How Wide Is Lake Michigan?

Aerial view of Big Sable Point Lighthouse near Ludington, Michigan; Ludington State Park; Lake Michigan
© Frederick Millett/Shutterstock.com

Written by Carrie Woodward

Updated: July 19, 2023

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About Lake Michigan

The huge, powerful, and beautiful Lake Michigan is one of the Great Lakes. Located in North America, Lake Michigan is unique as the only Great Lake that is fully within the borders of the United States (all of the others are shared between the United States and Canada). This lake touches the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Every year, thousands of people from these four states and from across the country visit Lake Michigan.

With shorelines in each of these four states, Lake Michigan is a natural wonder all year long. Visitors come to Lake Michigan’s lakeshore parks and beaches, swimming in the summer and witnessing the cold and icy water in the winter. In fact, Lake Michigan offers numerous opportunities for outdoor exploration and recreation in different forms all year long. Lake Michigan’s water has many important uses. These include large commercial fishing, sport fishing, recreation, cooling water, and agricultural irrigation. Since is lake contains incredible biodiversity both within and nearby its waters, preserving Lake Michigan as a vital natural resource and wildlife habitat is critical. 

This article will introduce you in greater detail to some of the key facts and awe-inspiring wonders of Lake Michigan. We will start by discussing its width and depth. From there, we will discuss where this lake is located and the important geographic features and cities surrounding it. We will cover how long it would take to swim across the entire lake as well as places where you can see Lake Michigan for yourself. Let’s dive in to discover Lake Michigan together now!

The borders of Lake Michigan touch four different U.S. States.

How Wide Is Lake Michigan?

Lake Michigan is about 307 miles long and 118 miles across at its widest point. Its surface area is about 22,300 square miles, and it has an average depth of an incredible 279 feet and a maximum depth of a staggering 925 feet. Here are some distances between cities that are roughly comparable to the distance across Lake Michigan. The full distance of 118 miles across Lake Michigan’s widest point is roughly comparable to:

  • The distance from New York City to West Hartford, Connecticut
  • The distance from Los Angeles, California, to Old Town San Diego, California 
  • The distance from Atlanta, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • The distance from Denver, Colorado, to Akron, Colorado
  • The distance from Chicago, Illinois, to Grand Rapids, Michigan

Where is Lake Michigan?

Lake Michigan is the only one of the Great Lakes to reside entirely within U.S. borders. In the U.S., this lake touches Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Lake Michigan connects with Lake Huron, into which it drains through the broad Straits of Mackinac. Some water also flows into the Mississippi River basin through the Chicago River. This connection actually contributes to the water levels of the two lakes staying in equilibrium. As a result, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron’s water levels remain even and behave as one body of water. Flowing into Lake Michigan are multiple rivers in the huge Lake Michigan drainage basin. These rivers include the Fox-Wolf, the Grand, the St. Joseph, and the Kalamazoo, among others. 

How Long it Takes to Swim Across Lake Michigan

Though Lake Michigan is 118 miles across at its widest point, no swimmer has swum across this entire width. However, swimmers have made it across shorter distances from shore to shore. One route is from Two Rivers, Wisconsin, to Ludington, Michigan. This swim is 55 miles across in total. In 2020, six friends made this incredible swim in less than 21 hours. They described their experience as an “epic swim.”

Here are some of the records set by swimmers who have taken on the challenge of swimming across Lake Michigan.

Records for Lake Michigan Swimmers

  • The first person to swim across Lake Michigan was a man named Ted Erikson. Erikson swam for over 36 hours to complete his swim on August 21, 1961.
  • One man,  Chris Lechner, swam a total of 95 miles while intending to make an 80-mile trip across Lake Michigan. However, after a long and tempestuous journey, he did not fully reach the end of the swim and was rescued only a quarter of a mile short of his goal.

Swimming the Widest Part of Lake Michigan

At its widest, Lake Michigan is 118 miles across. With that in mind, crossing any part of this lake is an incredible accomplishment and should only be undertaken by strong, experienced swimmers. If a swimmer did attempt that 118-mile swim at an average speed of 2 miles per hour, it would take you at least 59 hours to complete the swim. 

However, crossing even shorter distances across Lake Michigan may still include stormy weather, large waves, and strong rip currents. Considering that reality, crossing any lake or large body of water takes great physical strength and mental fortitude and should only be done in certain conditions by experienced swimmers in accordance with local authorities and guidelines. 

