Lake Michigan, United States: The Great Water

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Lake Michigan is the fourth largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world, after Lake Superior, Lake Victoria and Lake Huron. It is part of the Great Lakes, and is the only one of the 5 lakes located entirely in the United States, with the other 4 being shared by the United States and Canada.

Lake Michigan Stats

Lake NameLake Michigan
CountryUnited States
Surface area57726.840
Maximum depth281.0
Average depth84.2
Lake typeGlacial
Catchment area176006.40
InflowsPere Marquette, Manistee, Muskegon, White, Kalamazoo
Shore length2862.67
Mixing typeDimictic
SettlementsChicago, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Waukegan, Evanston
Residence time29956.0
FrozenDecember to March
Average discharge1877.753
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Geography and Hydrology

Lake Michigan is the second largest of the Great Lakes by volume, and the third largest by surface area. The US states at its shores are Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. The name of the lake is thought to originate in from the Ojibwa word "mishigami", which means "great water".

Lake Michigan is divided in two sections, the northern basin and the southern basin, by the Milwaukee Reef, which runs under the lake from somewhere between Milwaukee and Racine to a spot between Grand Haven and Muskegon.

Each of the 2 basins has a clockwise flow of water, which is the result of winds, rivers, and of the Coriolis effect. The surface water is moved eastwardly by westerly winds, which means that the climate of western Michigan is milder. Mean differences in summer temperatures between the Michigan and Wisconsin shores are between 2 - 5 degrees Celsius (or 5 - 10 degrees Fahrenheit). There are around 100 streams that flow into the lake, but most of them are small. The most important rivers which flow into the lake from the East include Pere Marquette, Manistee, Muskegon, White, Kalamazoo, Grand, and St. Joseph. The Menominee and Fox rivers flow into the Green Bay, in the northwestern section of the lake.

The Chicago River used to flow into the lake, but its course was reversed in 1900, and now it flows into Des Plaines River.  

Even though Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are generally considered as 2 distinct lakes, they are hydrologically the same body of water, which is called Michigan-Huron. If the 2 lakes were counted together, they would form the largest body of freshwater in the world by surface area. They are divided by the Mackinac Strait, which is 8 kilometers (5 miles) in width. The Mackinac Bridge, which crosses the strait, is generally acknowledged as the line that separates the 2 lakes.

Lake Michigan is part of the Great Lakes Waterway, as is Lake Huron. Early maps of the region sometimes referred to the lake as Lake Illinois.

Highest Water Level

Water level in the lakes varies from month to month, with the highest level usually happening during the summer. The summer of 1986 recorded the highest water level, at 1.8 meters (or 5.92 ft) above datum. The record is held by Lake Huron as well. The record water levels were actually constant throughout an entire year, from February 1986 to January 1987.

Lowest Water Level

Water levels are the lowest during the winter. The lowest level ever recorded happened in the winter of 1964, when Lake Michigan reached 0.42 (or 1.38 feet) meters below datum. Again, low levels were constant throughout an entire year, from February 1964 to January 1965.

The lowest mean water level happened in January 2013, at 175.6 meters (576.2 feet). Both of the lakes were 0.74 meters (or 29 inches) below the long-term average. A combination of lack of snow and extremely hot and dry conditions in the summer of 2012 are thought to have caused this.

Millions of people that live the Great Lakes’ basin are dependant on the lakes as suppliers of drinking water. State and provincial governments which are at the lakes’ shore administrate the valuable resource.

The Largest Lake in the World Located Entirely in a Single Country

With a size of 58,000 square kilometers (22,400 square miles), Lake Michigan is the largest lake in the world by surface area located entirely in a single country. It is also the 5th largest lake in the world, and the 4th largest freshwater lake in the world. Its length is 494 kilometers (307 miles) and its width is 190 kilometers (118 miles). It has a shoreline of 2,640 kilometers, or 1,640 miles. It has an average depth of 85 meters (279 feet), a maximum depth of 281 meters, and a total water volume of 4,918 cubic kilometers (or 1,180 cubic miles).

Lake Michigan’s largest bay is Green Bay, on the northwestern side of the lake. Another bay worth mentioning is Grand Traverse Bay.

Lake Connections and Shipping

The Great Lakes were open to ocean-going ships by the Great Lakes Waterway and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Container ships that are very wide do not fit through the locks, so shipping has its limits on the Great Lakes. Also, most shipping is interrupted during the winter, because large sections of the Great Lakes freeze.

The Great Lakes are also connected to the Gulf of Mexico by the Illinois Waterway via the Illinois River and the Mississippi River. An alternative route is to the Mississippi River via the Illinois River, up the Ohio, and then through the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and Mobile Bay to the Gulf. Both these waterways are of great commercial importance.

Lake Michigan is a major shipping node, as all are the other Great Lakes. In 2002 alone, 162 million tons of goods were transported on the lakes. The most important of them include iron ore, grain, and potash. However, during the past few years, the total amount of shipping on the Great Lakes has been on a downward trend.

