- For other places with the same name, see Great Lakes (disambiguation).
The size is difficult to appreciate until you see them: at 94,250 square miles (244,100 km2) combined, the lakes are nearly as large as the United Kingdom, and there are places where a plane flying over one will not see land. Taken collectively, they are the second-largest reserve of fresh water by volume outside the polar ice caps (slightly smaller by volume than Lake Baikal in Russia), making them an invaluable natural resource. Even considered individually, they are huge.
The Saint Lawrence Seaway is a large system of canals and locks, jointly built and jointly managed by the US and Canadian governments, which allows ocean-going vessels into this lake system so that some cities far inland in both countries are now important ports for worldwide trade.
Although lakes often have names like "This Lake" and "That Lake", the Great Lakes are named the other way 'round as "Lake This" and "Lake That". Listed West-to-East (with rank on Wikipedia's list of the world's largest lakes by volume of water in brackets), they are:
- Lake Superior (4th) - the largest and westernmost lake, sometimes said to have the shape of a wolf's head
- Lake Michigan (7th) - the only Great Lake located entirely in the U.S., a long narrow body of water plunging south
- Lake Huron (8th) - including Georgian Bay, almost a separate lake, on the east side
- Lake Erie (18th) - the southernmost lake
- Lake Ontario (12th) - the easternmost
The American-Canadian border runs more-or-less down the middle of lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario. The border also runs across Lake Superior, but most of that lake is in the US; the border is just north of Isle Royale National Park, the big island on the west side. Lake Michigan is entirely in the US, Georgian Bay entirely in Canada.
The Great Lakes themselves are not the only waterways in the system. Others include:
- The Saint Mary's River between Lakes Superior and Huron
- The Straits of Mackinac between Lakes Michigan and Huron
- Several bodies of water between Southeast Michigan and Southwestern Ontario
- The Saint Clair River between Lakes Huron and Saint Clair
- Lake Saint Clair, tiny compared to the Great Lakes but still over 1000 km² (430 square miles)
- The Detroit River between Lakes Saint Clair and Erie
- The Niagara River (with its famous falls) between Lakes Erie and Ontario
- The Saint Lawrence which drains the whole system into the Atlantic Ocean
The border runs through most of these as well, though it only follows the Saint Lawrence for a short distance; further east, both sides of the river are Canadian territory and the border is some distance south of it.
In this area, if someone says something like "lets go to the Lake" without naming it, they're probably referring to the nearest Great one.
The following regions lie around the Great Lakes.
- American Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin)
- New York
- Erie Region of Pennsylvania
The following cities lie on or close to the shores of the Great Lakes.
- Hamilton, Ontario
- Kingston, Ontario
- London, Ontario
- Niagara Falls, Ontario
- Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
- Sarnia, Ontario
- Sault Ste Marie, Ontario
- Toronto, Ontario
- Windsor, Ontario
- Thunder Bay, Ontario
- Buffalo, New York
- Chicago, Illinois
- Cleveland, Ohio
- Detroit, Michigan
- Duluth, Minnesota
- Erie, Pennsylvania
- Grand Rapids, Michigan
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Niagara Falls, New York
- Put-in-Bay, Ohio
- Rochester, New York
- Sandusky, Ohio
- Sault Ste Marie, Michigan
- Toledo, Ohio
- Traverse City, Michigan
By body of water
Broken down according to the bodies of water they are on, and in upstream-to-downstream order, some important places are:
- Lake Superior
- Duluth, Minnesota
- Thunder Bay, Ontario
- Lake Michigan
- Lake Huron (no important cities)
- Detroit River, between lakes Huron and Erie
- Windsor, Ontario
- Lake Erie
- Niagara River, between lakes Erie and Ontario
- Niagara Falls, two cities on either side of the border
- Lake Ontario
- The Golden Horseshoe, including Toronto, Hamilton, and the suburbs in between
- Kingston, Ontario
- Downstream along the Saint Lawrence
The region is well provided with recreational areas; in roughly west-to-east order, some of the main ones are:
- Isle Royale National Park, a large island on the west side of Lake Superior, in the US but near the border
- Mackinac Island, in the Straits of Mackinac between Lakes Michigan and Huron
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, on the northeast shore of Lake Michigan some distance from the big cities
- Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore at the southern tip of Lake Michigan
- Georgian Bay, popular as "cottage country" for Toronto and nearby areas, part of Lake Huron
- Point Pelee National Park, a peninsula into Lake Erie which is the southernmost point in Canada, at roughly the latitude of Chicago or Beijing
- Cedar Point, a major amusement park in Ohio, on Lake Erie
- Lake Erie Islands, on the US side near several Ohio cities
- Prince Edward County, toward the east end of Lake Ontario, on the Canadian side
- Thousand Islands, downstream in the Saint Lawrence
Some of these are quite developed and others still close to wilderness.
The Great Lakes cover a vast region, so there are naturally many points of entry, preeminent among which is Chicago's busy O'Hare International Airport. Other major airports, in order starting from the busiest: Detroit Metropolitan, Toronto Pearson International, Minneapolis-St. Paul International, Chicago Midway, and Cleveland-Hopkins International.
The principal highways of the Great Lakes on the U.S. side of the border are I-90, which runs east-west along the south coasts, and I-94, which runs a more eccentric course from the west coast of Lake Michigan, through Chicago, central Michigan, and Detroit where it then passes across the river to Ontario. On the Canadian side, Highway 401 runs west-east from Windsor-Detroit through Toronto and on to Kingston and Montreal. The Trans-Canada Highway traces the northern shores of Lake Huron and Lake Superior.