How Lake Michigan Compares to Other Lakes

Lake Michigan is one of the Great Lakes. This puts it alongside Lake Superior, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and Lake Ontario. However, among these, Lake Michigan is the second biggest by volume, after Lake Superior. It is the third largest by surface area, after Lake Huron. Overall, this makes Lake Michigan one of the most significant freshwater lakes on the globe. In fact, it is the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the world.

Lake Michigan is unique for its miles and natural dunes. In fact, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, as well as many other protected dunes along Michigan’s western coastline, make up the world’s largest collection of freshwater sand dunes. The tallest dunes are at Sleeping Bear National Park. There, the dunes stand 450 feet above the Lake Michigan shoreline.

This enormous, powerful lake and is known to have rip currents and huge waves that rival those of the oceans. Rip currents are powerful, channeled currents of water that can pull swimmers offshore into deeper and more dangerous water. Any current that moves faster than 2 mph is considered dangerous. In Lake Michigan, strong currents appear alongside piers and break walls, as well as places near the mouths of a river or stream. In fact, Lake Michigan is considered the deadliest of the Great Lakes – with more drownings than in any other of the Great Lakes. It even has twice as many as Lake Ontario, the second most dangerous by the number of drownings.

Things to Do at the Lake

Lake Michigan does have many miles of inviting shoreline for you and your family to enjoy. Visit wide beaches,  plunge into its cold water, fish from among its ample aquatic life, hike the surrounding nature trails, bike lakefront paths, go out on a sailboat or motor boat, camp by the Lake Michigan dunes, or simply watch a beautiful sunrise or sunset (depending on which side you find yourself on). Every year, thousands of visitors enjoy Lake Michigan by boating, jet skiing, sunbathing, swimming, and much more. The activities you participate in at Lake Michigan will depend on where you visit. The sections below guide you through some of the places where you could visit to see Lake Michigan for yourself.

How to Visit Lake Michigan Beaches

Visit in Michigan

On the eastern side of Lake Michigan, visit the lake’s beautiful shores by a state park or by visiting one of the state of Michigan’s picturesque lakeside towns. Some of the most popular Lake Michigan beaches for your summer escape are Oval Beach in Saugatuck, Ludington State Park in Ludington, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, Silver Lake State Park in Mears, Petoskey State Park in Petoskey, Warren Dunes State Park in Sawyer, Holland State Park in Holland, or Silver Beach County Park in St. Joseph. 

From wooded state parks to charming small beach towns, Michigan commands miles of Lake Michigan coastline. Rent a quaint beach home for the week or camp out on one of the beaches. Whatever your speed, Michigan has a great beach vacation option for you.

One popular destination is Grand Haven, which offers a boardwalk lined by shops, restaurants, and water sport businesses. New Buffalo is only an hour and a half away from Chicago, but has beautiful white, sandy beaches you can access by hiking down the three-mile beach from Warren Dunes State Park. St. Joseph’s Silver Beach County Park offers a pier view, lighthouses, and a walkable downtown area that leads you past beautiful Victorian houses and a bluff view of Lake Michigan.

large waves on Lake Michigan, summer New Buffalo, Michigan USA

Large, ocean-like waves on Lake Michigan in the summer in New Buffalo, Michigan.

©iStock.com/gurineb

Visit in Indiana

One of the most popular ways to enjoy Lake Michigan from Indiana is at the Indiana Dunes National Park near Porter, Indiana. At the southern end of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park offers 15 miles of lakeshore, several different beaches, showers and lifeguards at West Beach in the park, and ample parking. This national park has over 15,000 acres of preserved beaches, swamps, bogs, marshes, rivers, and dunes, as well as prairie land, rivers, and forests. This parkland is managed by the National Park Service and is a great place for camping, biking, or exploring the more than 1,400 species of flowering plants and ferns growing in the area. 

indiana dunes national park

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a National

Park on Lake Michigan’s

south shore. The sand dunes make this beach a popular tourist attraction in Indiana.

