With thousands of beaches basking on their hems, there’s plenty of choice when it comes to great spots to swim, sunbathe and spend days on the Great Lakes. We’ve picked 20 of the best — from those packed with people to ones you’ll have all to yourself. So whether you’re looking for the softest sands, the best boardwalk or the perfect place to picnic, party or play in the water, dive in and explore the beaches of the Great Lakes.
With a surface area of more than 59,000 square kilometres, rugged Lake Huron, called La Mer Douce — the calm sea — by early French explorers, is the second-largest Great Lake. Its eastern portion, Georgian Bay, which comprises a quarter of the whole, is sometimes referred to as the sixth Great Lake. Its 30,000 islands (allegedly thrown in a rage by Huron god Kitchikewana) dot the waters of this summer playground.
Bruce Peninsula, Ontario
This 11-kilometre beauty on the west side of the Bruce Peninsula has delightfully warm water (in summer, anyway), swathes of pristine, sugary sand and many amenities, including volleyball and an abundance of eateries.
Bayfield, Grand Bend, The Pinery
Lambton Shores, Ontario
It’s hard to pick between these adjacent south Lake Huron beaches: choose from clear, safe waters and incredible sunsets, with nearby food and drinks at Bayfield; opt for Grand Bend’s busy North Beach at the end of the town’s Main Street or quiet, kid-friendly South Beach; or decide on a complete change of scenery and go south to The Pinery Provincial Park, home to the world’s third-largest active sand-dune ecosystem. Adored by campers, there are eight kilometres of beach, plus boardwalk access.
Lion’s Head Beach
Bruce Peninsula, Ontario
Halfway up the Bruce Peninsula, on Isthmus Bay, Lion’s Head is the beach for canoeing and kayaking. With the famous craggy, lion-shaped granite formation that gives the family-friendly beach (and town) its name and incredible turquoise waters, it’s a breathtaking place to take to the water.
Killbear Provincial Park
Nobel, Georgian Bay, Ontario
Some of the best swimming in Georgian Bay can be found along these three kilometres of sandy and smooth-rock shoreline, west of Parry Sound. Camp with a beach view under the pines and get to the water as the sun rises.
Awenda Provincial Park
Penetanguishene, Georgian Bay, Ontario
Tucked beneath Nipissing Bluff on the tip of Penetanguishene Peninsula, this sand, cobble and boulder stretch of Methodist Point Bay is a great swimming, snorkelling or canoeing spot.
Georgian Bay Islands National Park, Ontario
Hop on a water taxi at Honey Harbour to get to the east side of this eight-kilometre-long island (the largest in the park), where you’ll find sandy beaches, cobalt waters, tent and cabin camping and, if you’re not careful, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes.
The shoreline of the smallest Great Lake by surface area is shared by Ontario, New York and Pennsylvania. Named for the Iroquois word for “beautiful lake,” Lake Ontario boasts a variety of beaches, from rugged and remote, to utterly urban.
Prince Edward County, Ontario
Famed for its incredible 25-metre white sand dunes, this Prince Edward County trio (Outlet, Sandbanks and Dunes beaches) offers Lake Ontario’s best sands. Not only can you laze on the beach, splash in the waves, windsurf or sail, you can then retire to an adjacent winery, cidery or even gin-ery or one of the region’s fine restaurants.
Tucked far away from the tread of most tourists — and with a great city view — Hanlan’s Point is one of only two official clothing-optional beaches in Canada, and its sands are always crammed with crowds of LGBT folks sunning, swimming, picnicking and partying.
The tide has turned for this industrial stretch of Toronto lakefront, now home to Canada’s first “intentional industrial beach.” Sun worshippers lounge on Muskoka chairs on white sands under pink umbrellas and watch sailboats and island ferries crisscross the water.
The fact that it’s not as accessible as other east-end beaches means this stunning spot at the base of the Scarborough Bluffs is rarely crowded. Other reasons to go include the wide stretch of soft sand, great swimming waters, adjacent grilling spots and that dramatic backdrop.
The shallowest, and therefore warmest, of the Great Lakes is a slow-paced wonderland of faded beach towns. Shared by Ontario, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, Lake Erie’s beach scenery runs the gamut from gentle sweeping sands, to gravel and boulders.
Norfolk County, Ontario
A sudden change of scenery along the gentle curve of Lake Erie, Long Point juts two kilometres into the lake’s shallow warm waters and offers soft sands, dunes, change rooms and showers.
Presque Isle State Park
Presque Isle is a near crescent-shaped peninsula, 10 kilometres long, with 11 popular swimming areas. Start with Beach 1 for people-watching, take time out at Pine Tree Beach, and swim in the shallow waters at Beach 11.
Pelee Island, Ontario
A secluded gem that takes some effort to get to, this quiet, brown-sand delight nestles on the east coast of Canada’s most southerly point. After admiring the spectacular sunsets, sample whatever you picked up from the island wineries earlier.
Lake Superior is the largest — and quietest — of the Great Lakes. Its shores are in Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and you’ll probably have most of them all to yourself.
Sand Point Beach
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising, Michigan
Sand Point Beach is a tiny, protected beach with intense emerald-green waters that’s part of the vast Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore — famed for its red rocks.
A stunning 18-kilometre city beach on the Minnesota Point sand spit that separates Lake Superior from Duluth Harbour, Park Point is the longest freshwater sandbar in the world.
Terrace Bay Beach
For an invigorating swim, sail or kayak with views of the Slate Islands Provincial Park (formed by a meteor strike), Terrace Bay Beach, the “gem of the north,” has a gorgeous scattering of small beaches.
Stockton Island, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
You’ll have to take to the water before you even reach this superb red beach, with its wind- and wave-sculpted sand features and sand bridges; go by kayak or with Apostle Island Cruises (apostleisland.com).
The only Great Lake that the US has all to itself, Lake Michigan’s northern parts are sparsely populated and forested, while the southern shores are densely inhabited and industrial.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Traverse City, Michigan
An awe-inspiring spot with spectacular sand dunes you can trek up, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore stretches 60 kilometres. It’s actually dozens of beaches in one, with a variety of sand textures, fossilized coral and splashy creeks. Try Glen Haven Beach for starters.
Oval Beach, the Provincetown of the Midwest, has a clothing-optional beach and an adjacent gay resort, the Dunes (dunesresort.com). The spectacular dunes tower more than 60 metres above four kilometres of pristine, sandy shoreline.
Kathy Osterman Beach
Also known as Hollywood Beach and the gay beach, Kathy Osterman Beach is part of Chicago’s 42-kilometre lakefront trail. At the northernmost tip of Lincoln Park, it is one of the quietest city beaches and has a café and bar.