Michigan's very name is rooted in the Ojibwa (Chippewa) word for "large lake," and its handprint on the earth, the mitten-like Lower Peninsula and jagged-edged Upper Peninsula, is shaped by four of the five Great Lakes. Sailors called them the "Sweetwater Seas." Carved by glaciers more than 12,000 years ago, the Great Lakes regions are the planet's largest bodies of freshwater which are visible from the moon and instantly recognizable on any globe or atlas.
Dotted with sailboats and other pleasure craft and fishing vessels, 1,000-foot long ore carriers and the occasional cruise ship, the Michigan Great Lake regions stretch far and wide to the horizon, delivering spectacular sunrises over Lake Huron to the East, and sunsets that appear to drop into the Lake Michigan on the western shore. At the Straits of Mackinac, the narrow strip of water where Lakes Huron and Michigan meet, the graceful, five-mile span of the Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
Michigan's Great Lakes are so large they can significantly affect the state's weather and are credited with creating favorable environments for growing a wealth of agricultural products. The Great Lake Regions are leaders in the growth of several crops including blueberries, cherries, asparagus, and grapes for juice and wine. Orchards and vineyards are especially successful along the Lake Michigan coast.
The waters of the Michigan Great Lakes lap against 3,200 miles of coastline onto sandy Great Lakes beaches and rocky shores, dotted with more than 100 public beaches, and two National Lakeshores. Along the Great Lakes beaches are stunning multi-colored sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks on Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula, and the highest freshwater sand dunes in the world at Sleeping Bear in the "Little Finger" of the Lower Peninsula's "Mitten."
While exploring the Great Lake beaches, visit one of the 115 lighthouses that stand watch over the temperamental inland seas. The waters of the Michigan Great Lakes are alternately an aquamarine picture of calm and a raucous series of surf-worthy whitecaps. Through the centuries the Michigan Great Lakes have served Native Americans, voyageurs, explorers, traders, and missionaries as vital transportation and commercial shipping routes, and since the late 1800s the lakes and beaches have been a draw for vacationers at summertime resorts. They are bountiful waters for sport fishermen, a recreational sailor's dream, a sea kayaker's challenge and the final resting place of nearly 5,000 shipwrecks that scuba divers explore at a dozen underwater preserves. Lake Huron is home to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary near Alpena, the only such site in the Great Lakes regions, in the northeast corner near the "Tip of the Mitt."
Spectacular dunes dot the Lake Michigan beaches along the west coast of the Lower Peninsula, from Sleeping Bear south to the Nordhouse Dunes at Ludington and Warren Dunes State Park not far from the state line, as well as Grand Stables Dunes on Lake Superior. The Gillette Sand Dune Visitors Center at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park in Muskegon features exhibits and nature programs that explore and explain the importance of the natural resource that inspired poet Carl Sandburg to declare, "The Dunes are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and the Yosemite is to California. They constitute a signature of time and eternity."
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