Fabulous Hidden Gems for Great Lakes Camping Skip to Content

Fabulous Hidden Gems for Great Lakes Camping

Please don't travel until it's safe to do so, and be sure to check with each state/destination for its current COVID-19 guidelines before planning a visit. Also, please note that this post may contain links from which we earn a small commission.

Looking forward to turning your camping dreams into a reality this year? The Great Lakes are an obvious escape for midwestern vacationers, but the campgrounds can be especially congested this time of year. Lucky for us, these lakes are ginormous, and it’s easy to get away from the crowds if you know where to look.

Get ready for sand-crusted swimsuits, reading by firefly light, and wet and wild adventures that can only be found in and around the greatest lakes on earth. Here are some hidden gems for Great Lakes camping that will help you escape the throngs and embrace your inner mermaid.

We’ve divided this Great Lakes camping list into a section for each of the Great Lakes: Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior. Click on a section in the table of contents to get there fast.

Great Lakes Camping on Lake Ontario

The last in the Great Lakes chain, Lake Ontario serves as the outlet to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence River. Lake Ontario is the only Great Lake not to border the state of Michigan. It is bordered by the Canadian province of Ontario and by New York State. Lake Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes by surface area. The name Ontario is derived from the Huron word Ontarí’io, which means “great lake”. The lake was a border between the Huron people and the Iroquois Confederacy.

Here are our favorite campgrounds on Lake Ontario in both New York and Canada.

Fair Haven Beach State Park: Fair Haven, New York

Fair Haven Beach State Park by Kyle Meddaugh via Flickr

Fair Haven Beach State Park features towering shoreline bluffs, 1,500 feet of sandy beach, and a diverse ecosystem with forests, ponds, creeks, and wetlands. The camping area is huge and spread out among three separate areas. Every manner of campsite is available, including cottages, camping cabins, electric sites, and non-electric sites.

The sandy beach is the main attraction, and the fishing in this part of the Lake (Little Sodus Bay) is fantastic. Campers can rent rowboats, paddle boats, canoes, and kayaks for use on Sterling Pond (not on Lake Ontario), and there’s even an 18-hole golf course. While this isn’t secluded primitive camping, we found the layout to be very private and family-friendly.

Camping rates at Fair Haven Beach State Park are between $18 and $28 per night. There are transient boat slip available as well. Pets are permitted in the campground and on the trails, but not on the life-guarded beach, buildings, or golf course.

What we love about Fair Haven Beach State Park: The camping cabins are really nice!
Something to consider: You can only swim when lifeguards are on duty.

Presqu’ile Provincial Park: Brighton, Ontario

Presqu'ile Provincial Park at sunset.
Presqu’ile Provincial Park by D. Brandsma on Flickr

If you’re looking for breathtaking views, miles of hiking and biking trails, and spacious campsites, you might want to visit Presqu’ile Provincial Park in Brighton, Ontario. Presqu’ile is also a birding hotspot, with 338 bird species recorded during spring and fall migrations, and 130 breeding species. Be sure to check out the marsh boardwalk trail, which takes visitors into the largest protected marsh on the north shore of Lake Ontario.

The camping season runs from April 30 to October 31, with more than 300 campsites in a variety of locations, including deep in the woods and right on the lakefront. Whether you seek a primitive spot away from your neighbors, full hook-ups for your RV, or glamping tent with basic amenities, you’ll find it at one of Presqu’ile Provincial Park’s eight campgrounds.

Presqu’ile Bay and marsh are sheltered enough to allow for paddling trips, and the whole of Presqu’ile Bay is fabulous for boats. Ranger-led programs are offered to both kids and adults throughout the summer.

What we love about Presqu’ile Provincial Park: Watching the sunset from the beach, or if you’re lucky, a waterfront campsite.
Something to consider: Bring your bikes so you can around this large park without having to drive everywhere.

Great Lakes Camping on Lake Erie

Welcome to Lake Erie, the southernmost, shallowest, and smallest lake by volume of all the Great Lakes. While being the shallowest Great Lake may not be a claim to fame, I will say that it makes for more pleasant swimming because the temperatures warm up faster in the spring. Lake Erie borders the Canadian province of Ontario to the north and the US states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan to the south, west, and east. Lake Erie’s fish populations are the most abundant of the Great Lakes, accounting for an estimated 50% of all fish inhabiting the Great Lakes.