Recreation ships can navigate the Great Lakes via the Erie Canal and Hudson River. The Erie Canal connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario in Buffalo, New York, at the eastern end of Lake Erie and in Oswego, New York, at Lake Ontario’s southern end.


Lake Michigan has many great beaches. As a matter of fact, the region is also called the "Third Coast" of the United States, after the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Many of the beaches are made of very soft sands, which are also called "singing sands", because they create squeaking noises due to their high quartz content.

The western and northernmost coasts mostly have rocky beaches, with occasional sandy beaches as well. In contrast, the eastern and southern coasts have sandy, dune-covered, beaches. The lakeside beaches in northern Michigan are the only place in the world where you would find Petoskey stones.

Let’s not forget the great city on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago. The city’s waterfront features many beaches, parks, marinas and harbors, as well as residential developments. The shoreline is protected from erosion with the help of revetments made out of stone or concrete. The Chicago lakefront is walkable, with many beaches, parks, and marinas.

Lake Michigan’s waters are clear and cool, ranging in temperature between 12 and 27 degrees Celsius (or 55 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit). There is also a flow of warmer water during the summer, because of westerly winds which move the surface water towards the east.

Dune Formations

There are also many high sand dunes, which are covered in grass or sand cherries. As a matter of fact, the eastern shore of Lake Michigan is home to the world’s largest freshwater dune system. There are also many locations along the shoreline where dunes rise to several hundred feet above the lake, many of them in state or national parks and national forests in Indiana and Michigan. Some of these parks include the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Warren Dunes State Park, Saugatuck Dunes State Park, PJ Hoffmaster State Park,  Ludington State Park, Silver Lake State Park, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Smaller dunes are located on the western shore, at Illinois Beach State Park, while medium-sized dunes are located in Point Beach State Forest and Kohler Andre State Park, in Wisconsin. Another large dune is located in the Whitefish Dunes State Park, in Wisconsin.


The Hopewell Indians were some of the earliest inhabitants in the Lake Michigan region. Starting with 800 AD their culture declined, and was replaced by the Late Woodland Indians for the next few hundred years.

It was in the early 17th century when Europeans reached the region for the first time, and they encountered direct descendants of the Late Woodland Indians: The Chippewa, Menominee, Fox, Sauk, Miami, Winnebago, Potawatomi, and Ottawa. Jean Nicolet, a French explorer, is credited as the first European to reach the shores of Lake Michigan, in 1634 or 1638.

The Straits of Mackinac served as an important waypoint on the Native American and fur trade route. Mackinaw City in Michigan, on the southern side of the straits, is the site of Fort Michilimackinac, a French fort which was founded in 1715. On the northern side of the straits st. Ignace, Michigan is located, which was founded in 1671 and was the site of a French Catholic mission to the Indians. Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, a British colonial and early American military base which was founded in 1871, used to control the eastern end of the Straits.

In the late 17th century, Lake Michigan became an important part of the line of waterways which connected the Saint Lawrence River to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. Small ports and trading communities, like Green Bay, were established here by the French in the between the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The boundary of the new state of Illinois was adjusted 60 miles to the North in 1818. This was done specifically to include the shore of the lake in the state’s boundary. If this hadn’t happened, Chicago would not have been located in Illinois.

The American limnologist Jeffrey Val Klump was the first person to reach the bottom of Lake Michigan in 1985, with the Johnson Sea Link-II submersible. He was also the first person to reach the deepest point of Lake Superior, which is the lowest point in the United States.

Mark Holley, professor of underwater archeology at the Northwestern Michigan College, discovered a row of stones parallel to an ancient shoreline in 2007. The interesting formation is beneath 12 meters (40 feet) of water, and one of the stones has a carving that resembles a mastodon.

Cities on Lake Michigan

Everyone has heard of the biggest city on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago. Another important metro area is Milwaukee. In total, 12 million people live on the shores of Lake Michigan, many of them in these 2 metro areas. The most important cities on the shores of Lake Michigan are:

Illinois: Chicago (2.7 million), Waukegan (89,000), Evanston (75,400), North Chicago (32,500), Highland Park (30,000), Wilmette (27,000), Lake Forest (19,000), Winnetka (12,200), Glencoe (8,700)

Indiana: Hammond (81,000), Gary (80,300), Portage (37,000), Michigan City (31,500), East Chicago (29,700)

Michigan: Muskegon (38,500), Holland (33,000), Norton Shores (24,000), Traverse City (14,700), Escanaba (12,700), Grand Haven (10,500), Benton Harbor (10,000), Menominee (8,600), St. Joseph (8,400), Ludington (8,100), Manistee (6,200), Petoskey (5,700), Gladstone (5,000), South Haven (4,400), Manistique (3,100), Ferrysburg (2,900), Charlevoix (2,500)

Wisconsin: Milwaukee (600,000), Green Bay (104,000), Kenosha (99,200), Racine (79,000), Sheboygan (49,300), Manitowoc (33,700), Mequon (23,100), South Milwaukee (21,200), Cudahy (18,300), Whitefish Bay (14,100), Shorewood (13,100), Two Rivers (11,700), Port Washington (11,300), Sturgeon Bay (9,100), Fox Point (6,700), Oconto (4,500), Algoma (3,200), Kewaunee (3,000).


