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Great Lakes, Great Swell: Best Surfing On The Great Lakes

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Surfing The Great Lakes:

Surfing in the Great Lakes is a unique experience, as the conditions are vastly different from those found in traditional surfing hotspots. The waves are generally smaller, but still provide an ample opportunity for surfers to catch some great rides. The cold water temperatures are a challenge, but with the right wetsuit gear, you can stay warm and enjoy the waves.

One of the best things about surfing in the Great Lakes is the scenery. With miles of shoreline to explore, there are plenty of beautiful spots to discover. Lake Michigan and Lake Superior offer some of the most stunning views of any surf destination in the world.

The best season for surfing on the Great Lakes is generally considered to be in the fall and winter months. During this time, the waves tend to be larger and more consistent due to stronger winds and colder temperatures. However, it is important to note that surfing on the Great Lakes can be challenging and requires a good understanding of the conditions and safety precautions.

If you're new to surfing, the Great Lakes can be a great place to start. With smaller waves and friendly locals, it's a welcoming environment for beginners. There are also plenty of surf schools and rental shops in the area that can help you get started.

History of Surfing on The Great Lakes:

Early Beginnings: Surfing on the Great Lakes can be traced back to the early 20th century, primarily in places like Michigan and Wisconsin. In these regions, freshwater surfers began riding the waves long before it became a popular sport. Early surfboards were often homemade and crafted from wood, significantly different from the high-tech boards used today.

The Influence of Hawaii: The spread of surfing culture from Hawaii to the mainland United States played a significant role in the development of freshwater surfing. In the 1910s and 1920s, Hawaiian surfers like Duke Kahanamoku introduced the sport to the mainland, sparking interest among Americans.

The Surfing Community Grows: The 1960s marked a significant turning point for freshwater surfing. As surfing gained popularity on the West Coast, it also saw a resurgence on the Great Lakes. Surfing communities formed around the lakes, and dedicated surfers began to push the limits of what was possible in freshwater conditions.

Challenges of Freshwater Surfing: Surfing on the Great Lakes presents unique challenges. The waves are generated by wind rather than ocean swells, leading to smaller and less consistent surf compared to coastal areas. Additionally, the cold water and harsh winters require surfers to wear thick wetsuits, booties, and gloves, even during the summer months.

The Lakes:

  • Lake Superior: The northernmost lake offers some of the most consistent waves, with spots like Stoney Point and Whitefish Point attracting surfers.

  • Lake Michigan: The eastern shore of Lake Michigan is known for its surf breaks, particularly in areas like New Buffalo and South Haven.

  • Lake Erie: Surfers frequent locations such as Presque Isle State Park and Huntington Beach for the waves they offer.

  • Lake Ontario: Despite its smaller size, Lake Ontario provides some surfable waves, with Bluffers Park in Toronto being a popular spot.

Modern Surfing Culture:

Today, freshwater surfing on the Great Lakes has a vibrant and dedicated community. Surf shops, competitions, and surf schools have sprung up along the lakeshores, further cementing the sport's presence in the region.

While the Great Lakes may not offer the towering swells of famous coastal destinations, they hold a unique allure for surfers seeking challenging conditions and the camaraderie of a tight-knit community. The history of surfing on the Great Lakes is a testament to the enduring spirit of adventure and the ability of surfers to find waves in unexpected places.

The When and The How:

Fall and Winter: The best time for surfing on the Great Lakes is typically during the fall and winter months. From late September to early April, strong wind patterns across the lakes create the most consistent waves. Cold fronts and storm systems can generate powerful onshore winds, which churn the lake waters and produce rideable waves.

Ideal Wind Conditions: The key to great freshwater surfing on the Great Lakes is strong onshore winds. These winds push the water toward the shore, creating surfable waves. North, northeast, and northwest winds are often the most favorable for creating good waves on the lakes.

Lake-Effect Snow: During the winter months, lake-effect snowstorms can coincide with surfable conditions. While this may deter some surfers, it can also lead to memorable surf sessions with fresh snowfall on the shoreline.

Spring and Summer: While the spring and summer months offer milder weather and warmer water, they are generally less favorable for surfing due to calmer lake conditions. However, occasional windy days during these seasons can still provide surfable waves.

Monitoring Wind and Weather: To make the most of your Great Lakes surfing adventures, keep a close eye on weather forecasts and wind patterns. Websites and apps that provide real-time wind data are valuable tools for surfers looking to time their sessions correctly.

