How to Drive Around Lake Michigan, With Kids!

This summer, my family drove around Lake Michigan! It is a massive Great Lake, but it can be done. If you are looking for a memorable summer vacation, driving around Lake Michigan is a good one. The shoreline of Michigan is beautiful. It’s best to make this kind of trip during the summer months, preferably in July or August. That way, if you go swimming, “the lake” will be warmer (it takes a lot of sun to warm up Lake Michigan from the winter, but it does indeed get warmer!).

Here are my recommendations for places to stop along the way. I will start and end in Chicago. For anyone not in the Midwest, you can fly into O’Hare, and rent a car/van to make this trip. I recommend only traveling out 3-4 hours per day. This allows for ample sight seeing and enjoying each region. Plus, it helps keep the littlest travelers happy. These recommendations are based on what I think children ages 12 and under would enjoy.

  1. Chicago, Illinois
    • Park: Go to the free playground at Maggie Daily Park, which overlooks Lake Michigan.  Somewhat near the playground is an impressive outdoor theater in Grant Park. I believe it’s called the Millenium Park Theater. You might be able to catch an orchestra practicing at the Grant Park Music Festival.
    • Museums: Field Museum or Shedd Aquarium (if you have a local history museum membership or aquarium membership, you might be able to get into the Field Museum or Shedd at a discount or free with your membership card and ID). Definitely pay for at least one extra show. At the Field Museum, be sure to visit the dinosaur exhibit. It is impressive! At the Shedd, be sure to see a dolphin show. The museums are expensive…but they are world class. If you can swing it, you should go to at least one museum. The Field Museum is less expensive.
    • Chicago Beaches: the 12th Street Beach is conveniently located right by the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium campus. It’s free and they have lifeguards. Or go to the larger Oak Street Beach. It is also free and is a popular one. They have life guards.
    • Food: Enjoy a Chicago style hotdog. There are lots of vendors around town. I like to skip the hot peppers, but you are welcome to eat them! And don’t ask for ketchup. Just don’t. Deep dish pizza is also really good in Chicago…or thin crust is also great. You’ll see places around.
    • Watch your wallet. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, and my parents grew up on the south side of Chicago…and I will share the advice they gave me as a teen visiting downtown Chicago. Please be street smart…only carry in your wallet what you don’t mind getting stolen. Keep more important things hidden or locked up. You could use one of those “body wallets” that people often use when visiting Europe to keep their passport safe. Keep extra money somewhere (e.g., your pocket), in addition to your purse/wallet. That way, if heaven forbid your purse/wallet is stolen, you have money for a cab to get back to your hotel or car. Thankfully, I have never had something stolen (no one I know has, in fact), but I still follow the advice my parents taught me when I was younger. Don’t be an easy target, and you can enjoy your time in Chicago. Especially if you are traveling with kids, if you are unfamiliar with Chicago, only be out during the daylight and normal business hours. Chicago is a really great place to visit and enjoy.
  2. Warren Dunes State Park in Sawyer, Michigan
    • This beach has a lot of sand, including a very large sand dune you can hike up. I remember hearing that sometimes people sled down the sand dune. Does anyone know if that is allowed there? Either way, it’s a big hilly area you can hike up, and the beach is at the bottom, where you can enjoy Lake Michigan. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy a day at the beach. You pay to get into the State Park. This beach is relatively close to Silver Beach.
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  3. Silver Beach in St. Joseph, Michigan
    • This is a large beach that picturesquely has a lighthouse. There are life guards on duty, which can be hard to find on most Lake Michigan beaches. There is a concession stand nearby, Silver Beach Carousel, Children’s Museum, and a large fountain that is like a splash pad, called the Whirlpool Fountain. The Comfort Suites in Benton Harbor are a nice place to stay with breakfast and space to spread out if you have a large family, and there are several other hotels in Benton Harbor. St. Joseph has some hotels, although I think they are more expensive and older. Last but not least, St. Joseph has a cute “State Street” with ice cream shops, beach stores, and a charming “Five and Dime Store.” I explained to my kids as we entered the Five and Dime Store, “This is like a mini-Target,” and they nodded understanding the comparison. As you travel along Lake Michigan, St. Joseph would be a nice place to stay for 2 nights.
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  4. Paris, Michigan. This is not a place to stay…unless you wish to camp! If you camp, it looks like a quaint place with a camp site. The reason I list it here is because it has a 20-foot Eiffel Tower and an 8-foot Native American statue. It’s a nice, quick place to stop, take a walk, get a family photo, and drive on to the next town.