Lake Michigan can be crossed from its western to its eastern shore with the SS Badger, a ferry that runs from Manitowoc in Wisconsin to Ludington in Michigan. Lake Michigan’s high speed ferry, The Lake Express, runs from Milwaukee in Wisconsin to Muskegon in Michigan.

30,000 Islands

All of Lake Michigan’s 30,000 islands are located in its northern sector, with the largest of them being Beaver Island, with a surface area of 145 square kilometers.

The Beaver Islands Archipelago includes Beaver Island (145 square kilometers), Garden Island (20 km2), High Island (14 km2), Hog Island (8.5 km2), Grape Island, Hat Island, Gull Island, Horseshoe Island, Pismire Island, Little Island, Squaw Island, Shoe Island, Whiskey Island, and Trout Island.

The Fox Islands (17.2 km2) comprise North Fox Island and South Fox Island.

The Manitou Islands consist of North Manitou Island (58 km2) and South Manitou Island (21 km2).

The most important islands in the Grand Traverse Bay are Bellow Island, Bassett Island, and Marion Island.

Gull Island,  Little Gull Island, Little Summer Island, Gravelly Island,Poverty Island, St. Martin Island, Rocky Island, and Summer Island are all islands located South of the Garden Peninsula.

The most important islands in Big Bay de Noc are Saint Vital Island, Snake Island, and Round Island (1.5 km2), while the most important islands in Little Bay de Noc are Sand Island and Butlers Island.

Waugoshance Island and Temperance Island are located in the Wilderness State Park.

The following islands are located near Naubinway and Epoufette, in Michigan: Gravel Island, Epoufette Island, Naubinway Island, and Little Hog Island.

St. Helena Island and Green Island are located near the Mackinac Bridge.

In Wisconsin, the following islands surround the Door Peninsula: Washington Island (61 km2), Chambers Island (10 km2), Detroit Island (2.6 km2), Horseshoe Island, Sister Islands, Hog Island, Plum Island, Pilot Island, Strawberry Islands, and Rock Island.

The 37-ha man-made island located in Chicago, Northerly Island, is home to the Adler Planetarium.

Other noteworthy islands are Fisherman Island (11 km2), and Ile aux Galets.

Fishing on Lake Michigan Lake Michigan was originally the home of the lake trout, lake whitefish, yellow perch, largemouth bass, panfish, bowfin, smallmouth bass, and some catfish species.The invasion of sea lampreys caused a major decline in native population of lake trout, also leading to the proliferation of another invasive species, the alewife.

In order to reduce the alewife population, the brown trout, rainbow trout, chinook salmon and coho were introduced. The program was extremely successful, and the populations of trout and salmon exploded. Currently, Lake Michigan is stocked with steelhead, coho, brown trout and chinook every year. However, the vitality of fish populations are still threatened by sea lamprey, quagga mussels and zebra mussels.

Commercial Fishing

There are around 150 licensed commercial fishing operations in Lake Michigan at the moment. There are also about 45 state-licensed fishing enterprises. The most commercially important fish species is the lake whitefish., but the yearly harvests have declined from 11 million pounds in 1999 to 9.5 million pounds.

Sports Fishing

The most important species for sports fishing are the whitefish, the salmon, the lake trout, the smelt, and the walleye. The development of the charter fishing industry on Lake Michigan was a result of the successful introduction of the Pacific salmon in the 1960s.

Recreation Activities

Tourism is a major activity on Lake Michigan, and one of the most important industries. In the northern part of the lake, there are many communities in Wisconsin which depend on tourism. Visitors are attracted by the beauty of the region and its recreational opportunities. There are a few small cruise ships that operate on the lake, with a couple of sailing ships among them.

The most important sports practiced on the lake are kayaking, yachting, kitesurfing, diving, and lake surfing.

We can’t talk about Lake Michigan without mentioning the Great Lakes Circle Tour, which is a very picturesque road system that connects all of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.

Passenger steamers have been in operation since the middle of the 19th century. There are several ferries currently operating on the Great Lakes, which carry passengers to islands like the Beaver Island and Bois Blanc Island.


Lake Michigan has its share of environmental problems. There are steel mills in operation near the Indiana shoreline. BP is also thought to be a major polluter, with thousands of pounds of raw sludge being dumped in the lake every day from its oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana. In March 2014 alone, the refinery spilled more than 1,600 gallons of oil into the waters of the lake.

Lake Michigan Map