Lake Erie isn't so big. You could easily, leisurely drive around it in a day. Take the Turnpike and you could leave Toledo after breakfast and roll into Buffalo in time to order wings for lunch.
In terms of things to see and do, Lake Erie is enormous. You could spend a week on the Ohio shore alone and not see half the major attractions. Split up the trip into smaller jaunts, savoring every outing and returning often, and you could occupy several years' worth of weekends and never get bored.
My last trip around Lake Erie lasted seven years.
About that long ago, the idea started nagging at me to write a book about the Lake Erie Circle Tour. I wondered where it went and why anyone would want to follow it. Five years ago, I traveled around the lake for the first time. Four years ago I started writing. Three job changes, two houses and 56,000 words later I think I have it figured out.
Some of the most popular tourist attractions in four states and a Canadian province can be found on or near the Lake Erie shore. There are big cities, tiny towns, historic sites and charming vineyards; elegant resorts and tacky tourist traps; islands, parks, zoos, museums, casinos, amusement parks and outlet malls. The region is home to some of the best birding and fishing on the continent and Niagara, the world's most famous waterfall.
Best of all, you can go from the wilds of an unspoiled wilderness to the hallowed halls of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the same day, or just waste a weekend laying on a beach.
The Lake Erie Circle Tour is a nearly 700-mile driving route completed in 1990 by the states that share the shore. It is part of the 6,500-mile Great Lakes Circle Tour through eight states and two provinces established a year earlier by the Great Lakes Commission.
Green and white Lake Erie Circle Tour signs mark the route in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In New York, the tour overlaps about 75 miles of the larger New York Seaway Trail, a National Scenic Byway that continues to the Atlantic coast. Blue and white signs identify the Lake Erie North Shore Tour in Ontario, which meanders from the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River to the Peace Bridge spanning the mighty Niagara.
Designated splinter tours in Ohio take you to the Marblehead Lighthouse and a Civil War cemetery, or lead you on a hunt for 16 covered bridges in the state's northeast corner. A bicycle route traces the 46-mile Pennsylvania shore, while Ontario's Niagara Parkway is a scenic Sunday drive past Niagara Falls to the tranquil shores of Lake Ontario.
Sites from the War of 1812 create a museum without walls in New York. In Ohio and Pennsylvania monuments pay tribute to one of the war's great heroes, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. On the north shore, Fort Malden and Fort Erie tell the British side of the story.
Elsewhere on the tour are ghosts of another time. A charming lakefront home in places like Lorain or Detroit may have harbored fugitive slaves headed for the Canadian border in the mid-nineteenth century. The Lake Erie region in the years around the Civil War was an important link to freedom for fleeing slaves on the mysterious Underground Railroad.
Vineyards dominate the countryside between Dunkirk, New York, and Erie, Pennsylvania, on the islands of the western basin and along several stretches of the Ohio and Ontario shores. Award-winning wines are part of the bounty of a rich soil and moderate climate that also produce everything from apples to zucchini. In Ontario, you'll even see tobacco drying in the fields.
Sports, architecture, ethnic foods, cultural opportunities and music are the attractions in Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit.
That's where the Circle Tour goes. Why anyone would want to follow it is more complex and personal.
At various times, the tour provided me with excuses to spend more or less time with my family, whichever was called for. One trip was the backdrop for a memorable tent camping vacation when our daughters were ages five and eight. A few others were weekend getaways for my wife and me. I spent several days and weekends and one entire week all alone living out of my old minivan.
Another five-day sojourn occurred during a time of personal crisis and provided just the medicine I needed -- a road trip with a friend to take stock of life and reorder priorities. It was like one of those sappy buddy movies complete with campfire conversations that stretched long into the night.
The Lake Erie Circle Tour has been an adventure and an education. It has given me a better understanding and appreciation for my region's geography and history, not to mention countless opportunities to hit the road. That, to me, is reason enough to follow a string of signs around a lake -- whether you do it in seven days or seven years.
Enjoy your journey.
- Scott Carpenter