A Beach Within Reach

Find a beach vacation within reach. Here are several with drive times under five hours.

Squinting over endless sparkling water, the gulls swooping in for a snack; treading in gentle waves that tickle the shore; brushing sand from a peanut-butter sandwich; smelling that distinctive aroma of sun block; taking a long sunset walk, your feet sinking as you avoid sand castles that seem to disintegrate as soon as they’re built.…

You don’t have to drive all the way to the Jersey shore, Cape Cod or Myrtle Beach to experience the wonderful sensations of a lazy day at the beach. There’s big water much closer to home. Sand beaches on Lake Erie, the closest of the five Great Lakes, can be reached by car in as little as 2 1/2 hours from the Pittsburgh area, short enough for a day trip and interesting enough to inspire a longer trip along the shorelines in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and even southern Ontario, Canada. There are as many days’ worth of beaches and charming resort towns to explore as you can spare.

OK, the Great Lakes are fresh-water, not salty like the Atlantic Ocean. So there’s no salty smell—and you probably don’t get as sticky when you swim in a Great Lake. You also don’t have to worry about a shark attack (there are none) or a jellyfish sting. Waves, too, are more family-friendly, gentler—unless, at least on the southern shores of Lake Erie, there’s a big wind coming from the northwest that can drum up 10- and 12-foot waves.

Which brings up another lake-versus-ocean topic: There is surfing on Lake Erie and the other lakes. Insiders understand the conditions that can create surfable waves on these vast, inland fresh-water seas. Info: greatlakesurfing.com.

Lake Erie is getting cleaner, notes Jane Beathard, a spokeswoman at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Lake Erie’s 9,910-square-mile surface area makes it the 11th largest lake in the world. It’s also the most shallow of the Great Lakes (average depth 62 feet), and it’s the warmest. The warmth combined with high nutrient levels means Lake Erie also is a fine fishery. Perhaps the most important fact: Lake Erie’s shoreline is a whopping 871 miles long.

From our Southwestern Pennsylvania neighborhood, the most obvious way to Lake Erie is a beeline north on Interstate 79, a jog left of the city of Erie and a right onto the naturally occurring peninsula of Presque Isle State Park (translation from the French: “presque isle” means “almost an island”; scientific research has suggested that the peninsula moves one-half mile eastward each century, due to the forces of wind and water). It’s a gorgeous day-use state park offering 10 guarded beaches that are open from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. Some have views of Erie’s industrial shoreline while others have views of the horizon, interrupted only by ships passing in the distance and splashing kids and adults close to shore. Each guarded beach has at least some of these amenities: parking, concession stands, bathrooms and changing areas. Other attractions include miles of trails for hikers and bikers, a 13.5-mile flat-loop multipurpose trail around the park that’s particularly good for in-line skating. And then there’s Presque Isle’s acclaimed sunset. “It’s pretty incredible,” says Miranda Crotsley, environmental-education-specialist supervisor at Presque Isle. Something about the way the peninsula juts out into the lake gives Sunset Point, near Beach 10, a perfect, uninterrupted view.

“People do come from all over to catch the sunset,” Crotsley says.

Every Wednesday night through July 27, the “Sunset Concert Series” is presented on Beach 10 from 6:30 to 9 p.m., rain or shine. Featured acts include Mambo, Bruce Johnston, Jazz Trio and Sam Highman.

Other features of special interest include the historic Presque Isle Lighthouse, a 74-foot tower built in 1872 that flashes a white light. Nature lovers can enjoy the Isle, too. The peninsula’s slow eastward movement has created a fascinating and diverse landscape that works as a natural laboratory for watching geological forces in motion.Ohio’s East Harbor 
State Park on Marblehead peninsula offers a 1,500-foot-long swimming 

At Stull Interpretive Center (817/833-0351) near Barracks Beach (Beach 1), exhibits show the way the sand spit is continuously shaped. Also there are displays of the birds (more than 320 species have been recorded) and other flora and fauna of this special region. Info: 814/833-7424 or presqueisle.org.