The Great Lakes boast some of the world's great urban skylines, and their crystal blue waters also provide anyone with a boat the means to take in a grand view of them. Chicago, the birthplace of the skyscraper, has a claim to be the greatest, but it's a hard claim to stake in a region with skylines such as those of Toronto and Detroit, and to a lesser extent Milwaukee, Cleveland, Hamilton, Buffalo, and Rochester.
Natural destinations abound along the region's lakeshores. The Indiana Dunes, and Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore provide the most striking lakeside landscapes, while island destinations like the Thousand Islands, Isle Royale National Park, St. Joseph Island, the Lake Erie Islands, and Manitoulin Island make for natural vacation destinations.
Major attractions right on the water are similarly in large supply. Chicago's Navy Pier on Lake Michigan is one of the most visited attractions in the Midwest for its amusement park, live entertainment, shops, restaurants, and theater. Toronto's CN Tower on Lake Ontario is the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere, providing tourists with great views, including one very steep one down from the glass floor. Cedar Point Amusement Park near Sandusky, Ohio, has been voted best amusement park in the world for at least a decade by Amusement Today. Perhaps the best known to the world, though, is massive Niagara Falls.
Many boaters use the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and their connection points as a travel route. There are many marinas and public boat ramps available for this purpose, and the lakes and connected waterways such as the Erie Canal and Rideau Canal are popular with people cruising on their own or chartered boats. Also, the Great Lakes Cruising Company and the American Canadian Caribbean Line provide cruise ships on the Great Lakes.
Swimmers have the invasive species of zebra mussels from the Caspian Sea to thank for the clear waters—each one of the billions, the size of a fingernail, filters nearly a liter per day. They have been enormously disruptive to local ecosystems, and their sharp shells are a terrible hassle for anyone trying to clean the hull of their boat, but they have had a couple of pleasant side effects. In addition to making the waters such a lovely clear crystal blue, their filtering efforts have increased the population and size of smallmouth bass in Lake Erie and yellow perch in Lake St. Clair.
Great Lakes beaches are something most of the world has overlooked. While yes, for much of the year, it's too cold to swim, there are some fantastic beaches that are usable in the summer months. The lakes are big enough to make you feel like you are at the ocean, with waves to boot, but without the annoying salt and jellyfish. And throughout much of the water system, the water is actually clean enough to drink (not recommended) and certainly clear enough where you can freely open your eyes underwater. Some of the most famous beaches include the Great Lakes' longest at Wasaga Beach in Central Ontario, the beach volleyball hub of the Midwest at Lincoln Park Beach in Chicago, the beautiful beaches along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and the affluent beach communities along Chicago's version of the Hamptons in Harbor Country, Michigan. And even when it's too cold for swimming, several beaches throughout the region are actually known for surfing.
There isn't any one sort of souvenir or good associated with the Great Lakes (aside, perhaps, from Detroit automobiles or Milwaukee beer), but there are plenty of great places to go shopping. Chicago's Magnificent Mile is renowned as one of the world's truly great retail strips. Yorkville serves much the same purpose in Toronto. A smaller retail location is in Detroit's Renaissance Center, which is probably worth a visit regardless of whether you want to shop at its many stores and souvenir shops. Tower City Center in Cleveland is another major shopping complex, with retail running the gamut from high end boutiques to low-end national franchises and back again.
My Great Lake offers T-shirts, hoodies and other items for all the lakes. They have an online store and their products are also available through retailers. Part of their profit goes to the public interest group Alliance for the Great Lakes.
What could possibly unite the disparate culinary regions of the Great Lakes? Oh right, fish. Lake trout, wild salmon, chubs, smelt, perch, walleye, and whitefish are all very popular both among recreational and commercial fishers throughout the region. Smoked fish and shrimp is especially popular in small "shacks," particularly along the industrial shores of southwestern Lake Michigan, and you should jump at the chance to try some.
Similarities end at fish, however. The Chicagoland area is a culinary delight, from high end contemporary American in Chicago, to low end regional fast food like Chicago-style pizza, hot dogs, etc., and cuisines brought their via the tides of immigration from the American South, Greece, Middle East, Mexico, Vietnam, etc. Toronto rivals Chicago for international cuisine, both high and low end, with enormous immigrant populations from all over Asia especially.
There is one city in this region synonymous with drinking, and that is Milwaukee. Brew City was for a long time the world's leading beer producer, and remains firmly associated with the drink both in the popular culture ideal and the reality of the city's great nightlife. While none can rival that of Milwaukee, the cities and towns lining the Great Lakes largely share its affection for the drink, particularly in can form, accompanied with cheap shots of liquor.
High end nightlife in the Great Lakes congregates in both Chicago and Toronto. Live music, however, is much more widespread, with vibrant independent music scenes throughout all the major cities, especially in Chicago and Detroit.
Where next? Perhaps the obvious choice would be to head deeper into the Midwest, perhaps down the Mississippi River towards St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans or down through the cornfields to Indianapolis.
Following the waterways east takes you along the St. Lawrence River through the Thousand Islands and towards Montreal, Quebec City, and on to Canada's Atlantic Provinces. Or you could turn south from the St. Lawrence towards Lake Champlain to get to Lake George and the Adirondacks.
Keep following I-90 west to get deep into the American Interior. It will eventually take you into the Black Hills and Badlands region of South Dakota, home to Mount Rushmore (and a lot of bison), and on to Wyoming.
On the Canadian side, the Trans-Canada Highway leads west along the north shore of lakes Huron and Superior as far as Thunder Bay, then on to Winnipeg and Canada's Prairie Provinces. Much of that route is through quite lightly populated areas; what you see will be mostly trees and lakes with the occasional moose. Those more interested in cities may prefer to cross into the US and take a route that runs south of the lakes.