Middle Bass Island State Park: Middle Bass Island, Ohio

Paddleboarding on Lake Erie near Middle Bass Island during the sunset.
Paddleboarding on Lake Erie near Middle Bass Island

Middle Bass Island is located just north of Put-in-Bay, part of the Lake Erie Islands in Ohio. While Put-In-Bay is a popular summer destination for tourists, the waterfront campsites on Middle Bass Island are less popular and incredibly scenic. Middle Bass and its neighboring Lake Erie islands are composed of dolomite bedrock. Underground caverns can be found on the island, as well as huge stands of red cedar and high numbers of migrating songbirds.

Overnight dockage is available at the marina, or you can reserve one of the walk-in primitive campsites for free between May 15th and Oct 15th. Bicycles, kayaks, and paddleboards available for rent at the Harbormaster building.

What we love about Middle Bass Island: You can leave your car behind and get around on bicycle, and the state park is on the grounds of a former winery.
How to get to Middle Bass Island: Passenger and auto service are available to Middle Bass Island from mainland Catawba. The scenic, 40-minute ferry ride is available several times a day during the summer months. The ferry is able to transport cars, but vehicle reservations are required. You can also ferry to Middle Bass Island from Put-in-Bay/South Bass Island via regularly scheduled ferry service between the Boardwalk dock and Middle Bass Island.

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Two Harbors, Minnesota

A lovely view of the distant Splitrock Lighthouse on Lake Superior.

No matter what recreational pleasure calls to you, you’ll find it at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on the rocky shores of Lake Superior. Hikers and backpackers can easily connect to the world-famous Superior Hiking Trail, a 296-mile footpath that follows Lake Superior’s wild and scenic shore.

The paved Gitchi Gami State Trail is a work-in-progress, but one that will eventually let you hop on your bike and cover 86 miles of shoreline from Twin Harbors all the way to Grand Marais. The famous Split Rock Lighthouse, built in 1909 after several tragic shipwrecks occurred near the rocky shoreline, is one of the most photographed lighthouse in the United States.

You’ll also find pristine, pebbly beaches, scenic waterfalls, and primitive, shoreside camping. Secluded backpacking, boat-in, and cart-in campsites are what make camping here so special. Each and every campsite is secluded and many are right on Lake Superior, with incredible views of the lake and her magical sunrises.

What we love about Split Rock Lighthouse State Park: Camping is available year-round!

Something to consider: There are no restaurants, gas stations, or stores nearby, so make sure you come prepared.

Fisherman’s Island State Park, Charlevoix, Michigan

A spit of land juts out into Lake Michigan at Fisherman's Island State Park
Fisherman’s Island State Park by Wade Morgen, CC BY-NC 2.0

Despite the fact that Fisherman’s Island no longer exists as an island, this tract of unspoiled Lake Michigan shoreline is still a ruggedly charming getaway for hikers, boaters, anglers, and lovers of wildlife. Characterized by lush forests, a plethora of native wildflowers, rolling sand dunes, and boggy wetlands, you could spend weeks exploring this conglomerate of incredible ecosystems, and bonus – this is one of the most beautiful campgrounds on Lake Michigan.

Rustic campsites, some nestled right in the dunes, are divided up between north and south units with a mile-long sandy beach between them for swimming and sunbathing. The swimming area is quite shallow, even if you venture far from shore, and the sandy bottom is easy on the feet, making this a perfect spot for families with youngins in tow. You may find crowds on the hottest of summer weekends, but the rest of the year, Fisherman’s Island is blissfully quiet camping on Lake Michigan.

What we loved about Fisherman’s Island State Park: Waterfront camping right on Lake Michigan!

Something to consider: According to locals, the beach here is a great spot to hunt for Petoskey and Charlevoix stones. We had no idea what we were looking for, so do your research ahead of time.

Big Bay State Park, La Pointe, Wisconsin

Big Bay State Park Great Lakes camping
Great Lakes camping at its best! Big Bay State Park

Located on Madeline Island, the largest of all the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, Big Bay State Park can only be reached by boat. If you don’t have access to one of your own, simply hop aboard the Madeline Island Ferry in Bayfield, for a 25-minute cruise across the lake, which will set the stage for your midwestern island vacation.