Just in case you can’t bear to leave our Keystone State, there’s another public beach on Lake Erie: Freeport Beach in North East Township (Halli Reid Park, Freeport Road-Route 89; township office, 814/725-8606). For swimming and picnicking, try the nearby North East Marina (814/725-8244, northeastmarina.com), operated by the state Fish and Boat Commission. And this is wine country: Five wineries and their vineyards are in the township (Info: 814/725-8606).

Want to be on a real island? Head northwest to Ohio, where you can board ferries to several islands on Lake Erie. Kelleys Island—at more than 4 square miles, the largest American island on Lake Erie—can be reached by a 20-minute ferry ride (419/798-9763, kelleysislandferry.com) from a dock in Marblehead, Ohio.

Kelleys Island, part of Lake Erie Islands State Park, is quieter and more family-oriented than its neighbor town Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island, a popular summer resort. Kelleys Island has a swimming beach, six miles of hiking trails, summer nature programs, boating, fishing and campgrounds. Info: ohiodnr.com/parks/parks/lakeerie.htm, or kelleysisland.com. You don’t actually have to leave Marblehead to get to a beach—Ohio’s East Harbor State Park on Marblehead peninsula contains the state system’s largest campground and a 1,500-foot-long swimming beach. Info: 419/734-4424, dnr.state.oh.us/parks/parks/-eastharbor.htm.

For an even more exotic island adventure via Ohio, go to Canada: Pelee Island in Lake Erie is the southernmost point on Canada’s mainland, in Ontario province. A ferry runs May through September from Sandusky to Pelee Island; be sure to call the ferry service at 800/661-2220 or 519/724-2115 when planning your trip. The island boasts a host of fun and interesting sights and activities, including an organic farm; a winery; nature reserves with rare species, including the blue racer snake; a restored 1833 lighthouse; great bird-watching, excellent fishing; and miles of beaches. Info: 866/889-5203, pelee.org, or pelee.com.Fifty Point 
Conservation Area in Stoney Creek, near Hamilton, Ontario,  is 
particularly proud to have one of the warmest and cleanest beaches 
around, as well as superb marina facilities.

Back to Earth—or the Ohio shore—traveling east toward Erie, you might take sample dips on beaches along the coast such as Century Park and Lakeview Beach in Lorain County. Or stop for a swim in—gasp!—Cleveland. It’s an urban beach experience at Cleveland Lakefront State Park. Three swimming beaches—Euclid Beach, 650 feet with a scenic observation pier; 900-foot Villa Angela, with bathhouse, scenic boardwalk and fitness trail; and adjacent Wildwood Park, which has a concession stand—run along the Lake Erie shoreline. You can bike along a mile-long path between Euclid Beach and Villa Angela, and another half-mile to Wildwood. Info: 216/881-8141, dnr.state.oh.us/parks/parks/clevelkf.htm.

The shore goes on and on. Traveling east, shoreline highlights include Headlands Beach State Park near Mentor, Ohio, with its mile-long natural sand beach and, thanks to long-ago glacier activity when this was the continental East Coast, its dunes are inhabited by plant species typically found only on the Atlantic seaboard. Recreational opportunities include hiking, fishing, a children’s playground and a sand beach amenable to beach-volleyball games. Headlands Dunes Nature Preserve at the east end of the park is a fine example of Lake Erie beach and dune communities in Ohio. Along the southern end of the park is Mentor Marsh State Nature Preserve, a National Natural Landmark with 644 acres of marsh-swamp-forest that includes a 5-mile hiking trail. Next to that is the 450-acre Mentor Lagoons Nature Preserve and Marina, the state’s newest nature preserve with more than five miles of nature trail and 1 1/2 miles of wild beach—Mentor Marsh Lagoons Beach—a chance to see what Lake Erie’s shoreline would looked like if it had remained untouched. Info: 216/881-8141, dnr.state.oh.us/-parks/parks/headlnds.htm.

