sleeping bear dunes hidden midwest beach
Social Distancing, Travel

Twelve Secret Midwestern Beaches for a Socially Distanced Vacation

If you’re in the Midwestern part of the United States, or looking for a socially-distanced destination to visit, then these are the secret beaches for you.

Vacationing can be dicey during these troubled times, especially if air travel is involved. Restrictions across some state lines are moving many families’ traditional summer vacations closer to home. If you live in the Midwest and desperately need to get out of the house to smell the fresh air and wiggle your toes in warm beach sand, you have options that you have never considered.

In a land blessed with lakes and rivers, hundreds of secret beaches and swimming holes exist in the Midwest. Many of hidden spots are familiar only to locals and can be found in in state parks and recreation areas that have more than one beach from which to choose. So, pack up the car with the family and the pooch. Here are 12 little-known, Midwestern beaches.

sleeping bear dunes hidden midwest beach

*Click on the name of each beach or state park for more information.


East Harbor State Park

Ohioans make good use of the Lake Erie beaches and you can count on crowds at Edgewater Beach in Cleveland or Cedar Point Beach near Sandusky. If you’re in the mood for a more peaceful afternoon, East Harbor State Park is a great option. It’s located on Catawba Island, along the shores of Lake Erie, and on the fringe of Ohio’s prairie marsh zone. East Harbor State Park’s 1800 acres are a prime destination for camping, swimming, fishing, boating, hiking and wetland wildlife. The beautifully sanded 1500-foot beach provides plenty of room to soak up the sun or walk along the shore.

Salt Fork Lake State Park

With over 20,000 acres of land and water, Salt Fork Lake State Park is Ohio’s largest and has one of the state’s most extensive inland beaches. It’s also home to 14 hiking trails, fishing, hunting, golf, a marina, camping, tennis, volleyball, basketball, shuffleboard courts, and a luxurious lodge. It’s a great place for a stroll along the beach to soak up the sun on a midsummer’s day.


Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park

Source: National Park Service

Massive dunes perch atop bluffs that soar 400 feet above Lake Michigan in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. Formed by glaciers, the dunes oversee 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and numerous inland lakes and streams. Also included are two small North and South Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan. This state park is home to five smaller, hidden Midwest beaches.

  • Platte River Point Beach is at the Platte River outlet where warmer water enters Lake Michigan. Every day tubes, canoes, and kayaks make the trip downstream into the lake.
  • Peterson Beach has a boardwalk crossing the low dunes from the parking lot to the beach. It’s a quiet stretch of sand with broad vistas of Empire Bluff to the north and Platte River Point to the south.
  • Esch Beach, also called Otter Creek Beach, is another popular swimming area. This beautiful, tranquil Lake Michigan beach is at the mouth of Otter Creek. Enjoy walking up the warm and shallow creek bed to see a stunning display of wildflowers and local fauna.
  • North Bear Lake is a popular spot for swimming. This small, warmer lake connects to Lake Michigan and its beaches.
  • Glen Haven Beach is on Sleeping Bear Bay and offers a combination of stunning beaches and incredible views. The Cannery Boat Museum in Glen Haven is located right on the Lake Michigan beach, which from which you can see the Manitou Islands and pilings remaining from the old Glen Haven docks.

Saugatuck Dunes State Park

The southern Lake Michigan shore features miles of dunes formed by the winds and shifting sands. Just west of Holland, Saugatuck Dunes State Park stretches for two and a half miles of shoreline. The beach is the state park’s primary attraction being a half-mile hike from the picnic parking area. The beach trail goes through a hilly, wooded area and ends with breathtaking views of a vast, uncrowded Lake Michigan beachfront.


Buffalo Trace Park

Located in Palmyra, Buffalo Trace Park is a county-run park with a 30-acre human-made lake, fishing, boating, camp, hiking, picnic tables, cabins, and even a petting zoo. It’s an excellent example of a well-kept, small-town beach park that is perfect for families, a great place to relax and hardly ever crowded.


Waukegan Municipal Beach

Waukegan Municipal Beach
Source: TripAdvisor

Waukegan’s beach is farther north, more extensive, and less expensive. An hour’s drive from downtown Chicago, the 400-acre lakefront features one mile of sand, along with some of the only remaining natural dunes in the area. Activities include swimming, sunbathing, picnicking, kiteboarding, sand soccer, and sand volleyball. If you get tired of the beach, you can take a walk to the Waukegan lighthouse or take a self-guided walk to learn about local shorebirds.

Rosewood Beach, Highland Park

Get away from the crowds on Chicago’s lakefront beaches and drive to North Shore’s Rosewood Beach. It is one of the few beaches in the area that provides access, albeit limited, to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic and visitors are required to practice social distancing safety measures. The beach is small, clean, and has excellent lakefront views.


North Beach, Racine

North Beach was Wisconsin’s first beach to be designated as a Certified Blue Wave clean beach by the National Clean Beaches Council. Even though it is a “city beach,” it doesn’t generate big crowds except for the occasional concert. Its amenities include wheelchair accessibility, sand volleyball courts, concession stand, bathhouse/restrooms, kid’s playground, picnic areas, free parking, and live music on weekends throughout the season.


Iona’s Beach, Two Harbors

Iona beach
Source: Department of Natural Resources

The Iona’s Beach Scientific and Natural Area is 43 miles northeast of Duluth and just three miles north of Gooseberry Falls State Park, along the north shore of Lake Superior. Instead of silky, golden sand, the beach is covered with smooth pink rocks that form a narrow 300-yard salmon-colored crescent that curves around the lakeshore. The pink stones are worn and weathered by years of erosion and are wonderfully smooth to the touch.

Zippel Bay State Park

Just south of the Canadian Border, Zippel Bay is located on Lake of the Woods, one of the world’s largest lakes. In summer, the 3,000-acre park offers a swimming beach and picnic area on the big lake, drive-in campsites and a group camp, a marina on Zippel Bay and a stone jetty providing protected access to Lake of the Woods.

Afton State Park Beach

This beautiful state park beach on the St. Croix River offers calm places to swim and recline on sunny days. Just 20 miles from downtown St. Paul, it’s a quick drive from the Twin Cities, and it’s an amazing place to hike and spend a summer day. The secluded beach is not accessible by car and is a half-mile hike from the parking area, but well worth the effort. There is plentiful sand along the shore, perfect for spreading out a towel and relaxing.


Iowa Great Lakes

If you have never lived in Iowa or southwest Minnesota, you probably don’t know that Iowa is home to its own great lakes. Located in the Northwest corner of the state, the three principal lakes of the group are Big Spirit Lake, West Okoboji Lake and East Okoboji Lake. The largest, Spirit Lake, is 5,684 acres. The lake area extends to the north into Jackson County, Minnesota.

Lake Okoboji Iowa
Source: Visit Iowa

The lakes offer a full range of recreational fun, including fishing, water skiing, jet skiing, and swimming. Each lake has at least one beach:

  • Gull Point Beach, Emerson Bay Beach, Arnolds Park Beach, and Pikes Point Beach on West Okoboji Lake
  • East Okoboji Beach on East Okoboji Lake
  • Ainsworth-Orleans Beach and Marble Beach State Recreation Area on Big Spirit Lake.

Iowa Great Lakes’ beaches are sandy and great places to spend lazy afternoons by the shore and in the swimming areas. For the more daring, windsurfing and parasailing provide excitement.

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Steve Cook is the editor of the Down Payment Report and provides public relations consulting services to leading companies and non-profits in residential real estate and housing finance. He has been vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Realtors, senior vice president of Edelman Worldwide and press secretary to two members of Congress.

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