AAA Travel Tips / Best Road Trips in the Great Lakes Region

Best Road Trips in the Great Lakes Region

flickr/George Thomas
By AAA Travel Editor Laurie Sterbens
May 19, 2020
The Great Lakes are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world. Covering more than 94,000 square miles, the five lakes—Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior—are often referred to as inland seas.
The lakes are located along the Canadian-United States border, with shorelines touching the Canadian province of Ontario and eight states. Collectively, Ontario and the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin make up the Great Lakes Region.
The best way to explore this diverse region is by car, and AAA editors have created itineraries that show off numerous areas of spectacular natural beauty, rural charm and lively downtown areas, along with recommendations for fun places to go along the way. Below are a few examples of the most scenic road trips from the dozens of routes AAA travel editors have created in the Great Lakes Region.
forest canopy, autumn
Wildnerdpix/iStockphoto.com

Best Time of Year for a Great Lakes Road Trip

As winters can bring icy roads in the northern Midwest, the best times for a road trip in the Great Lakes Region are from spring to fall. Autumn is an especially pleasant time to visit as it offers spectacular fall foliage viewing. Among the best Great Lakes Region Road Trips for fall foliage are Indiana's Scenic Backcountry Route 135, the North Shore Scenic Drive Road Trip and the Northern Ohio Road Trip.
illinois
Courtesy of NPS

What to See in Illinois

Whether you like busy big cities or peaceful countryside, you'll find it in Illinois. Chicago, the third most populous city in the United States, sits atop the state along the shore of Lake Michigan. The state's capital, Springfield, lies amid the prairie land of Central Illinois. Two sections of the famed Route 66 are located within the state, offering a variety of scenery and fun things to do.
Route 66-Northern Illinois takes you from rural farmland into bustling Chicago, with stops such as the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame & Museum and the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum where you can learn more about the history of the Route 66.
Route 66-Southern Illinois stretches across Illinois from Edwardsville to Bloomington. This road trip is filled with nostalgic features including retro gas stations, drive-in theaters and roadside attractions such as the Railsplitter Covered Wagon. Stop in Springfield to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site, all AAA GEM (Great Experience for Members) attractions.
Ohio River
RobertCraven/iStockphoto.com

What to See in Indiana

Bordering Lake Michigan to the north and the Ohio River to the south, Indiana's capital city, Indianapolis, is known for the Indianapolis 500 as well as its professional sports teams, the NFL's Colts and the NBA's Pacers. Outside of the capital, this Midwest state offers much in the way of scenery in the rolling hills of Hoosier National Forest.
Indiana's Ohio River Scenic Byway begins along the Ohio River in the charming historic town of Newburgh and travels through densely forested hills into Hoosier National Forest, ending where a pullout offers a panorama of the river and surrounding hills.
Indiana's Scenic Backcountry Route 135 begins in historic downtown Salem and winds its way through Hoosier National Forest and rural farmland, ending at the "Little Smokies" in Brown County State Park.
Scenic Byway 564790
flickr/Frank Wulfers

What to See in Michigan

The state of Michigan is comprised of two peninsulas, the mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula, and it touches four of the five Great Lakes as well as Lake St. Clair. It's also filled with inland lakes, so you're never far from a water view on a Michigan road trip.
• The Northwest Michigan Coast Road Trip begins in Traverse City and includes cherry orchards, vineyards, farmland and frequent views of Lake Michigan before ending at Manistique on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Recommended stops include the Tall Ship Manitou, a AAA GEM attraction; and the McGulpin Point Lighthouse.
• The Tunnel of Trees Scenic Byway Road Trip is a pleasant drive through forests and small towns with intermittent views of Lake Michigan.
Scenic Byway 564800
flickr/Jesse Thorstad

What to See in Minnesota

"The Land of 10,000 Lakes" is the northernmost contiguous state and borders Lake Superior. Its forests are home to black bears, moose and what is said to be the largest population of timber wolves outside of Alaska. Bird watchers will find numerous bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and snowy owls in Minnesota, where lakes and streams are an angler’s paradise.
• Set against a backdrop of the Sawtooth Mountains, the North Shore Scenic Drive Road Trip runs along the shoreline of Lake Superior, offering views of spectacular cliffs, beaches and the Split Rock Lighthouse.
• The Gunflint Trail Scenic Highway Road Trip follows CR 12 through northern Minnesota's Superior National Forest, home to wildlife such as bears, deer, moose and loons.
123RF.COM/ishtygashev

What to See in New York

Home to some of the most visited tourist attractions in the world including the Statue of Liberty National Monument, Times Square and Central Park, there are almost limitless fun things to do in New York City. But don't miss the charms of the rest of the state, which is filled with natural beauty, wineries and charming historic districts.
• The Niagara Falls Lake Ontario Road Trip highlights the spectacular beauty of the famous falls as well as two of the Great Lakes: Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. You'll encounter a variety of AAA GEM attractions on this route, including Niagara Falls, the Cave of the Winds Tour, Maid of the Mist, the Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site, the George Eastman Museum, the Rochester Museum & Science Center and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
• The Finger Lakes Road Trip is a perfect drive trip for oenophiles, winding through one of the nation's top wine-producing regions. Along with its many wineries, this region offers art, historic districts and great places to eat. AAA GEM attractions including the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, The Corning Museum of Glass, Rose Hill Mansion, Museum of the Earth, the George Eastman Museum, Rochester Museum & Science Center and the The Strong National Museum of Play are recommended stops.
Southern Ohio drive trip
Kenneth_Keifer/iStockphoto.com

What to See in Ohio

The Buckeye State, named for its Buckeye trees, borders Lake Erie. Ohio road trips offer miles of pleasant scenery along the lakeshore and through its farmlands.
• The Northern Ohio Road Trip begins in Akron and heads north through Cuyahoga National Park along the Cuyahoga River before reaching downtown Cleveland, where the route enters rural residential areas along Lake Erie. Along the way you'll encounter three AAA GEM attractions: Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, Hale Farm and Village and the Maritime Museum of Sandusky.
• AAA's Cincinnati to Columbus Road Trip takes you on a roundabout, 6-hour trip through rural Ohio with views of the Ohio River, the Crown City Wildlife Area and farmland before it reaches downtown Columbus. Taft Museum of Art, a AAA GEM attraction, is a recommended stop at the start of your trip.
wisconsin
MaxyM/Shutterstock.com

What to See in Wisconsin

Known as "America's Dairyland," Wisconsin borders two of the Great Lakes—Michigan and Superior—and offers a wonderful variety of scenery from farmland to rocky shorelines.
• The Green Bay and Door County Road Trip takes you from busy Green Bay into peaceful Door County, where you'll find beaches, cherry and apple orchards, marinas, lighthouses and wineries. The drive ends near two AAA GEM attractions, the Rahr-West Art Museum and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.
• Farmland and forests of aspen, birch and evergreen trees lead you to the shores of Lake Superior on the Wisconsin Lake Superior Scenic Byway Road Trip. Between quaint fishing villages, you'll view beaches, bluffs and rocky shorelines.
Domestic Travel Boiler Plate Graphic
AAA

Start Your Next Vacation with AAA

AAA Travel provides peace of mind when you travel—before, during and after your vacation! Members enjoy the advantages of membership including exclusive benefits, savings, map routing and travel planning, plus additional travel needs such as AAA Travel Guides, TourBook® guides, passport photos, International Driving Permits and travel insurance. Your next vacation starts with AAA—your complete travel solution. Visit AAA.com/Travel.
X