The Great Lakes of North America are a series of large interconnected freshwater lakes in the upper mid-east region of North America that connect to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence River. The five lakes are Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Though the five lakes lie in separate basins, they form a single, naturally interconnected body of fresh water within the Great Lakes Basin. From the interior to the outlet at the Saint Lawrence River, water flows from Lake Superior to Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, southward to Lake Erie and finally northward to Lake Ontario. The lakes drain a large watershed via the many rivers. There are also several thousand smaller lakes, often called “inland lakes” within the basin.
Lake Michigan is the only one of the Great Lakes that is entirely within the United States; the other four form a water boundary with Canada. The lakes are divided among the jurisdictions of the Canadian province of Ontario and the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Both the province of Ontario and the state of Michigan include in their boundaries portions of four of the lakes. New York and Wisconsin’s jurisdictions extend into two lakes and each of the remaining states into one of the lakes.
Lake Superior, the largest by area, covers 31,700 square miles. Located above Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it is the biggest freshwater lake in the world. More than 30 lighthouses stand along the beaches, some of which offer unique bed and breakfast experiences.
Lake Huron, the second largest by area, covers 23,007 square miles. With the longest shorelines of all the Great Lakes, it is renowned for its beaches, dunes, wetlands, forests and extensive river systems. The shoreline of the Lower Peninsula is referred to as the “Sunrise Side” because of the stunning sunrises viewed over the water. The bright turquoise waters invite you to explore all that Lake Huron has to offer.
Lake Michigan, the third largest by area, covers 22,404 square miles. Its expansive shoreline boasts stunning dunes, reaching as high as 450 feet above the lake. There are 59 lighthouses that stand as reminders of the importance of the centuries-old shipping industry. A trip isn’t complete without dipping your toes into the fresh water and watching a “Pure Michigan” sunset.
Lake Erie, the fourth largest by area, covers 9,910 square miles. It has played an important role in transportation to the upper Great Lakes region and was the site of many pivotal battles in the War of 1812. It is known for its sport fishing, particularly of walleye and yellow perch as well as hiking trails, wildlife viewing and lakefront campsites.
Lake Ontario, the smallest by area, covers 7,340 square miles. The diversity of habitats surrounding the lake includes sand dunes, forests, wetlands and rocky cliffs, each providing home to thousands of plant and animal species. It is an ecological wonder. The lake provides drinking water to more than nine million people.
Sprinkled throughout the lakes are the approximately 35,000 Great Lakes islands, including Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, the largest island in any inland body of water and Isle Royale in Lake Superior, the largest island in the largest lake (each island is large enough to contain multiple lakes). The five lakes together account for one-fifth of the freshwater surface on the planet at six quadrillion gallons. Nearly 150 fish species are considered native to the lakes.
America’s Great Lakes are a little known, unspoiled wonderland, boasting diverse natural beauty, scenic wildlife and some of the most interesting cities in North America.
From their outstanding beauty to historic cities and a deep connection to nature, the Great Lakes are an undiscovered treasure, boasting stunning national parks best explored by way of tranquil kayaking and hiking. This area is also rich in culture with world-class museums, vibrant cities and areas steeped in First Nations traditions.
Exploring the Great Lakes of North America on a small ship cruise is a growing interest at this time. Call your local travel advisor to learn which adventure best fits your needs — a small ship cruise adventure or a land adventure of the Great Lakes.