Lake Superior is the largest of the five Great Lakes and is a natural wonder shared by the United States and Canada. Shaped by glaciers some 10,000 years ago, this massive body of water teems with life, has a rich cultural heritage, and is a primary economic driver for the three U.S. states and one Canadian province that surround it.
There is so much to learn, so many places to explore, and so many things to do at this lake. Let’s get to know Lake Superior.
Lake Superior is the northernmost and westernmost of the five Great Lakes. The lake’s northern and eastern shores border Ontario, Canada. The lake borders Michigan and Wisconsin to the south and Minnesota to the west.
The first humans to arrive in the Lake Superior region were known as the Plano people. They arrived after the retreat of the glaciers. Other peoples to inhabit the land include the Shield Archaic (c. 5,000-500 B.C.E.), Laurel people (c. 500 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.), and Terminal Woodland Indians (c. 900-1,650 C.E.).
Indigenous peoples who have ties to Lake Superior include the Menominee, Dakota, Noquet, Fox, Gros Ventres, and Nipigon. The Ojibwe became the dominant nation of the region in the 16th century. In the Ojibwe language, Lake Superior is called Gichigami (“Shining Big Sea Water”).
The lake was charted in 1667, which set the stage for European fur traders to pour into the region. The name of the lake that we know today originated with French explorers. They called it Le Lac Supérieur, or “Upper Lake,” because the lake is located north of Lake Huron. The fur trade boomed throughout the 16th century.
The iron ranges around Lake Superior set another huge economic wheel in motion. These ranges have been the principal source of North American ore for over a century. The ease of shipping over the Great Lakes, plus the abundance of water for processing, have made the region a center of iron and steel production.
While the numbers have diminished over time, half of the steel manufactured in the U.S. and two-thirds of steel manufactured in Canada still comes from the Great Lakes region. Many of the towns around Lake Superior are former or current mining towns.
Lake Superior is more of an inland freshwater sea than a lake. It is about 160 miles wide and about 350 miles long, with a shoreline of nearly 2,800 miles. Its surface area of 31,200 square miles makes Lake Superior the largest freshwater lake in the world in terms of area. It is the third-largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, trailing only Lake Baikal in Siberia and Lake Tanganyika in Africa.
The surface area of Lake Superior is roughly the size of the nation of Austria. It is larger than the combined areas of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. During the summer, the sun sets more than 35 minutes later on the western shore of Lake Superior than at its southeastern edge.
Lake Superior is so large that it features more than 400 islands, the largest of which is Michigan’s Isle Royale at 207 square miles. The island is home to Isle Royale National Park. Isle Royale features hundreds of inland lakes, ponds, and bogs. Siskiwit Lake is the largest of these lakes at 4,150 acres.
More than 200 rivers flow into Lake Superior. The average depth of Lake Superior is about 500 feet. The lake’s deepest point is about 40 miles north of Munising, Michigan, where the depth measures 1,332 feet.
With a volume of around three quadrillion gallons of water, Lake Superior contains 10% of the world’s fresh surface water. It would require all the water of the other Great Lakes combined, plus three additional Lake Eries, to equal the water volume of Lake Superior.
The water contained in Lake Superior could fill a swimming pool the size of the continental United States with a depth of 5 feet. The water of this Great Lake could cover the North and South American continents in 1 foot of water.
The lake retention time is close to two centuries. When a drop of water enters Lake Superior, it will take 191 years for that water to empty into the St. Mary’s River and then into Lake Huron.
The stormiest season on Lake Superior is in October and November. The highest recorded waves on the lake occurred in October 2017, when waves averaged 28.8 feet for more than an hour. The largest single wave was measured at 31 feet.
The clearest and cleanest water of all the Great Lakes is found in Lake Superior. Underwater visibility averages 27 feet. In some parts of the lake, the underwater visibility stretches to around 100 feet.
The lake is also the coldest Great Lake, with an average temperature of 36°F. By contrast, the warmest Great Lake, Lake Erie, features an average water temperature of 52°F.
Lake Superior’s water levels vary by season. The lake is typically at its highest point in August and September. Conversely, the lowest lake levels are normally seen in March and April.
Due to the lake’s size, the water levels of Lake Superior remain more stable than the other Great Lakes. The average water level fluctuation in the lake is generally less than 3 feet throughout the year. However, even that seemingly small change represents an enormous amount of water. It takes 551 billion gallons of water to raise the lake’s water level by 1 inch.
Occasionally, sudden changes in wind or barometric pressure can produce seiches. This can cause water levels along the coast to rise or fall by up to 6 feet. However, this fluctuation is temporary, and the water levels soon return to normal.
Fishing is crucial to the Great Lakes region, adding around $7 billion annually to local economies. Lake Superior is an outstanding fishery featuring more than 80 species of fish. While detailing all 80 species would be impossible, here are the most sought-after fish by Lake Superior anglers every year.