Once you arrive in La Pointe, it’s a 6-mile drive, walk, or bike ride to Big Bay State Park. You’ll be greeted by towering sandstone bluffs and an expansive sandy beach. This gorgeous Lake Superior campground is spacious and there’s plenty of privacy, especially at the walk-in campsites. Once settled, get busy exploring the miles of trails, quiet lagoons, hidden sea caves, and fabulously cold water of Lake Superior. It’s an island paradise if ever there was one.

What we love about Big Bay State Park: The sea caves are really cool. You can see them from the trail, or rent a kayak for a closer look.

Something to consider: Raccoons are a little too friendly.

Indiana Dunes National Park, Porter, Indiana

Great Lakes Camping - Indiana Sand Dunes National Park
Lovely views in Indiana Sand Dunes National Park

Just a stone’s throw from the metropolitan realm of Gary, Indiana, the spectacular Indiana Dunes National Park boasts some of the most biologically rich ecosystems in the nation. This 15,000-acre park on the shores of Lake Michigan contains more than 1,100 native plant species, world-class birding, and 50 miles of hiking trails.

Although the park sees a lot of visitors in every season, you’re always a short walk, swim, or paddle from total solitude. The Dunewood Campground takes reservations for roughly half of its 67 campsites and it’s the only choice for Indiana Dunes camping unless you head outside the park to a private campground.

The rest of the sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so claim your spot early to give yourself plenty of time for exploring. The 13-walk-in sites are prime real estate and worth every extra step you have to take to get there.

Dunewood Campground is totally forested, which is heavenly during the summer months.

What we loved about Indiana Sand Dunes National Lakeshore: Hiking along the dunes and the sandy beach.

Something to consider: Consider camping out here before or after the kids go back to school. It will make it much easier to get a spot.

South Manitou Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Glen Arbor Township, Michigan

South Manitou Island on Lake Michigan from the mainland.

First of all, if you haven’t been to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, it’s time to plan your trip. This incredible natural landscape makes quite an impact with its ginormous sand dunes, miles of sandy beaches, and great opportunities to get out on the water in various forms, including tubing, scuba diving, and paddling!

To escape the summer crowds and find totally secluded camping on Lake Michigan, you do have to put in a bit of work. South Manitou Island is only accessible by private boat or passenger ferry.  There are a few different camping options on South Manitou Island, but the most remote is the lovely Popple Campground, with only seven sites on the northern tip of the island. You do have to hike 3.5 miles from the ferry dock, but that first Lake Michigan sunrise will make it all worth it! 

If you want to skip the long hike and still pitch your tent near the beach, check out The Bay Campground, which is a short walk from the ferry dock. No matter which Lake Michigan campground you choose on South Manitou Island, be sure to bring your own water filtration system. There’s no potable water available.

What we loved about camping on South Manitou Island: Hiking through the massive cedar trees!

Something to consider: There’s lots of poison ivy on the island.

Ready to embrace everything you love about summer? These Great Lakes camping spots are sure to entice you with their beauty and solitude, and those massive lakes? They’ve been waiting for you to discover all of their secrets!


Need more midwestern vacation ideas? Check out these posts!


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Karen

Tuesday 18th of February 2020

I grew up in Michigan and went to grad school in Minnesota so some of these trips remind me of those times. Some I've been to but some of the places are new to me. You really chose wonderful lesser know places. Beautiful photos too.

Tara Schatz

Tuesday 18th of February 2020

Thanks, Karen! The outdoor experiences around the Great Lakes have been so satisfying and surprising for me. I was not familiar with the midwest at all a few years ago, now it's one of my favorite places!

JON COLBURN

Tuesday 11th of February 2020

Also, avoid stacking stones! It destroys microhabitats. https://witl.com/dnr-quit-stacking-rocks-up-north-youre-killing-stoneflies/

Tara Schatz

Tuesday 11th of February 2020

Thanks, Jon.

JJ Berman

Monday 14th of March 2016

As a Chicago native, I'm so sad I didn't see this most earlier. I've moved since then, but will definitely be using this list to make pack a little extra into my stays in Chicago.

Marette @ Floradise

Monday 14th of March 2016

I'm going to show this to my husband. We just moved to Chicago last year and don't really know where to camp. We are used to places in Arizona that don't have crowds. He'll love this!

[email protected]

Monday 14th of March 2016

Great options here!Bookmarking it:)