Fun Facts About the Great Lakes

There is not much you can tell a Michigander about their beloved Great Lakes that they don’t already know. The area we now recognize as the Great Lakes started as an ice plate that reached depths of over half a mile. As the plate shifted, it created the shelves and basins of the lakes we know today, ultimately filling them with water as the ice melted. Wood maps of the area detail the dramatic depths and captivating shorelines that developed over time. The 4,530 miles of U.S shoreline provide the year-round playground for the people who proudly call the area home.

Coast with trees and rocks on Great Lakes

Summers spent on the beaches and exploring the dunes are practically required in the Great Lakes region. Children in Michigan grow up eager and proud to recite the name and depth of each body of water, understanding the importance of the Great Lakes system to Michigan and beyond. Raised with a love of water and beauty, they need only point to their state motto: If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.

The exact depth and uniqueness of these basins are beautifully reflected in the depiction of underwater topography of the wood maps for each lake. Locals revere the Great Lakes; they are steeped in historical significance and fun facts that make them endearing to yoopers, trolls, and visitors alike. Grab a pop and let your mind drift up north – see if you know these fun facts from the Water Wonderland.

9 Things to Know About The Great Lakes:

  1. The Great Lakes are the Largest Freshwater System in the World
  2. Lake Michigan is the Only Great Lake Entirely in the United States
  3. The Great Lakes are a Sport Fishing Destination
  4. There are 35,000 Islands in the Great Lakes
  5. Lighthouses of the Great Lakes
  6. Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes
  7. Salt Mines
  8. The Mystery of the Michigan Triangle
  9. The legend of Bessie the sea monster

1. The Great Lakes are the Largest Freshwater System in the World

With over 95,000 square miles of freshwater, the Great Lakes contain 20% of the world’s surface freshwater, or roughly six quadrillion gallons. Over 3500 species of animals and plants and over 170 types of fish share the Great Lakes basin with approximately 34,000,000 people in the United States and Canada. Each lake has its appeal and contributes to the local economy through transportation, electricity, recreation, and tourism.

  • Cliffs made of large rock meets water (Michigans Pictured Rock)Lake Superior. The largest of the Great Lakes is also the largest freshwater lake in the world! With a surface area of 82,000 square miles, its deepest point reaches 1,333 feet and maintains an average temperature of 36° F—even summer swimming might feel like a polar plunge!
  • Lake Huron. The second largest of the Great Lakes by surface area measuring 23,000 square miles, it has the longest shoreline of all the Great Lakes, stretching 3,827 miles. Its deepest point is 750 feet and averages a water temperature of about 69° F. 
  • Lake Michigan. The third-largest Great Lake by surface area at 22,404 square miles, Lake Michigan is the only Great Lake held entirely in the United States and boasts the second-longest coastline. Its deepest point is 923 feet and averages 74°F at the surface.
  • Lake Erie. The fourth-largest, Erie, measures 25,667 square miles of surface area. Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, with a maximum depth of 210 feet and water temperatures ranging from 29° to 70° F.
  • Lake Ontario. The smallest of the Great Lakes with a surface area of 7,340 square miles, Ontario lies at the base of Niagara Falls. Small but mighty, Lake Ontario holds four times the water volume of Lake Erie due to its depth of 802 feet at its deepest point.

2. Lake Michigan is the Only Great Lake Entirely in the United States

White and tan map of Michigan focused on Lake Michigan

As the only Great Lake that rests entirely inside the United States, several states claim well-known cities along the 1,400-mile shoreline, including Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Once called the Lac du Chat, Lake Michigan is known for a famous stretch of shoreline in Chicago: Lake Shore Drive. Home to many wonders of city life, including Soldier Field, Lincoln Park, and the Navy Pier, this stretch is best known for its sandy beaches and lake views. 

