Chicago’s location on the shores of Lake Michigan makes it a great starting point for a circular road trip through the four US states that border the lake. As the only Great Lake that lies entirely within US borders, you can drive around the whole thing without having to do a border crossing into Canada. The driving distance around Lake Michigan is roughly 1,100 miles and will take about 15 hours without stopping. But of course, you will want to stop along the way, so it’s best to plan for about a week if you want to do the whole route!
You will pass through Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and a tiny bit of Indiana if you do the full road trip. However, it is possible to take shortcuts via car ferry between a couple of the stops on our list. You will also pass through small towns too numerous to mention here, so be sure to allow extra time to stop if you see something interesting. For those wanting a more outdoorsy trip, there are also several state parks and multiple opportunities for camping and outdoor pursuits around the lake.
Stop 1: Chicago
Some of the most popular things to do in Chicago are along Lake Michigan. If you are visiting during late spring, summer or early fall, the lakefront is a great place to spend time. There is Navy Pier, with its Ferris wheel and departure point for boat cruises. Millennium Park and Grant Park are just south of the pier bordering the lake and are a great way to spend a day. You can find the Art Institute of Chicago, Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum among the many things to do in the parks. There are also several beaches up and down the coast including Oak Street Beach, Montrose Beach, North Avenue Beach and Ohio Street Beach.
Stop 2: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Just over 90 miles up the road is the largest city in Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Known for its breweries (its baseball team is even called the Brewers!), the city on the shores of Lake Michigan has a lot more to offer than beer. You can take a break at Veterans Park or Lake Park and Bradford Beach. Or go to the Milwaukee Art Museum or Discovery World science museum both located right on the water. If you plan to stay overnight, be sure to check out some of the breweries, whether its the historic Pabst brewery or some new craft beer players.
Stop 3: Door Peninsula, Wisconsin
Door County, which includes the Door Peninsula and a couple of islands, sits between the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Its natural beauty is worth a detour between Milwaukee and Green Bay. You can go out on a kayak or take a boat tour to see the many lighthouses dotting the shores. Visit Whitefish Dunes State Park for the sand dunes, beaches and views across the water. Peninsula State Park is also a popular destination for hiking, biking, fishing, camping and more. Also, be sure to buy some cherries when they’re in season!
Stop 4: Green Bay, Wisconsin
This small city might be best known as being home of the Green Bay Packers NFL team, but its location on Green Bay and the fact that it’s the state’s oldest settlement makes it an interesting stop. Head to Heritage Hill State Park and step back into the 1600s. If you are traveling with kids, spend a few hours at Bay Beach Amusement Park located right on the water.
Stop 5: Mackinac Island, Michigan
It will take roughly 4.5 hours to drive between Green Bay and one of the towns where you can take a ferry to Mackinac Island. There are no cars allowed on the island, but you can take a ferry from either St. Ignace or Mackinaw City. While you can stay overnight on the island, it’s small enough that you can see a lot during a 1 day stop. You can explore via bike or carriage ride and visit Fort Mackinac, go hiking, eat at restaurants and try some of the fudge that the island is known for.
Note: If you want to shorten your journey and skip stops 5-7, you can take your car on the S.S. Badger ferry from Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan. The crossing takes roughly 4 hours and you must pay a vehicle fee, passenger fee and security fee. It’s also a good idea to book your spot ahead of time!
Stop 6: Petoskey, Michigan
The resort town of Petoskey is a nice stop if you like golf. The Crooked Tree Golf Club and Bay Harbor Golf Club are located just west of town. There are also beaches and a harbor, along with several hotels and resorts along the water if you want to stop for a night.
Stop 7: Traverse City, Michigan
Traverse City is known as the Cherry Capital of the USA, and home to the annual National Cherry Festival. But it also has beaches, the Dennos Museum Center with works by Inuit artists, a charming downtown and more. Clinch Park and West End Beach sit along the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay. East Bay Park also has a beach and hiking options.
Stop 8: Ludington, Michigan
This small town is where you can take the S.S. Badger Lake Michigan car ferry across the lake to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. This will shorten your loop around Lake Michigan if you don’t want to devote a lot of time to the road trip. While watching the ferry come and go is a local past time, there is also boating, fishing and many other recreational pursuits on offer in Ludington.
Stop 9: Muskegon, Michigan
If you like military history in a charming lakeside town, a stop in Muskegon is worth it. Both the USS Silversides Submarine Museum and USS LST 393 are located here. The latter is a WWII-era ship docked here that’s now a museum. Pere Marquette Park has a large white sand beach right on Lake Michigan, while Kruse Park offers a beach and elevated views over the water.
Stop 10: Indiana Dunes State Park
Indiana Dunes State Park is our only stop in Indiana and is less than an hour from Chicago. The state park combined with the Indiana Dunes National Park is known for miles of beaches where you can swim and partake in water sports, hiking, camping, nature reserves and much more. It’s a worthy last stop on an epic road trip!
Find the Perfect SIXT Rent a Car in Chicago
Start your road trip around Lake Michigan by booking a car rental with SIXT at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Choose a luxury or exotic car to see the sights in ultimate comfort and style. If you’re traveling with a group or with kids, a roomy SUV or passenger van are great options. And don’t forget to add GPS so you can keep your trip on track!