Lake Towns to Love

Embrace the Lake Life in America’s Heartland
Liv Martin

Midwesterners know that few things can beat a good day on the lake. While you’re likely familiar with the Great Lakes—five incredible bodies of water that you can access from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio—the Midwest is sprinkled with dozens of equally majestic lakes and nearby towns that embody the laidback lake life culture we know and love.

Whether you’re planning a spring trip filled with snow-inspired activities or thinking ahead to a summer excursion with boating, fishing and water-skiing, these charming lakeside towns will not disappoint. And you can rest easy knowing that visiting lake and indulging in nature makes for one of the most COVID-safe and socially distant options for you and your family—as if you needed any more convincing to take a well-deserved vacation.

Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin
Wilmot Mountain. Photo: Travel Wisconsin.

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Nestled in picturesque Walworth County, Wisconsin, not far from the Illinois border, is the inviting resort town of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The area, which features the 5,401-acre Geneva Lake, beautiful bluffs and historic homes, is a cherished vacation spot for residents of nearby cities like Madison, Chicago and Milwaukee. It’s not hard to see why: Lake Geneva has fun activities fit for every season.

In warmer weather, enjoy swimming at one of the many public beaches of Geneva Lake, camp at Big Foot Beach State Park or see incredible views of the summer sky at Yerkes Observatory, home of the worlds largest refracting telescope.

In the winter and spring, Lake Geneva transforms into a cold-weather adventure-filled destination. Winter sports aficionados can head to the Mountain Top at Grand Geneva or Wilmot Mountain for skiing or snowboarding. Or take your family to the immersive ice castle experience, where you can see hundreds of thousands of icicles hand-placed by professional ice artists to create sculptures, frozen thrones, ice-carved tunnels, slides and fountains.

At any time of year, locals and visitors enjoy walking stretches of the 26-mile path around Geneva Lake, which features up-close looks at historic estates, one-of-a-kind architecture and stunning gardens.

Arnolds Park in Okoboji Iowa
Arnolds Park. Photo: Iowa Tourism Office.

Okoboji, Iowa

Dubbed the home of Iowa’s very own “Great Lakes,” the city of Okoboji is a major Midwest tourism hub. Summer travelers flock to the area for beach days at Spirit Lake (Iowa’s largest natural lake) and five interconnecting lakes: West Okoboji, East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Lower Gar and Lake Minnewashta. Spending time out on the water is a top priority for vacationers and locals alike. Rent a pontoon, paddleboards, water bikes, kayaks or canoes; go on a guided fishing expedition; or soak up the sun at Ainsworth-Orleans Beach, Arnolds Park Public Beach or Terrace Park Beach to get the full Okobojiexperience.

Back on land, head to the family-friendly attractions at Arnolds Park, a charming amusement park that features a famous wooden roller coaster, an impressive lake view from the Ferris wheel and a boardwalk perfect for summer strolls. If you have some more downtime, visit some of the area’s many small museums (including a well-loved classic car museum, a rock n’ roll museum and a 19th-century cabin where the Spirit Lake Massacre took place), or stop by the local orchards, breweries and wineries. If you need an escape to nature during your visit, there are many great state parks in close proximity to Okoboji, including Elinor Bedell, Emerson Bay, Gull Point, Marble Beach, Mini-Wakan, Orleans Beach and Pikes Point.

Torch Lake in Northern Michigan
Torch Lake. Photo: Keith Klosterman/Adobe

Traverse City, Michigan

Craving a blissful, nature-filled escape? Look no further than Northern Michigan. Near Traverse City lies an incredible 75-mile stretch of picturesque waterways. The Elk River Chain of Lakes is comprised of 14 lakes and the rivers that connect them, before the waterway eventually empties into Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. This scenic area of the Midwest is chock-full of enjoyable ways to fill your precious vacation time. Larger lakes in the chain, like the 18-mile Torch Lake, are popular destinations for sailing, windsurfing, water-skiing, canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding. The chain of lakes also offers plenty of different fishing opportunities.

The area is home to a wide array of fish species (154 to be exact), from Atlantic salmon in Torch Lake to rainbow trout in Green Lake and walleye in Six Mile Lake. The watershed also includes 138 miles of designated Blue Ribbon trout streams. If you want to view nature in action, there are many parks and wildlife areas nearby, such as Otsego State Park, Maple Bay Natural Area and Petobego Wildlife Management Area. During the colder months, this region is brimming with activities like ice fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice boating. If you’re staying for a longer visit, spend a day visiting the historic fishing town of Leland, Michigan, just a 35-minute drive from Traverse City.

Mile Lacs Lake in Minnesota
Father Hennepin State Park. Photo: Explore MInnesota.

Mille Lacs, Minnesota

Mille Lacs—French for “a thousand lakes”—is a favorite spot for vacationers who love recreation. The area is great for ATV rides, as it has the largest connected ATV trail system in the Midwest. Cycling along the 11-mile Soo Line Trail, which connects the Mille Lacs Kathio and Father Hennepin state parks, also makes for a pleasant ride. Mountain biking nearby on the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area’s 30miles of world-class trails is also a popular pastime for many outdoor recreation lovers in the region.

On the lake itself, which is the second-largest inland lake in Minnesota and stretches more than 200 square miles, vacationers love to kayak, canoe, kiteboard and kite surf. Hunters are also drawn to this area for its abundance of deer, grouse and duck at designated public hunting zones like Mille Lacs WildlifeManagement Area, Aitkin Wildlife Management Area, Wealthwood State Forest and Ripple RiverWildlife Management Area. But, Mille Lacs is probably best known in Minnesota for its superb fishing opportunities in every season. When the lake freezes over, it becomes a haven for ice fishing. And once the warm weather hits, the lake draws fishing enthusiasts from near and far to catch a bounty of different fish, like walleye, muskie, northern pike and bass.

No matter which lake town you and your family decide to visit, there are endless opportunities for relaxation and fun. Most importantly, these jewels of the Midwest can be enjoyed safely and provide lasting memories with loved ones.