Well-Known Cities Along Lake Michigan

  • Chicago, IL
  • Waukegan, IL
  • Gary, IN
  • Traverse City, MI
  • Green Bay, WI
  • Kenosha, WI
  • Milwaukee, WI
Above view of the edge of Chicago meeting Lake Michigan

The Lake Michigan shoreline also boasts beautiful beaches and forests, beach towns with endless boutiques, great restaurants, and memorable sweets and ice cream shops. The quaint towns and cities located around the coast of Lake Michigan offer unmatched charm and limitless opportunities to experience local art, food, shopping, and history. There are numerous opportunities to experience the magic of the Lake Michigan shoreline. Treat yourself to the beauty of Muskegon State Park, where you can hike the dunes during the day and catch the mesmerizing sunsets at night, or Grand Haven State Park, where the fishing pier is sure to please the fisherman or woman in you and the sunsets are breathtaking. 

3. The Great Lakes are a Sport Fishing Destination

The University of Michigan estimates that some one million pounds of fish are caught commercially in the Great Lakes. Recreationally, the Great Lakes rank second to only Florida as a top destination for sport fishing. The lakes offer an amazing variety of native and introduced species, providing unparalleled angling opportunities for seasoned fisherman and amateurs alike. Lake Superior offers over eighty species of fish representative of the many varieties found throughout the area. 

Varieties of Fish Found in the Great Lakes

  • walley
    Walleye hanging by a hook in front of a lake
  • yellow perch
  • lake sturgeon
  • brook trout
  • lake whitefish

Salmon has been introduced to the Great Lakes, and fish such as the lake sturgeon and lake trout are undergoing restoration efforts to restore their numbers in the region. Lake sturgeon are the biggest fish found within the area and can weigh up to 200 pounds. Ope! That is one fish story you do not want to get away!

4. There are 35,000 Islands in the Great Lakes

Light house on island on the coast of Lake Michigan

Lake Huron is home to over 30,000 of the 35,000 islands created by uneven glacial movement in the Great Lakes basin. Beautifully recreated on the most detailed wood maps, these islands create miles of additional shoreline and offer recreational activities, including hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking. Manitoulin is the largest island in fresh water in the world, covering 1,068 square miles with 12,600 people living on the island and enjoying its beauty every day. With both salt- and shark-free waters, the Great Lakes offer some of the most inviting opportunities for exploration accessible only by boat, floatplane, or ferry.

The Apostle Islands dot the coastline around the shore of Lake Superior, and their lighthouses offered guidance to the ships navigating the maze of islands to the port at Bayfield, Wisconsin. The islands in the Great Lakes and their lighthouses have enjoyed an odd history, demonstrating that these lakes challenge those ships that wish to pass through.

5. Lighthouses of the Great Lakes

Lighthouse at sunset on lakeside Cliff

The Great Lakes currently has over 200 active lighthouses guiding boats around the over 11,000 miles of shoreline. Many of these lighthouses date back to the early 1800s, built with lenses from France powerful enough to cast light across the water for miles. Today, some of these lighthouses are still operational, using automated lights that are less powerful but no less fascinating to enthusiasts. Big Bay Point Lighthouse offers the opportunity to stay overnight in historic lakeside light. Some in the U.P. say Big Bay Point Lighthouse is haunted, but that might make your stay even more exciting! 

The complex shorelines and ever-changing depths reflected on wood maps show that the lighthouses are not just for beauty but function. They keep the ships from encountering shallow waters. The Great Lakes are known for more than their fair share of shipwrecks, though not all can be attributed to the varying depths of each lake. 

6. Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes

Black and white shipwreck sinking

The tales of shipwrecks and treasure often enchant visitors to the Great Lakes area, which are filled with the mystery and intrigue of over 6,000 wrecks, many of which were never found. The depths of the Great Lakes became the final resting place of many ships because the basin offers no natural protection, leaving the ships exposed when storms blow through the lakes. 

