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Michigan's very name is rooted in the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian word for “large lake,” and its handprint on the earth, the mitten-like Lower Peninsula and jagged-edged Upper Peninsula, is shaped by four of the five Great Lakes. Sailors called them the “Sweetwater Seas.” Carved by glaciers more than 12,000 years ago, the Great Lakes regions are the planet's largest bodies of freshwater which are visible from the moon and instantly recognizable on any globe or atlas.

Michigans Great Lakes

Lake Erie

Lake Erie is the smallest of the four Michigan Great Lakes that lap against Michigan's shores and accounts for a relatively brief stretch of coastline from the Ohio border to the mouth of the Detroit River in the southeast region of the state.

Named for the tribe of Indians that lived on its southern beaches, the water surface of Lake Erie is 9,910 square miles, making it the 11 th largest lake in the world by that measure. The shallowest of the Great Lakes, with an average depth of just 62 feet (210 feet deep at its maximum), Lake Erie is often overshadowed by the higher profile lakes of the region, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior that wrap around Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas. But Lake Erie has played an important role in transportation to the upper Great Lakes region, in the development of shipping and other industries, and in the War of 1812. A key confrontation of that war took place at the settlement of Monroe on the River Raisin, which flows to Lake Erie. The site of the bloody conflict of January 1813 was recently designated the River Raisin National Battlefield Park.

Lake Erie is known for its sport fishing, particularly of walleye and yellow perch, and several charter fishing services operate out of Bolles Harbor at Monroe. Michigan's only state park on Lake Erie is the 1,300-acre Sterling State Park, which offers over one mile of sandy beach, lagoon and shore fishing, a boat launch, six miles of trails for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing, and lakefront sites at the seasonal campground.

The nearby Lake Erie Metropark, with about three miles of Great Lake shoreline, is home to coastal marshes and wetlands that allow for notable wildlife viewing of muskrat, turtles, waterfowl and migrating birds. The Metropark is particularly known for the raptors, or birds-of-prey, that pass through from September to November. This is the site of the annual Hawkfest in September, when it's possible to see up to 50,000 migrating hawks in a single day.

Also known for wildlife viewing and hunting is Pointe Mouillee State Game Area just south of the Metropark. The 4,000-acre site boasts one of the word's largest fresh water marsh restoration projects, less than an hour south of the city of Detroit on Lake Erie.

Lake Huron

Lake Huron was originally called it La Mer Douce, the sweet or freshwater sea by French explorers. Later, Lake Huron took its name from the Huron Indian people who lived along its beaches. The Great Lake forms the eastern outline of Michigan's “Mitten,” including the distinctive “Thumb” which is dotted with port towns and shelters Saginaw Bay. The Lake Huron shoreline of the Lower Peninsula is often referred to as the “Sunrise Side.” Its waters also touch the Eastern Upper Peninsula, meeting Lake Superior to the north via the St. Marys River at Sault Ste. Marie, and mingling with Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac.

Lake Huron is the second largest Great Lake and the fifth largest fresh water lake on the planet, with a surface area of 23,000 square miles. First paddled by Native Americans, and then voyageurs, traders and missionaries in the late 1600s with the start of the fur trade, Lake Huron became a vital shipping route. The waters of this Great Lake, however, could be treacherous and its storms deadly; the particularly disastrous weather of November 9, 1913, sank ten ships to the bottom of the Great Lake and drove many others into port.

At the bottom of Lake Huron rests more than 1,000 known shipwrecks with some 200 of them off the northeastern shore near Alpena. The underwater historic sites are protected by the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and are destinations for scuba divers, snorkelers and even kayakers to explore. On land, visitors tour the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena and several lighthouses in the region.

The Great Lake Beaches of Michigan are home to 120 lighthouses that once served as navigational aids to ships; 30 of them stand along the Lake Huron beaches and many are open or accessible to visitors. Boaters today enjoy sport fishing, sea kayaking and sailing -- these waters annually challenge sailors in the Bayview Mackinac Race, better known as the Port Huron to Mackinac race. Charter fishing operations and Tall Ship sailing excursions aboard the Appledore schooners are options for those without their own vessels.