The lake trout is possibly the most often-targeted fish by anglers in the lake, but it is far from the only trout swimming in these waters. The lake is also home to steelhead, rainbow, brown, and brook trout and splake (or slake), a hybrid species that comes from male brook trout and female lake trout.
While walleye fishing is best in the summer, northern pike fishing in Lake Superior is a year-round venture. The fish can be found in bays and around stream inlets in the colder months. During the summer, they dive deeper into the waters of the main lake. These prodigious predators have a mouthful of teeth and an attitude to match. Anglers who hook into a big pike are in for a great fight.
Lake Superior holds trophy smallmouth bass. Spring and fall fishing are often best, as the fish can be more easily found in the shallower waters. During the summer, “smallies” tend to spread out in deeper water.
Lake Superior didn’t begin to take on its present form until about 10,000-11,000 years ago during the Wisconsin Glacial Stage. At its height, a continental glacier stretched from the Arctic into modern-day Wisconsin. The ice, which was over a mile thick, carved the land as it advanced and retreated over thousands of years.
When the glaciation finally came to an end, glacial meltwaters formed what we know today as the Great Lakes, though the lakes initially looked quite different than they do today.
As the glaciers retreated, the land slowly rebounded from the crushing weight of the mile-thick ice. Lake Erie and Lake Michigan were the first lakes to form during the glacial retreat.
Around 9,000 years ago, Lake Superior began to take shape. This initial lake is known to researchers as Lake Duluth. About 2,000 years after the lake’s initial appearance, the last ice left the region, and the land continued to rise. As a result, Lake Ontario appeared, and the Niagara River became the outlet for Lake Erie.
During this time, Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron were all one mammoth bodies of water known as Lake Nipissing. The land would continue to rise without the depressing weight of the ice sheet, and Lake Nipissing would divide into the three lakes that we know today. The Great Lakes only assumed their present form around 3,000 years ago. In geological terms, this is very recent. These lakes are among the youngest of the world’s major features.
Boating and Other Activities
One of the most popular recreational activities on Lake Superior is boating. Watercraft of all sizes can be seen on the lake, from jet skis and other personal watercraft in the coves to giant ships that sail the deep waters of this magnificent lake. Boat rentals, harbor cruises, and sailboat excursions are popular and easily found in coastal towns.
Boaters must be aware of local laws and regulations. Lake Superior falls under the jurisdiction of three different U.S. states and two different nations, each with unique boating regulations. These laws are in place to protect both human life and the lake environment.
There are more than 70 U.S. and Canadian beaches along Lake Superior. Some of them are rocky, while others feature beautiful sand. The water is clean and clear. It is also unsalted and shark-free. But before you step into the water of Lake Superior, remember that it is going to be cold. In a lake this vast, the temperature is going to vary quite a bit depending on where you are. In general, though, August features the warmest water in Lake Superior. But that “warm” water is still likely to be in the low-mid 60s°F.
Agate hunting is a very popular pastime at Lake Superior. Agates are semi-precious stones that are a translucent variety of microcrystalline quartz.
The agates of Lake Superior are possibly the oldest in the world. They were formed in gas pockets within ancient lava flows more than one billion years ago. As they were freed from the lava over time, Lake Superior agates were smoothed by the waves and sand. They often feature bands of yellow, tan, orange, and red.
Agates can be found all around the lake on beaches and rocky shores. Searching the beaches after a storm can yield more agates since the larger waves wash them ashore.
There are two national parks along Lake Superior, one in each of the nations that border the lake:
Two national lakeshores are found along the lake:
Two more sites managed by the National Park Service also border Lake Superior:
There are numerous U.S. state parks and Canadian provincial parks that are also situated along the lake.
Winter sports and activities such as skiing and snowmobiling abound in the regions around Lake Superior. The lake produces the highest totals of lake effect snow on Earth. The primary locations for lake effect snow off of Lake Superior include the Ontario shore southeast of Marathon and from Sault Ste. Marie to the Michigan/Wisconsin border.
Camping is popular in certain areas around the lake. Most of Lake Superior’s shoreline is heavily forested and sparsely populated. Camping is not always permitted along the shore, but there are plenty of places where you can legally pitch a tent or park an R.V.
Isle Royale National Park features 36 campgrounds. All are tent friendly and are only accessible by foot or watercraft.
Both frontcountry and backcountry camping are also available at Pukaskwa National Park.
Camping is also available in the myriad of state and provincial parks that line the lake. Amenities and R.V. hookup options vary, so check the availability at your specific park before arrival.
Where Is Lake Superior Located on a Map?
Lake Superior is the northernmost of the Great Lakes. Despite being closer to Canada, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, its Isle Royale belongs to Michigan! The island was made a national park in 1931 and is big enough to have a forested wilderness, streams, and inland lakes. It is accessible only by ferry or boat, and travel on the island is by foot or canoe. Isle Royale is a haven for more than 200 species of birds and is a UNESCO World Network Biosphere Reserve.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/SamWagnerTimelapse
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