Lake Erie is believed to have the most shipwrecks (around 2,000) perfectly preserved in the cold fresh water. Wrecks can be found throughout the Great Lakes in shallow waters and can be enjoyed while snorkeling or on a glass-bottom boat tour. Wood maps of Lake Erie show the details of this lake, the shallowest of the Great Lakes; its outflow creates the stunning Niagara Falls.

7. Salt Mines

Dark Michigan salt mine with light peeking through

Far beneath the surface of Lake Erie, almost 2,000 feet below the bottom of the lake, salt mines continue to produce the mineral needed to deice the frozen world above. These salt mines were developed thousands of years ago when the basin was a shallow sea and dried up, leaving the salt behind. The mines are other-worldly, held up by pillars of salt that are carefully calculated by size and number to hold up the mines and the entire lake above!

8. The Mystery of the Michigan Triangle

Triangle with a wave and sunset inside of it

Much like the Bermuda Triangle, Lake Michigan has a mysterious triangle of its own. Often referred to as the Michigan Triangle, it spans from Manitowac, Wisconsin, to Ludington, Michigan, and south to Benton Harbor. In 1891, strange events started happening in that area, including the complete disappearance of a schooner; not even a trace of which was ever found. This triangle has been blamed for inexplicable accidents, the disappearance of people, and even the vanishing of a commercial airplane in 1950. Wood maps of this area detail the depths and complexities of the lake bottom, but none explain the Triangle phenomenon.

Some yoopers credit a Stonehenge-like structure that lies beneath the waters of Lake Michigan with the peculiar happenings. Natives and visitors alike ask the question, “Could an ancient formation of rocks be to blame for the mysteries of the Triangle?” Or is there another Great Lakes myth at work?

9. Bessie the Mystery Sea Monster

A sea monster in a lake with grass in the background

Adding to the lore of the Great Lakes is the monster, the myth, the legend – Bessie. Reported in sightings as early as 1817, South Bay Bessie is reported to be thirty to forty feet long and serpent-like, with a dog-shaped head and pointy tail. A respected and beloved local legend, this creature has spawned namesakes in the Great Lakes area. An artist created a unique variety of lake art in a wood and plaster sculpture known as Lemmy (Lake Erie Monster), and the minor league hockey team, the Cleveland Monsters, are named after Bessie. Sightings of the monster occurred as recently as 1993, which could cement the legend of Bessie as a fun fact rather than a myth about the Great Lakes.

In only fourteen and a half hours, you can complete the Circle Tour, a 6,500-mile drive around all five lakes and through eight states with a passport-requiring passage into Ontario, Canada. The beauty of the forests up north and the Great Lakes area will stay in your heart and on your mind. The scenery can be captured in lake art to return home with you, and wood maps will forever detail the depths of the basin and dramatically complex shorelines and waterways. The Mitten State and the whole Great Lakes area will call you back, time and again, to experience the beaches, dunes, forests, and everything in between, creating a lifelong love of Up North.

Gifts to Remember Your Time in the Great Lakes

Lake art is the perfect gift to memorialize your perfect vacation to the Water Wonderland. Throughout beach towns and cities, shops proudly display lake art such as wood maps and other natural crafts from your time in nature, reminding you that time in both the U.P. and lower peninsula means you are never too far from a magical body of water.

Wood map of the Great Lakes

Home décor is a distinctly personal reflection of a homeowner’s style and passion. There is no such thing as too much lake art when reflecting on time spent lounging near the water, body surfing until sunset, and soaking up every moment of light and laughter. In the Great Lakes area, lake art abounds! From wood maps to masterful photographs of the local wildlife, the love of the Great Lakes region is on full display in homes and workplaces along the shoreline and throughout the bordering states. 

The Great Lakes represent days spent in the sun, boating in the afternoon, bonfires at night, and the waters lulling you to sleep. Honor the lifestyle with a piece of lake art from local artisans discovered while exploring the beachfront shops in places like Glen Arbor near Sleeping Bear Dunes, or create your lake art with photographs of friends and family enjoying the dunes, shores, and water of this magical locale.

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