Dozens of recreational areas dot Michigan's eastern Great Lake regions, from lakefront state parks in “The Thumb” to the northern “Tip of the Mitt” and the Mackinac State Historic Parks. The automobile-free Victorian resort destination of Mackinac Island continues to welcome visitors to the Straits of Mackinac as it has since the late 1800s, when city dwellers began to discover the refreshing qualities of a Michigan Great Lakes escape.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan is the only one of the five Great Lakes that is entirely sheltered by the United States; the other Inland Seas also share a border with Canada. Michi Gami, the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian word for “large lake,” forms the west coast of the Lower Peninsula and much of the southern coast of the Upper Peninsula, from Menominee at the Wisconsin border eastward to the Straits of Mackinac , where its waters meet Lake Huron.

The third largest Great Lake has a water surface area of 22,300 square miles, and it contains numerous islands, notably the Beaver Island archipelago and the North and South Manitou Islands off the coast of the “Little Finger” region of Michigan's mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula. The Manitou Islands are a part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. In addition to its namesake sand dunes and challenging dune climb, the Great Lakes park is noted for spectacular views along the 7.5-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, as well as a choice of hiking trails.

Lake Michigan beaches boast several important dune regions, from Sleeping Bear south to the Nordhouse Dunes at Ludington, and Warren Dunes State Park near the Indiana state line. The Gillette Sand Dune Visitor Center at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park in Muskegon features exhibits and nature programs that explore and explain the importance of the Great Lake region and its natural resource.

Michigan's western Great Lakes region benefits from the “lake effect” caused by the large body of its namesake water, which creates a favorable environment for growing a wealth of agricultural products. The state is a leader in many crops including blueberries, cherries, asparagus, and grapes for juice and wine: orchards and vineyards are especially successful along Lake Michigan.

Nearly four dozen lighthouses stand on the beaches of Lake Michigan as reminders of the importance of the centuries-old shipping industry, a story told well at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven. The replica square topsail sloop Friends Good Will offers daily outings from the museum for a taste of 19 th century sailing; the Tall Ship Manitou out of Traverse City also offers daily sails in season.

One additional benefit shared all along the state's western beaches memorable sunsets that drop into the Great Lake Michigan.

Lake Superior

Superior describes not only the size and volume of the largest Great Lake, but its setting as well. It was called le Lac Superior, or Upper Lake, for its location at the top of the Great Lakes region. Its waters form the rugged and rocky northern coast of the Upper Peninsula. Made famous as Gitche Gumee by the poet Longfellow, Lake Superior was called Great-water or Kitchi-gummi by the Chippewa Indians.

The largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior's surface covers 31,700 square miles, and its cold waters reach a depth of 1,332 feet. Lake Superior is the most dramatic of the Inland Seas in many ways, including its history of storms and shipwrecks. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point is noted for its exhibit about the doomed freighter, the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in a violent storm in November 1975, 17 miles off the point; the crew of 29 men was lost. The museum is located on the site of Lake Superior's oldest lighthouse, and its 1861 Lightkeeper's Quarters welcomes overnight guests. Over 30 lighthouses still stand along the Lake Superior beaches and four of them offer unique bed & breakfast experiences.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore preserves the stunning multi-colored sandstone cliffs along Lake Superior between Grand Marais in the Eastern Upper Peninsula to Munising, more than 42 miles to the west. The shoreline park lures hikers and backcountry campers to its beaches, deep woods, sand dunes and waterfalls. The Great Lake region is also home to Isle Royale National Park, which is actually an archipelago of over 200 islands; the main one is more than 45 miles long and nine miles at its widest. Transportation on the Great lake island is by foot over 165 miles of hiking trails, by sea kayak or sightseeing boat. Isle Royale is the most remote park in the system and the only one to close in winter. Located 73 miles off the Keweenaw Peninsula, it is accessible only by boat or seaplane and is closed from November to mid-April due to the difficulty of crossing the magnificent Lake Superior.

Lighthouses

Michigan lighthouses are stars of the shore, beacons of brilliance and luminaries of lore. More than 115 Great Lakes lighthouses form a stellar constellation along the Michigan coastline, guiding sailors and capturing imaginations. Some still shine for ships. Others share their stories with us first-hand as museums. As bed and breakfasts and as Michigan history in the making. So let Michigan lighthouses light our way. Because their gleaming legacy guides us to Pure Michigan.

Get a map of accessible Michigan lighthouses below are just a few

Belle Isle Lighthouse

Detroit River Lighthouse

William Livingstone Memorial Light

Grosse Ile North Channel Front Range Lighthouse

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