Be Prepared for Cold Water: Regardless of the season, the water temperature on the Great Lakes remains cold. Surfers should be equipped with thick wetsuits, booties, gloves, and hoods to stay warm and safe in the frigid waters.

Local Knowledge: Connect with the local surfing community around the Great Lakes to gain insight into the best spots and timing for surfing. Experienced surfers often have valuable knowledge about local conditions and ideal surf windows.

Sunrise and Sunset Sessions: Surfing during sunrise or sunset can be especially magical on the Great Lakes. The soft, golden light and tranquil moments add to the allure of freshwater surfing.

Dressing for Success:

1. Wetsuit Selection:

  • Choose a high-quality wetsuit that provides adequate insulation. In Lake Michigan, even during the warmer months, the water can be chilly, so a full wetsuit is recommended year-round.

  • Thickness: Wetsuits are categorized by thickness, typically measured in millimeters (mm). For the Great Lakes, a 4/3mm or 5/4mm wetsuit is suitable for most seasons. In colder conditions, consider a thicker wetsuit or layering with neoprene.

2. Booties and Gloves:

  • Cold water means you'll need booties and gloves to keep your extremities warm and maintain dexterity. Look for neoprene booties and gloves that fit snugly without restricting movement.

3. Hood:

  • A neoprene hood is essential, especially during the fall and winter months. It helps retain heat and prevents water from entering your ears and head.

4. Layers:

  • Consider layering beneath your wetsuit for added warmth. Neoprene vests or rash guards can provide an extra insulating layer. Thermal rash guards or wetsuit tops with a thermal lining can also help trap heat.

5. Proper Fit:

  • Ensure that your wetsuit fits snugly but allows for freedom of movement. A loose wetsuit can let cold water in and reduce its insulating properties.

6. Neoprene Accessories:

  • Neoprene accessories like hoods, booties, and gloves should fit snugly but not be overly tight. They help create a barrier between your skin and the cold water.

7. Leash and Surf Gear:

  • Don't forget to wear a surf leash to keep your board close in case of falls. Attach it securely to your ankle or calf.

  • Wear a comfortable swimsuit or rash guard underneath your wetsuit for added comfort and chafing prevention.

8. Safety Precautions:

  • Always surf with a buddy or in the company of other surfers, especially when conditions are challenging.

  • Familiarize yourself with local surf etiquette and any safety protocols unique to the Great Lakes surf community.

9. Dry Off and Warm Up Quickly:

  • After your surf session, it's essential to dry off and change into dry, warm clothing promptly. Pack extra towels and warm clothing to have on hand for post-surf comfort.

10. Respect the Environment:

  • As you dress for your surf adventure, remember to respect the environment and adhere to Leave No Trace principles. Dispose of trash properly and be mindful of the pristine nature of the Great Lakes.

Lake Erie

Popular Surf Spots:

  • Presque Isle State Park, Pennsylvania: This park on the southern shore of Lake Erie offers several surf breaks that are popular with the freshwater surfing community. The Presque Isle Peninsula acts as a natural barrier, creating wave opportunities in various wind conditions.

  • Huntington Beach, Ohio: Located in Bay Village, Ohio, Huntington Beach is a popular spot for Lake Erie surfers. It offers a sandy bottom and consistent waves, making it an ideal location for both beginners and experienced surfers.

  • Long Point, Ontario: On the northern shore of Lake Erie in Canada, Long Point Provincial Park has surfable waves and a welcoming surf community. The park's sandy bottom and consistent wind patterns make it a reliable spot for freshwater surfing.

Surf shops:

  1. Lake Erie Surf Shop: Located in Cleveland, Ohio

  2. Presque Isle Surf Shop: Located in Erie, Pennsylvania

  3. Erie Outfitters: Sheffield Lake, Ohio

Lake Michigan

Popular Surf Spots:

  • New Buffalo, Michigan: Located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, New Buffalo is a well-known surf spot. The sandy bottom and consistent waves make it suitable for surfers of all skill levels.

  • South Haven, Michigan: South Haven offers a variety of surf breaks and is a favorite spot for Lake Michigan surfers. It features a lively surf culture and a welcoming community.

