Plus, the scenic Lake Michigan Water Trail has campsites every 10 miles.

By Alison Fox
March 19, 2021
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Adventure-seeking boaters can set out on a 1,600-mile journey complete with hiking opportunities, camping, and more — and they don't even have to leave the Midwest to do it.

The Lake Michigan Water Trail, first created in 2011, allows travelers to paddle through pristine nature — complete with sand dunes and marshes — to the hustle and bustle of Chicago while traversing four different states with various access points: Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. Once complete, the trail will be the longest continuous-loop water trail, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.

Lake Michigan from Wisconsin shoreline
Credit: Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

"The Lake Michigan Water Trail is one of the best ways to explore our coastline here in Wisconsin," Mary Monroe Brown, the director of the Wisconsin Office of Outdoor Recreation, told Travel + Leisure, adding, "paddlers can explore historic lighthouses, shipwrecks, dunes and beaches along the way. With campsites every 10 miles, multi-day excursions are a great way to explore this part of our state."

Lake Michigan from Wisconsin shoreline
Credit: Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, outdoor enthusiasts can take a break from the water to see the Two Creeks Buried Forest, a 10,000-year-old pine forest preserved by glacial activity. Wisconsin's portion of the water trail is complete with 525 miles running up the coast around the Door County peninsula all the way up to the northeastern border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Lake Michigan from Wisconsin shoreline
Credit: Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

While in Illinois, the water trail moves through more than six miles of secluded coastline at the Illinois Beach State Park before making its way south to the city of Chicago (don't forget to stop for some deep dish pizza while you're there). Paddlers will be treated to views of coastal bluffs as well as the iconic Windy City skyline.

A total of 75 miles of shoreline from Chicago to New Buffalo, Mich., has been designated a National Recreational Water Trail by the National Park Service, according to the Illinois Coastal Management Program, while Michigan has designated most of its shoreline as Regional Water Trails.

Beyond the lake itself, each of these Midwestern states has an abundance of hiking trails, from the Indiana Dunes National Park that hugs the lake to Michigan's 42-mile North Country National Scenic Trail.

Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.