or not, she is rather camera shy, though she co-hosts the Mortons’ personal videos and The RVers TV show.

Caitlin’s passion lies in outdoor recreation and with animals. Some of her favorite things to do are hiking, biking, and getting out on the water via kayak, SUP, or boat.

She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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