Did someone say landlocked? We found 4,400 miles of Midwest coastline that disagree—no salt, sharks or falling coconuts about it. And that’s just measuring around our share of Lake Superior (the world’s biggest freshwater body) and its four Great Lakes cousins. Don’t forget the state known for 10,000 lakes. Or the inland beaches that speckle our plains and reflect our skylines. Or the Missouri quarry tricked out with cliff-jumping perches, water slides and enough floaty noodles to resurface the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Yes, a shipwreck. We have those, too.
No Midwest state does sand and water better than the Mitten. Michigan’s 3,200 miles of shoreline touch more territorial water than any state in the Lower 48. Miners Beach in the Upper Peninsula offers the remote (and chilly) grandeur of Superior. Lake Huron laps against 200 miles of quiet lakefront to the east. Then there’s the beaming Sunset Coast, where you could spend weeks hopscotching from one Lake Michigan beach to the next. Choose from a waterfront resort, campsite or cabin in New Buffalo. Haul your longboard through a passage that bores through a dune at Tunnel Park near Holland State Park. Or hit Empire Beach for the best spot to spread a towel near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Bottom line: We know how to beach it, in Michigan and beyond. Welcome to the Mid-Coast.
Miners Beach, Munising, Michigan. Photo: Aaron Peterson
Fire and Water
Stay on the water until golden hour before paddling back to your shore-for-the-weekend. If you’re lucky, your friend already dug the fire pit (permitted on the beach) and skewered some brats. Rural Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy, near the Colorado line, is beyond a day-trip for most of us. The payoff: thin crowds and 100 miles of shoreline. Prairie winds fuel sailing on the state’s largest lake. Parasailing is also popular. You could get a motel room off Interstate-80 in Ogallala, 8 miles away. But this sand was made for camping. Stuff your SUV to the roof and park by your waterfront tent suite.
Lake McConaughy, Ogallala, Nebraska. Photo: Ryan Donnell
Another Fire-Friendly Shore: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Bayfield, Wisconsin
Kayak excursions introduce most visitors to Lake Superior’s chain of 21 undeveloped islands. You can go for the day or camp overnight. Feel free to gather driftwood for small fires on many of the beaches. East of Cornucopia, near the mainland sea caves, Meyers Beach also allows fires (without all the paddling to get there).
The sands of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, earned a reputation as Malibu of the Midwest in the late 1980s. That’s when twin brothers Lee “Waterflea” and Larry “Longboard” Williams launched the Dairyland Surf Classic. The competition recently ended, but its legacy remains via a thriving Great Lakes surf scene. The Sheboygan Reef and a point on the city’s north side generate some of Lake Michigan’s best swell year-round—though it’s most reliable late August through winter. Pop into the one-stop for rentals, lessons and wave forecasts. Sure, the water’s brisk, but it warms the heart to know your board is the biggest thing with fins in the water.
Surfer in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Photo: Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux
Follow the Rocks
Ruggedly handsome beaches line Minnesota’s North Shore. Within one 15-mile stretch, you’ll find all three of these stars.
Most sightseers blow right past this discreet Scientific and Natural Area along Lake Superior. Fifty miles north of Duluth, a brief walk through pines drops you on a pile of mysteriously pink stones that stretch into the distance. The steep beach disappears beneath waves that are slowly adding to the mass beneath your feet. A far-off peachy cliff reveals their place of origin. Waves and frost chip away at the natural rhyolite wall, starting a process that churns jagged shingles into porous and smooth migrating stones.
Iona's Beach. Photo: Dana Halferty
Surreal black sand just north of Silver Bay embodies the region’s complex history with iron mining. Fire rings, picnic tables, planted trees and a stone-face island create the perfect stop for stargazing or lunch. But the charcoal-color delta is hardly natural. The sands are a mix of soil and waste rock that a taconite mining plant dumped in the lake for decades. The EPA and conservationists stopped the practice in 1980. But the beach just opened to the public in 2015 after a big spruce-up.