©Delmas Lehman/Shutterstock.com

Visit in Illinois

In Illinois, you can get the unique experience of Lake Michigan underneath towering skyscrapers. Chicago, Illinois, one of the biggest cities in the U.S., is built on the southwest side of Lake Michigan. On your visit to Chicago, you can see the blue lake waves cresting the shore when driving the iconic Du Sable Lake Shore Drive, while biking or running the lakeshore paths, or from one of Chicago’s sand or concrete beaches. 

In particular, you may enjoy North Avenue Beach, a popular destination for beach volleyball, swimming in the cold Lake Michigan water, or sunbathing. Enjoy North Avenue Beach while sitting under the Chicago skyline, and then enjoy one of Chicago’s many other museums and restaurants. On a sunny day, you will find Chicago residents and tourists alike enjoying the beach, the nearby cocktail bar, ice cream, and other snacks.

However, North Avenue Beach is just one among multiple incredible city-side beaches, including Oak Street Beach, Loyola Beach, Foster Beach, and others.

Further north of Chicago, Rosewood Beach in Highland Park, Illinois, offers a swimmable beach and boardwalk, as well as nature trails and sporting equipment rentals. Rosewood Beach also has incredible award-winning conservation programs and ecological education.

Chicago - Illinois, Beach, North Avenue Beach, Building Exterior, Lake

North Avenue Beach in Chicago, Illinois, is an urban beach where locals and visitors alike enjoy Lake Michigan all summer long.

©iStock.com/tupungato

Visit in Wisconsin

Last but certainly not least, Wisconsin has many stunning locations to offer along the Lake Michigan coastline. 

A favorite place to visit Lake Michigan from Wisconsin is north of the center of Racine. North Beach in Wisconsin has about 50 acres of sandy beaches, a playground, volley courts, and lifeguards and free parking all summer long. This beach also has a wheelchair mat extending through the shoreline to make this wonder of nature accessible. North Beach has 2,500 feet of shoreline open to the public and is a great location for swimming, fishing, and picnics.

In Milwaukee, the urban Bradford Beach has a lively sports scene with beach volleyball and soccer, a cocktail bar, and a bustling vibe full of visitors of all ages.

If you prefer to avoid the sand altogether, visit Washington Island’s Schoolhouse Beach. This rock beach made of smooth limestone pebbles is a peaceful setting known for having many historic shipwrecks near the Door County Peninsula. Visit Schoolhouse Beach for a picnic, go snorkeling, or take a guided cruise to explore the shipwrecks and learn a bit of Lake Michigan’s history.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA downtown city skyline on Lake Michigan at twilight.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has beautiful beaches and a skyline view set against Lake Michigan.

©Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

Safety Tips for Swimming Lake Michigan

Each year, thousands of people enjoy Lake Michigan beach days, swimming, and water recreation. However, it is very important to use caution when swimming in this immense Great Lake. Please keep the following advice in mind.

  • The bottom of the lake is often uneven with holes and deep and sudden drop offs. These inshore holes can be dangerous, especially for children and people who do not know how to swim. 
  • Many beaches do not have lifeguards, so swim at your own risk and always keep a watchful eye on small children.
  • Always stay out of the water when there are high waves, if you feel a rip current, or when local guidelines advise staying out of the water. 
  • Stay clear of seawalls, piers, and other areas that are susceptible to rip currents. Obey rip current warnings. 
  • Do not ever panic if you feel yourself being pulled out into deeper water by an unexpected rip current. Instead, follow the rip current or try to swim out of it by swimming parallel to shore until you feel the pull subside.
  • Never swim alone.
  • If in doubt, do not go out.

Fun Facts About Lake Michigan

  • Lake Michigan is the largest freshwater lake in the United States.
  • Lake Michigan is the second largest Great Lake by volume, after Lake Superior.
  • Part of Lake Michigan gained the nickname the “Michigan Triangle,” a play on the well-known “Bermuda Triangle.” It gained this nickname for having strange occurrences, including unexplained ship disappearances and mysterious missing planes.
  • Lake Michigan contains many islands of varying sizes. The largest is Beaver Island, which is over 55 square miles large and is home to over 500 residents!
The unspoiled beaches of Beaver Island, in Lake Michigan.

The beaches of Beaver Island, one of the many islands in Lake Michigan.

©Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Carrie is a writer and fan of all types of plants and animals. Her apartment is home to more than dozen different houseplants and she aspires to adopt more in the near future. You can find Carrie taking long walks or reading a book under the trees in the park.

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