Last updated: 02:45 PM ET, Mon July 20 2015

The Third Coast: America's Best Freshwater Beaches

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | July 20, 2015

The Third Coast: America's Best Freshwater Beaches

PHOTO: Sunrise on Lake Michigan, part of the majestic "Third Coast." (Courtesy of Thinkstock)

Summertime is beach season, and when it comes to sandy destinations in the U.S., the coasts rule. After Memorial Day, Americans start dreaming about vacations in spots like the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, the Outer Banks, Malibu, Big Sur, and so on.

It might seem surprising, then, that there is one thing missing from many of America’s most popular summertime beaches: salt water.

A third coast?

Stretching from Minnesota to New York, the Great Lakes are among the world’s largest bodies of fresh water. Lake Superior is the second biggest lake on earth. Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario are all among the top 15 in terms of size.

These salt-less seas are large enough to accommodate ocean-going cargo ships and a growing number of cruise ships as well. During a storm, the conditions can be as dangerous as on a sea. And though swimming season is short at these northern latitudes, beach towns on all five lakes draw tourists who do the same things that they would be doing if they were visiting Virginia Beach or San Diego.

It’s no wonder that some people refer to the Great Lakes as the “Third Coast.”

Another side of small-town America

Racine, Wisconsin is home to North Beach. During the summer, this modest-sized Midwestern town on Lake Michigan becomes a haven for beach-goers. North Beach has 50 acres of sand spread over a half mile of shoreline. Vendors are on hand between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and a concert series is held during the peak season as well.

Some Great Lakes destinations make people feel like they have found a “secret” spot. An example of this is Michigan’s Empire Beach. People who venture here won’t find hordes of beach-goers. Empire is in the middle of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a 35-mile stretch of lakefront with dunes that reach up to 400 feet tall.

Sleeping Bear-33

Photo via Flickr/wsilver

Vacationers come here for sailing, sunning and stand-up paddle-boarding. These beach experiences come with a dose of Midwestern charm (which is a good thing or a bad thing depending on who you ask). You won’t find large scale resorts or nightclubs, but there are plenty of motels and quaint bed-and-breakfasts. Small-town non-chain restaurants dominate the dining scene.

Freshwater surfing

Empire does have something that is usually only associated with salt water. When storms take place on Lake Michigan, high winds can cause the waves to whip up to a surfable height. Surfers won’t be able to drop into barrels on the Great Lakes, but the waves are often good, and there is no need to worry about ocean hazards like sharks and jellyfish. 

The Wisconsin town of Sheboygan is a freshwater surf city where you can find two dozen surfers in the line-up on any given day.

Port cities

It is even possible to find a full seaside experience on the Third Coast. Duluth, a port city in Minnesota, has a sand-covered point that stretches out into Lake Superior. The water is cold here, except in the shallows, but there is a lakefront shopping and dining area, and a place to watch the huge cargo ships carrying iron ore from the state’s mines.

Urban beaches

The Lakes are probably best known for their urban beach experiences. The sands in Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo might not earn comparisons with Waikiki and South Beach, but during the summertime, they are certainly buzzing just like their oceanside peers.

Chicago’s Oak Street Beach sits right in the shadow of the iconic downtown skyline. The North Avenue Beach, meanwhile, has been compared to Venice Beach because of the way it draws fitness buffs and volleyball players.

Days of Summer - 12st Street Beach

Photo via Flickr/NVitkus

So whether you are looking to do some people-watching on a city beach, surf and play on the dunes in an out-of-the-way stretch of sand or enjoy a classic beach-and-boardwalk experience in a small town, salt water really isn't a necessary ingredient for your vacation. 

For more information on Michigan, Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota

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