Black Beach. Photo: Dana Halferty
Lapping waves play call and response with marbled pebbles. Water charges up the beach in a foamy whoosh, then a chatter of stones chases it back to the depths. Split Rock Lighthouse marks the northeast horizon. Its namesake state park holds scenic campsites just south of this cove. The tiny village of Little Two Harbors once served herring fishermen, and you can spot remnants of its dock underwater. But the best sight at this rock-skipping haven is sunrise, when Superior’s foggy breath veils Ellingsen Island just beyond the shore.
Pebble Beach. Photo: Dana Halferty
Do the Dunes
Along Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, it’s impossible to visit the same ground twice. That’s because these Lake Michigan dunes just east of Chicago are living. They creep along with each shifting wind, sometimes revealing a tree graveyard buried long ago. If you’re feeling ambitious, try The 3 Dune Challenge—1.5 miles and 552 feet of climb near Chesterton, Indiana. For a less vertical feat, walk the series of beaches. Combined with Indiana Dunes State Park, they cover nearly 25 miles.
Indiana Dunes. Photo: Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux
Another Mountain of Sand: Kohler-Andrae State Park, Wisconsin
A patchwork of terrain south of Sheboygan includes forest, sandy beaches and wetlands. A boardwalk traverses the dunes. Book a campsite or rent a tepee for the night.
Take an Urban Splash
When the temp sizzles in Chicago, Oak Street Beach explodes with fluorescent suits, a green stand of trees and summer events. White sand and the Caribbean-clear waters of Lake Michigan offer reprieve from blacktop and concrete. Jeff Zimmermann’s beach mural greets visitors who walk to the lake from the Magnificent Mile. Bike-share docks are scattered along a path framed by the skyline, so after sunbathing or people-watching at Oak Street, you can venture to other nearby beaches on a Divvy bike. All this, and the world’s best deep-dish pizza is just a stroll away—to devour after showing off the beach bod.
Oak Street Beach. Photo: David Nevala
Another Big-City Beach: Bradford Beach, Milwaukee
Same lake, farther north: Bronze in the sun or sip under shaded tiki huts at Milwaukee’s largest beach. Summer brings concerts, a sea of volleyball nets and even climbing walls onto the sand.
The electric blue waters of Fugitive Beach prove just how far a little creativity—and gallons of pond dye—can get you. This Rolla, Missouri, swimming hole falls somewhere between commercial water park and wild-hair creation in your eccentric uncle’s backyard. Retired Rolla police chief Mark Kearse opened Fugitive in 2014 after trucking 3,000 tons of sand to an abandoned quarry. Diving platforms line the cliffs. Buoys and docks define swim areas.
A MacGyvered 60-foot slide towers above a noodle-ridden beach, and new inventions appear each year. Don’t expect lifeguards, flush toilets, or fancy booze and eats at Fugitive’s tiki bar. But bring your own drinks (no alcohol), food, charcoal for rentable grills—and a sense of adventure. If summer love and Midwest innovation had a fling, this is their quirky beach baby.
Fugitive Beach. Photo: Paul Nordman
Surrounded by Water
Urban or remote? Day-trip or weekend away? Choose your island escape.
Beaver Island, Michigan
Local historians say the secluded Lake Michigan island near Charlevoix was the only independent kingdom in America, ruled by a Mormon leader in the 19th century. Today, it’s a nature lover’s escape via a 2.5-hour ferry ride. Reserve a spot in advance to bring your car, or rent a bike on the other side. The 600 residents run B&Bs, hotels, several restaurants and even a nine-hole golf course.
Beaver Island, Michigan. Photo: Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux
Belle Isle, Detroit
Accessible by car, this urban island between the Motor City and Canada packs a lot of surprises: the oldest U.S. aquarium and conservatory, plus our only marble lighthouse. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame, designed Belle Isle in the 1880s. A recent cleanup effort reinvigorated the land, which includes popular swimming spots along the 6-mile perimeter.
Belle Isle, Detroit. Photo: Brad Ziegler
Washington Island, Door County, Wisconsin
Schoolhouse Beach is one of the only beaches in the world made of smooth white limestone. Lack of sand creates pristine water clarity and snorkeling conditions for those who brave the chill. Swimmers and divers can access a diving raft in the water. Farther out in the bay, shipwrecks are visible from the surface, demonstrating why the dicey waters around the island were dubbed Death’s Door. Off Lake Michigan, a lavender farm, restaurants, lodging and museums round out a weekend stay.