MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Beaches & rock-picking

America's freshwater Riviera

On Lake Michigan's gorgeous beaches, everyone can find a spot in the sun.

It’s funny that some people in the Upper Midwest spend their summer vacations on the beaches of Cancun or Cape Cod, because the best beaches in the world are in their own back yard.

Lake Michigan is America’s freshwater Riviera, a nearly unending strand of sand that looks like Florida without the high-rise condos. It’s clean, blue and pleasantly cool, with water temperatures in the 60s, and in most places it looks just like the ocean.

Add in candy-striped lighthouses and even more ice-cream stands, and you’ve got the makings of a great beach holiday — a cheap one, too, if you're on a budget.

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Great beaches of lakes country

In cities as well as forests, it's not hard to find a place to play.

Around here, you don't need oceans for a beach vacation.

We have thousands of lakes, plus inland seas on shoreline that often is called the Fourth Coast. Lake Michigan's shores are a veritable Riviera, and even rocky Superior has some noteworthy stretches of sand.

You could throw a dart at the map and come up with a good beach. Or you could take a cue from names of state parks — Point Beach and Harrington Beach in Wisconsin, McCarthy Beach in Minnesota, Orchard Beach in Michigan.

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Dunes of Duluth

On Lake Superior, a windswept spit of sand draws beach bums and boat nerds.

Most people don't think of Duluth as a beach town.

It's a little chilly, for one thing. But the port city has six miles of sandy beach along the largest freshwater sandbar in the world.

Just over the Aerial Lift Bridge, Park Point is where Duluthians play. They hike and run on a two-mile trail through forest and dunes. They paddle canoes and kayaks. They hang out on the beach, watching waves in winter and braving them in summer.

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Agate Central

In Moose Lake State Park, an interpretive center caters to rockhounds.

To some people, nothing is a finer destination than the dusty gravel pits around Moose Lake in northern Minnesota.

A billion years ago, when fresh lava was cooling around what is today Lake Superior, dissolved minerals flowed into gas bubbles that had formed on top layers.

Other minerals coated the first layers, some red from iron or white from calcium, and over time heat and pressure squeezed them into stone.

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Agate stampede

Every year, Moose Lake introduces budding rockhounds to the thrill of the hunt.

It's no secret there's buried treasure right here in Minnesota.

It's in every gravel pit, along every railroad track, on every beach. All you have to do is look to find a Lake Superior agate, Minnesota's official state gemstone.

And every July, agates also can be found spread over Moose Lake's main street — 400 pounds of them, some even polished, hidden along with 2,000 quarters in 4 tons of rock.

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Grand sand

Along Lake Michigan, the Sleeping Bear Dunes are a playground for all ages.

One Great Lake east of Superior, there’s another North Shore.

It doesn’t have any craggy points or sheer palisades, and there are no agates waiting to be found. It has no waterfalls, and not a scrap of basalt; in fact, there’s nothing volcanic about it.

But this north shore, on the leeward side of Lake Michigan, has something Minnesota's beautiful North Shore on Lake Superior doesn’t have: Sand, lots and lots of sand.

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Beaches on bike trails

After the sweating, cool off in the surf.

Feel like going for a bike ride, but it's just too hot? Pick a trail with a beach. Anyone who pedals more than a few miles during the dog days deserves a nice, cool dog paddle afterward.

That’s what we got one muggy Saturday on the Lake Wobegon Trail in central Minnesota. From Avon, we rode westward between so many bouquets of purple prairie clover the trail looked landscaped.

This gentle farmland, dotted with lakes, inspired Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon.

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Swimming in Superior

If you're lucky, you can take a dip along Minnesota's North Shore no wetsuit required.

Remember all those summers when you looked longingly at Lake Superior, wishing you could swim in it for more than a minute without going numb? The summer of 2012 wasn't one of them.

Non-stop, beastly hot temperatures mellowed the waters of the big lake, turning it into the world's largest swimming pool.

Water-surface temperatures pushed 75 degrees on the notoriously cold stretch between Duluth and Grand Marais. That's the warmest in a century and 20 degrees higher than normal for mid-summer.

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Beaches of the North Shore

Agate-hunters, storm-watchers, picnickers they all want to be close to the edge.

Big, bad Lake Superior.

It’s big as in vast, with a surface area equal to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

It’s bad as in lethal, able to swallow ore boats or pulverize them against the hard volcanic rock that lines its shore. And it’s treacherous — like an enraged bull, its crushing waves can turn on a dime.

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How to find an agate

Beaches are pretty, but gravel pits yield more treasure.

The best time to look for agates is on a sunny day, early in the morning or late in the day, when the rays of the sun are slanting across the rocks.

"Agates reflect the light a lot more than other rocks,'' says John Woerheide of Lutsen, Minn., who uses agates in the jewelry he makes. Woerheide suggests walking into the sun and stooping low.

It's fun to look on North Shore beaches, but they're picked over, so he looks after a heavy rain or storm, when new rocks wash up.

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