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  5. Petoskey, Michigan. This is a town that overlooks a small bay that connects to Lake Michigan. They are famous for Petoskey Stones. They have a natural springs area. We stayed at the Michigan Inn & Lodge for one night, although it would have been nice to stay for two nights to enjoy the area more to explore the beaches. There are certain parts of the beaches where you can find Petoskey stones. The Michigan Inn & Lodge also sells the stones, which is a quicker option (and I suspect all of the tourist shops in Petoskey also does!). Some unique features of the Michigan Inn & Lodge are that they serve a buffet-style breakfast and dinner-like food all day long. We got in at 9pm and were hungry, and enjoyed some Wisconsin Cheese soup and desserts. They also offer free haircuts to all hotel customers. Really. They renovated two hotel rooms, cut down part of the wall between the two rooms, and remodeled it to be a very normal looking hair salon. It was too unique not to try! My daughters and I got a trim, and it was good (I was planning on a trim when we got home, and it worked out well!).  Next, we went to a special place called, “The Cross in the Woods.”
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  6. National Shrine of the Cross in the Woods. This is a sacred place where there is a huge outdoor crucifix and outdoor church. There are regular outdoor masses in the woods. When the weather is rainy  (or too cold), mass is held indoors in the church. There is also a one-of-a-kind Catholic doll museum. There is a large collection of dolls that are dressed as nuns, priests, and brothers from about 525 various religious orders world-wide. The dress on the “religious sister dolls” are representative of what the garments are that the specific orders wear (e.g., Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, has a habit that is different from the habit of Dominican Sisters). Our 4-year-old daughter LOVED the two orders that work pink: an order from Pennsylvania and an order from St. Louis. (Surprise, surprise! I never knew that any order wore pink!).
  7. Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island, Michigan Mackinaw City is a pretty, touristy town on beautiful Lake Michigan. It is known for being a place where you can take a boat to Mackinac Island and also as a gateway for the Mackinaw Bridge, which connects Michigan’s Lower Peninsula to the Upper Peninsula.
    • Mackinaw City: Here is a website with more information (heads up: it plays music, but has a beautiful panoramic video of Lake Michigan)  The bridge is amazing. I think it is 5-miles long and is one of the largest suspension bridges in the world. It took us about 9-minutes to cross it by van!
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    • Mackinac Island: You can take a boat to Mackinac Island either from Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, which is on the Upper Peninsula. Most likely, you will want to spend a whole day on the island, but stay at a hotel either in Mackinaw City or St. Ignace. The Island is pricey (the famous Grand Hotel can be about $599), although you might be able to get a good deal at another hotel (e.g., $185). When I was a child, my family visited Mackinac Island. You can rent bicycles-built-for-two and bike around the island. There are horse-drawn carriage rides (no cars allowed). Mackinac Island has many fudge shops, too.
  8. St. Ignace, Upper Peninsula, Michigan
    • Visit Castle Rock, which is an overlook where you can see Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Mackinac Island
    • Visit the infamous “Secret Spot” (a.k.a., delightful tourist trap)
  9. Green Bay, Wisconsin
    • You can try to get a tour of Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers:
    • Go to the “Bay Beach Amusement Park.” It is not a beach where you can go swimming (at least, not currently), but it’s a place where you can go with kids for a lot of fun that is affordable. Many rides are 25 cents or 50 cents. Classic rides like potato sack slide, helicopter ride, carousel, bumper cars, and a train ride are at the Bay Beach Amusement Park, which overlooks the bay.
  10. Sheboygan, Wisconsin
    • Bookworm Gardens is a delightful (and free) place to bring children. It is an outdoor park where you walk along paths and see exhibits right out of children’s storybooks. There is a garden from Peter Rabbit. There is a barn with a web in it that says, “Some Pig” (Charlotte’s Web). The barn also has a typewriter (Click Clack Moo), a tree house (Magic Tree House), three bears (Goldilocks and the Three Bears), and a log cabin and covered wagon (Little House on the Prairie).
  11. Hubertus, Wisconsin
    • Holy Hill, Shrine of Our Lady Help of Christians. This is a little out of the way during the drive around Lake Michigan, but it’s a beautiful short trip from the typical road. We love Holy Hill! It is a beautiful church atop a huge hill. It is peaceful and beautiful place to pray. Check the hours before you go.
  12. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    • Going to the Milwaukee Zoo would be a nice way to finish off your trip around Lake Michigan. If you have a local zoo membership, you might be able to get in free to the Milwaukee Zoo.

If you are in the Midwest, or like to visit the Midwest, I hope this has given you some ideas about some unique places to visit with your family. If you live too far from Lake Michigan or do not have the time, what is a special circle trip you could make with your family? Maybe there are 3-4 bigger towns withing 4-6 hours of your home. Map out places to visit and make it into a vacation. Summer is a wonderful time to get away and spend time as a family. Even just a two-day trip is refreshing!




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