Blog Post Linda Coutant Mar 7, 2023

10 Great Lakes National Parks to Know and Love

The Great Lakes make up the largest freshwater system in the world. Can you name the national parks found near and along their shores? They preserve natural phenomena and cultural history distinctive to this portion of North America.

Isle Royale National Park – Michigan

This rugged, roadless island is the largest wilderness area in Michigan and one of the least visited and most remote national park sites in the country.

The Greenstone Ridge Trail, the longest and highest ridge on the island and access point for many of the campsites, is a popular trail to experience a cross-section of the park’s untamed habitat.

For years, NPCA has supported work to reestablish a thriving wolf population on the island, which restores balance and improves the health of the broader park ecosystem.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – Michigan

The park features the world’s largest collection of freshwater sand dunes, which rise up to 400 feet above the surface of Lake Michigan. They were sculpted by the advance and retreat of huge glaciers over the last 2 million years. The name comes from a Native legend of the Anishinaabek people about a mother bear and her two cubs.

The park’s 35-mile strip on the lake’s southeastern shore also includes beaches, forests and inland lakes. North and South Manitou Islands offer a more remote backcountry experience with ferry service daily to the islands to explore.

For more than a decade, the National Park Service has been trying to understand why shore birds been dying along this lakeshore. Using Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds, the Park Service has uncovered the root cause: the birds are eating fish and bottom dwellers that contain a poisonous bacteria left behind from algal blooms. Now, the Park Service is sharing solutions to the problem across the Great Lakes region.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park – Ohio

Cuyahoga is the Mohawk word meaning “crooked river.” The park preserves 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River and the mosaic of natural and man-made features surrounding it — including lush forests, rolling hills, wetlands, waterfalls, farm fields, historic buildings and dramatic rock ledges.

Decades before this Midwestern site officially became a national park, severe pollution in the river outraged and embarrassed the country, helping to spur the creation of the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency and Earth Day. The health of the river has improved significantly, and the park offers numerous recreational opportunities and even a scenic railroad for its millions of visitors each year.

NPCA has supported the authorization of federal funding such as the Inflation Reduction Act, America the Beautiful and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative so the features within the park can continue to be restored. Among them is Stanford Run, a stream that feeds the Cuyahoga that was once clogged with sediment and is now a free-flowing tributary.

Indiana Dunes National Park – Indiana

Just 35 miles outside of Chicago, this park includes more than 15,000 acres of sensitive dune lands, bird-filled marshes, oak and maple forests, and remnants of once-vast prairies.

Visitors have seen more than 350 species of birds, and researchers have found more than 90 endangered plant species within the park’s boundaries. You can hike along the dunes, swim in beautiful Lake Michigan, climb Mt. Baldy or explore the wonders of Pinhook Bog — a wonderful taste of wilderness remarkably close to a major urban center.

NPCA’s advocacy includes bringing students to the Cowles Bog, a 4,000-year-old wetland within the park’s Great Marsh, to learn about and help with the bog’s restoration. So far, more than 200 students have participated, while also learning how to advocate for the spaces they love back home.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – Wisconsin

During the Ice Age, huge glaciers advanced and retreated through this region of Wisconsin, sculpting the sandstone bedrock and enlarging channels between what would become the park’s 21 islands in Lake Superior.

Today, the lakeshore lies within a transitional zone where boreal and northern forests meet, offering visitors ample opportunities to hike and paddle among the beaches, sandstone cliffs, caves, islands and woods. The park, which includes a 12-mile segment along Wisconsin’s north coast, provides habitat for nesting and migratory birds, and a variety of mammals, amphibians and fish.

One of the most noted and rare mammals making a comeback on the islands is the American marten. This furry weasel was thought to be extinct since the 1930s until work by NPCA and the Park Service through the Great Lakes Restoration funds discovered otherwise. Learn more.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – Michigan

Nestled along Lake Superior’s southern shoreline on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this remote park is a geologic wonder of colorful sandstone cliffs topped with stately pines, and miles of quiet, unspoiled beaches strewn with agate, jasper and quartz.

Stroll along the coast, hike quiet trails to the park’s historic lighthouse, and take a boat tour or a group kayak tour to marvel at the mineral-rich rock faces that tower 200 feet above the surface of the lake.

Research at Pictured Rocks funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is revealing more about what lives and lies on the bottom of these lakes. We now know where lake trout are reproducing, what areas need protection from aquatic invasive species, and where historic structures once thought to be lost in the depths are located.

Grand Portage National Monument – Minnesota

Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota marks the spot where fur trading flourished in the 1700s among the French, English and Ojibwe people. It is the only park in the Midwest co-managed with a Tribal government — the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa — and is a successful model for collaboration.

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding has united European and Indigenous cultures through educational offerings at the monument, such as demonstrations in cooking, beading, canoe building and more.

Keweenaw National Historic Park – Michigan

Keweenaw National Historic Park on the coast of Lake Superior preserves the history of 7,000 years of copper mining in the U.S.

Through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Park Service has cleaned up contaminants and restored one of the historic copper smelter sites so it could be opened to the public.

River Raisin National Battlefield Park – Michigan

This park site along Lake Erie preserves and interprets devastating battles of the War of 1812 and their aftermath. These include the greatest victory for Tecumseh’s American Indian confederation against the U.S. government.

Like other parks in the Great Lakes region, River Raisin is eligible for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding to protect its landscapes and wildlife.

Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial – Ohio

This park also honors a War of 1812 battle — Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over a British fleet. This achievement gave Americans control of Lake Erie and its important trade access and, as a result, much of the Northwest.

The park also celebrates the long-lasting peace among Great Britain, Canada and the U.S. The Park Service has been working to combat non-native species in the park.

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About the author

  • Linda Coutant Staff Writer

    As staff writer on the Communications team, Linda Coutant manages the Park Advocate blog and coordinates the monthly Park Notes e-newsletter distributed to NPCA’s members and supporters.