Mirror, Mirror On the Wall, Which Great Lake is the Greatest of All? — The Great Lakes, Ranked

Twilight view of Lake Superior from Montreal Falls (Photo: Alan Labisch,  Unsplash )

Twilight view of Lake Superior from Montreal Falls (Photo: Alan Labisch, Unsplash)

As one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world — first in total area and second in volume only to Russia’s Lake Baikal — it’s difficult to imagine anyone making the argument that the Great Lakes aren’t named appropriately. But what if we were to compare the individual lakes with one another? Which of the Great Lakes is the greatest? The least-great? Now that’s a debate worth having.

How you rank the Great Lakes depends heavily on what metrics and/or characteristics you care about most. If you’re all about size and depth, Lake Superior is your body of water. If you’re a temperature-minded guy or gal, Lake Ontario, the warmest of the five on average, would be your go-to. If you’re a major fan of long walks on the beach, Lake Huron, which has the longest shoreline (when you include its thousands of islands), is the lake you’re looking for.

Each has its pros and cons, but when it comes right down to it, there is a clear order in my mind — and it looks like this:

5. Lake Erie

-Surface Area: 9,910 sq. miles (4th)

-Volume: 116 cubic miles (5th)

-Depth: 210 ft. (5th)

-Shore Length: 871 miles (4th)

The least-great of the Great Lakes is, to me, a no-brainer: Lake Erie. This is in large part because Erie is the only Great Lake which borders Ohio, the worst state in America (look it up, it’s a fact). Kidding aside, Lake Erie has had issues with toxic algae blooms ever since the late 1990s. Those little buggers turn Erie’s waters a bright blue-green, which can produce some interesting satellite images, but is not great if you were planning on going swimming, as the blooms sometimes lead to public warnings to avoid contacting the water.

But hey, it’s not all bad. If there’s one good thing about Ohio, it’s Cedar Point, and that happens to be located on a funny, little peninsula that juts out into Erie. Beyond that, there are some islands you can visit (found mostly in the western end of the lake), and Cleveland and Buffalo each own some Erie shoreline — for whatever that might be worth.

4. Lake Ontario

-Surface Area: 7,340 sq. miles (5th)

-Volume: 393 cubic miles (4th)

-Depth: 802 ft. (3rd)

-Shore Length: 712 miles (5th)

The smallest of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario largely gets the nod over Lake Erie because of that whole Ohio debacle — plus, you know, the algae blooms. Conversely, Ontario finds itself this low in the rankings due to the fact that it is the only Great Lake that doesn’t touch any part of Michigan, which, as we all know, is the Great Lakes State. The tiniest and easternmost Great Lake can almost be forgiven for that sin by virtue of spawning T-shirts and other paraphernalia bearing the phrase, “Four out of five Great Lakes prefer Michigan,” but we aren’t letting it off that easy.

A few things Ontario does have going for it? Toronto, Canada’s most populated city, is situated on its northern shore, and it is the Great Lakes’ gateway to the Atlantic, to which it is connected via the St. Lawrence River. What else, what else… Oh! It’s name in the Huron language means “Lake of Shining Waters.” So that’s pretty nifty.

3. Lake Huron

-Surface Area: 23,007 sq. miles (2nd)

-Volume: 850 cubic miles (3rd)

-Depth: 750 ft. (4th)

-Shore Length: 3,830 miles (1st)

I nearly had Lakes Huron and Ontario reversed in these rankings, but when I stopped to think about the size and shape of Lake Huron, and the fact that it boasts the longest shoreline of all the Great Lakes, it seemed fitting for it to come out ahead. Huron is certainly the most interestingly-shaped Great Lake, and this is undoubtedly thanks in part to its many, many islands. I’m not sure how official this number is, but according to Live Science, Huron contains 30,000 islands, some of the most notable being Manitoulin Island, home to some 12,000 Canadian residents, and Mackinac Island, the eternal summer favorite of Michiganders.

We’ve also got to give credit where credit is due, and if it weren’t for Lake Huron, the state of Michigan wouldn’t have the distinctive mitten shape that so much of its identity is built around and by which it is easily recognized on just about any map.

2. Lake Superior

-Surface Area: 31,700 sq. miles (1st)

-Volume: 2,900 cubic miles (1st)

-Depth: 1,333 ft. (1st)

-Shore Length: 2,726 miles (2nd)

One might assume that because of its name, or its vastness or largeness or depth-ness (okay, I might have made that word up), that Lake Superior would automatically be the head honcho when it comes to ranking the Great Lakes, but one would assume incorrectly in doing so. Superior was given that title because of its hugeness, but my goodness, have you ever stepped foot in this lake? It’s much too chilly, on average, to come in at numero uno.

And though it scores major points for Pictured Rocks, Isle Royale National Park, the Keewenaw Peninsula, and the vast beauty that is the Upper Peninsula in general, mighty Superior simply isn’t capable of knocking the greatest Great Lake from its lofty pedestal. That greatest of the Greats, of course, being…

1. Lake Michigan

-Surface Area: 22,404 sq. miles (3rd)

-Volume: 1,180 cubic miles (2nd)

-Depth: 923 ft. (2nd)

-Shore Length: 1,638 miles (3rd)

Lake Michigan, the cream of the crop, the greatest Great Lake that ever there was. Now, of course, having grown up a two-minute drive from Michigan’s sandy shores, I’m a bit biased. But set that aside for just a moment and consider all the upside Lake Michigan has. This is slightly subjective, but I’d argue that it has the best beaches of any of the Great Lakes, not to mention the most gorgeous sunsets — the kind you could never get tired of witnessing.

Throw in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Nordhouse Dunes, two of the numerous areas which make up part of the largest freshwater dune system in the world, and beautiful port cities like Charlevoix, Leland, Frankfort, Pentwater, and Grand Haven, among many others, and it’s really no contest. Feel free to make your case for another Great Lake down below, however. Maybe you’ll convince me otherwise (but I doubt it).

-LTH