Lake Michigan shines as Chicago’s brilliant blue jewel. The fifth-largest lake in the world, at 307 miles long by 118 miles wide, and with a shoreline reaching 1,640 miles, on a good day this gem of a great lake rivals any ocean. Make a point to appreciate the Third Coast this summer by embarking on one of these six adventures that embrace the beauty that is Lake Michigan.
1. Catch a glorious sunrise and see if you can spot the birds at a hidden, lakeside bird sanctuary
Chicago’s magnificent Lakefront Trail connects all of Chicago’s waterfront and is the place to be for joggers and bikers in the summertime. But did you know that several birds have reserved a hidden, quiet corner of the lakefront as an airport of their very own? Birds love the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, a small, tree- and bush-packed finger that pokes out into Lake Michigan. Over 300 species of birds have been spotted here in this small green space, the unofficial Chicago landing pad for our migrating feathered friends. Located along a natural migratory corridor, it’s the first natural cover that southbound migrant birds hit after flying the 307-mile length of Lake Michigan. Early in the morning, when the rising sun awakens the bugs, you’ll find plenty of birds on the prowl for breakfast. Take a walk out on the nearby pier, where loons and long-tailed ducks like to linger. Keep your eyes on the skies and you might spot a swooping Peregrine Falcon, making its way in for a landing after a Lake Michigan crossing.
The Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary can be found by following Montrose Avenue east, crossing Lake Shore Drive and making your way toward Lincoln Park’s lakefront; take a right at the street next to the bait shop. Follow the curve until you spot the ornithophiles’ paradise on your left. Arrive at dawn to catch a double feature: a magnificent sunrise and a bevy of birds.
2. Hang 10 on Lake Michigan’s swell waves
If you’re looking to catch a wave close to home, look no further than Lake Michigan: Our waves are wind powered but still surf-worthy. You can surf year-round at Montrose, 57th Street, Osterman, and Rainbow beaches, but you might want to consider donning a wetsuit, due to the inevitably chilly water temps. If you need to snag some gear, Lake Michigan even boasts its very own surf shop, one of the best in the Midwest: At Third Coast Surf Shop (110 N. Whittaker St., New Buffalo, Michigan, 269-932-4575) you’ll find boards and wetsuits for sale and for rent.
3. Snorkel Lake Michigan’s take on the coral reef: The Morgan Shoal
Forget jetting off to the Caribbean for your next snorkeling adventure. About 300 feet off the Chicago shoreline at a depth of about 20 feet, the Morgan Shoal is a Midwestern take on the coral reef. It’s an easy snorkel out to the shoal from Morgan Point (E. 47th Street and S. Lake Shore Drive), and you can expect great visibility — sometimes up to 20 feet — on a calm day. Dive down to the depths and see if you can spot a round goby poking out from this incredible shoal. Peep your head above the water to break your tropical reverie and take a look at the Chicago skyline that rises from the edge of the shoreline. A mask, snorkel, and fins will make your trip easier, as will a wet suit, since lake water temps are decidedly un-tropical.
4. Dive deeper and explore a historic Lake Michigan shipwreck
If you’ve ever wondered what lies beneath, and dreamed of diving down into the depths of Lake Michigan, set off on a wreck scuba diving excursion with Windy City Diving (784 Bonnie Brae Court, Bolingbrook, 630-209-2445) and Underwater Safaris (2950 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, 773-348-3999). Several wreck dive experiences are offered throughout the summer, with departures from Belmont Harbor at 8 a.m. sharp and featuring an affordable price point: $130 for a two-tank dive. For the intermediate diver and up, set off on a dive trip to explore the Straits of Mackinac: Intentionally sunk in 2003, this 204-foot car ferry offers something for every diver and has become Chicago’s premier dive site. Your second dive may go to the Wells Burt, a three-masted schooner built in 1873 that sank in 1883 in 40 feet of water and is considered by many to be one of the best shipwrecks in Illinois waters. Underwater Safaris rents snorkeling and scuba gear and also offers PADI Open Water Diver Certification classes.
5. Experience the fireworks as they blast off over Lake Michigan … from the stunning vantage point of a kayak
Kayaking Lake Michigan is always an incredible experience, but kayaking it while fireworks blast off into the sky above you, reflecting on the waves, is nothing short of spectacular. Hop into a single or double kayak and paddle Lake Michigan with the help of an expert guide from Kayak Chicago (various locations, 312-852-9258). On the guided Firework Float — offered on Wednesday and Saturday evenings at dusk, throughout the summer — you’ll catch the Navy Pier fireworks from one of the best seats in the house. This city outfitter also offers daytime tours, as well as classes, rentals, and individual and group instruction.
6. Embrace your inner mariner and learn to sail
Is a seafaring life for you? Chicago Sailing (2 W. Belmont Harbor Drive, Chicago, 773-871-7245) can get you started. As Chicago’s go-to sailing school, you’ll find a class to fit both your sailing needs and schedule. Learning to sail is fast and fun and Chicago Sailing promises that you’ll become a confident skipper in just a few sessions of on-the-water training. If you need to learn to sail, STAT, check out the Cruising Course: This five-day getaway and learning experience gives you the chance to spend a full week cruising Lake Michigan while earning your US Sailing Basic Cruising and Bareboat Cruising Certifications. Chicago Sailing also offers youth sailing classes, private charters, and rentals. A warning though: You might never want to set foot on land again after you experience the beauty of sailing Lake Michigan.
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Amy Bizzarri is a Chicago-based freelance writer focused on food and travel. She has a keen interest in Chicago history and is the author of “111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss” and “Discovering Vintage Chicago.” Amy is also a proud member of [email protected], a movement that works to ensure children around the globe have access to the vaccines they need.