  • Sheboygan, Wisconsin: On the western shore of Lake Michigan, Sheboygan is known as the "Malibu of the Midwest." It's a hotspot for freshwater surfing, with its consistent waves and thriving surf community.

Surf shops:

  1. Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak - Located in Empire, Michigan

  2. Great Lakes Surf Shop - Located in Saugatuck, Michigan

  3. Lake Effect Surf Shop - Located in Sheboygan, Wisconsin

  4. Magma Surf Company - Located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Lake Ontario

Surf Spots

  1. Bluffer's Park Beach, Toronto: This is the most popular surf spot on Lake Ontario. It has a sandy beach and consistent waves that are perfect for beginners.

  2. Marie Curtis Park, Toronto: This is another popular surf spot in Toronto. It's a bit more challenging than Bluffer's Park, but still suitable for beginners.

  3. Port Dalhousie, St. Catharines: This is a great spot for experienced surfers. The waves can be quite big and powerful, so it's important to be careful.

Surf shops:

  1. Surf Ontario - located in Toronto

  2. Surf the Greats - located in Toronto

  3. Surf Paradise - located in Oakville

  4. K-Coast Surf Shop - located in Rochester, New York (just south of Lake Ontario)

Lake Huron

Surf Spots:

  1. Kincardine Beach: This is one of the most popular spots for surfers on Lake Huron, and it's great for beginners.

  2. Bayfield Main Beach: This beach is known for its consistent waves and long rides, making it a favorite among experienced surfers.

  3. Goderich Beach: This spot is known for its consistent waves and can be a great place for beginners to learn how to surf.

  4. Sauble Beach: This beach is one of the most popular in the area and has a great break that can be good for surfers of all levels.

Surf Shops:

  1. Third Coast Surf Shop- Located in St. Joseph, Michigan

  2. The Outfitter of Harbor Springs- Located in Harbor Springs, Michigan

  3. Northshore Outfitters- Located in Oscoda, Michigan

Lake Superior:

  1. Stoney Point: Located near Duluth, Minnesota, Stoney Point is a popular spot for surfers. The waves can reach up to 6 feet high, making it an excellent location for experienced surfers.

  2. Whitefish Point: Located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Whitefish Point is another popular surf spot. The waves can get up to 4 feet high, making it a great location for intermediate surfers.

  3. Marquette: Located on the southern shore of Lake Superior in Michigan, Marquette is known for its consistent waves. The waves can reach up to 4 feet high, making it a great location for beginners.

  4. Grand Marais: Also located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Grand Marais is known for its long waves that can reach up to 6 feet high. This location is best for experienced surfers.

Surf shops:

  1. Endless Wave Surf Shop - Located in Duluth, MN

  2. Surf the Greats -Located in Thunder Bay, ON

  3. U.P. Supply Co. -Located in Marquette, MI

  4. Surf Superior - Located in Grand Marais, MN

  5. Duluth Surfing Co. - Located in Duluth, MN


Surfing the Great Lakes is a testament to the indomitable spirit of surfers who have embraced the unique challenges and rewards these freshwater waves offer. Throughout this article, we've ventured into the world of Great Lakes surfing, exploring its history, the allure of its breaks, and the passionate surf communities that have sprung up along these inland shores.

As we reflect on the journey of surfing the Great Lakes, we find a profound connection between humans and nature—a connection that transcends the traditional image of surfers riding ocean waves. Here, on these vast freshwater seas, surfers have discovered a different kind of magic, one born of patience, adaptability, and the sheer joy of riding waves wherever they may be found.

Surfing the Great Lakes embodies the essence of exploration, reminding us that adventure knows no boundaries. It beckons us to appreciate the unexpected beauty that can be found in our own backyards, fostering a deep respect for these remarkable bodies of water and the dynamic ecosystems they support.

As surfers continue to chase waves across the Great Lakes, they carry with them a commitment to preserve and protect these invaluable resources. Their stories inspire us to embrace the spirit of adventure, to embrace the elements, and to celebrate the wonders of the natural world, even in the unlikeliest of places.

In the end, surfing the Great Lakes is more than a sport; it's a celebration of the enduring human spirit and a reminder that, in the pursuit of our passions, we can discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, and find a deep connection to the very heart of our planet. So, whether you're a seasoned freshwater rider or a curious spectator, the call of the Great Lakes waves invites you to join in this remarkable journey of surf, community, and environmental stewardship.

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