Geneva State Park has a beautiful 300-foot-long sand beach, and fishing and boating. You can enjoy the back-to-nature experience of camping there, or stay in style in the park’s new Lodge at Geneva, operated by Ashtabula County, a lodge and conference center with a panoramic view of the lake, full-service restaurant and more than 100 rooms. Info: 800/801-9982, 440/466-8400, dnr.state.oh.us/parks/parks/geneva.htm.

For more action, the lodge is within a short walk of the resort town of Geneva on the Lake, which calls itself Ohio’s oldest resort. Summer activities include lakefront concerts, amusement-park rides on the entertainment strip and local winery tours (there are 17 wineries in Ashtabula County). Info: 800/862-9948, visitgenevaonthelake.com.

The Lake Erie shoreline knows no boundaries. In other words: It’s also in New York state, where you’ll find a few spots of sand before you get to Buffalo. Near Dunkirk, N.Y., is Lake Erie State Park, where high bluffs overlooking the lake afford breathtaking views of the lake, and migrating birds stop before they take off across the lake. The shoreline is more than three-quarters of a mile long; options include camping, hiking and a playground, among other amenities. Info: 716/792-9214, nysparks.com.

Continuing northwest on the other side of Dunkirk is Evangola State Park, with an arc-shaped shoreline and natural sand beach edged by low shale cliffs. If you need a break from the water, there’s camping, picnicking, baseball and soccer fields and tennis and basketball courts. Info: 716/549-1802, nysparks.com.

The coast of Lake Erie takes a hairpin curve near Buffalo, where you can cross the Peace Bridge into Canada at the mouth of the Niagara River and explore the opposite shores of Lake Erie. Port Colborne, Ontario, a town of 19,000 that’s about 30 minutes’ drive from Buffalo, is at the southern terminus of the Welland Canal and was built around the fishing and marine industry. The city also promotes its quaint charms and summer fun: golf courses, marinas and water sports, as well as events like a waterfront festival with tall ships, fireworks and heritage displays in August. Info: 905/835-2900, city.portcolborne.on.ca.

Beaches here include: Sherkston Shores, which calls itself “the ultimate beach resort,” has more than 2 1/2 miles of sand beach, including Wyldewood Beach, and lots of recreation, such as mini-golf, a giant water slide and horseback riding. On Nickel Beach, with more than a mile of white sand, there’s swimming, windsurfing, picnic areas and a concession stand. Other beaches include Centennial (Cedar Bay) Beach, which has an on-site washroom, and Long Beach in the Long Beach Conservation Area on Lakeshore Road, Wainfleet, which has an admission charge.

Then there’s that other lake. From Buffalo, you could take a whole new tactic and head north to the next-nearest Great Lake: Lake Ontario. Although it’s the smallest of the Great Lakes in surface area, Lake Ontario is the second deepest, with an average depth of 283 feet. The name means “beautiful lake” in Iroquois, and its largely rural shoreline (except for a few large urban areas like Toronto) hosts many scenic resort areas. Lake Ontario is 325 feet below Lake Erie, not far from the base of Niagara Falls, so to get to Lake Ontario, you have to pass this Natural Wonder of the World. True, Niagara Falls is no place to swim, but it is awe-inspiring.

On the Canadian side as you head north, Lake Ontario makes its first appearance near the lovely Victorian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of the Shaw (theater) Festival and many historic monuments and historic sites. A swimmable beach, however, can be rare on these shores—Lake Ontario is usually very cold. Info: 905/468-1950.

Travel Tip:

If you’re going to Canada, have two forms of identification,
at least one with a photo ID and a proof of citizenship,
such as a passport or birth certificate. Resident aliens must have
a residency card. Have birth certificates for each child in
the vehicle. If traveling with a child who is not in
your immediate family, have a note or proof that the
child has permission to cross the border with you.

A popular site for outdoor recreation is Port Dalhousie, pronounced “de-lucy,” near St. Catharines, a quaint old village about 20 minutes from Niagra-on-the-Lake with harbors, marinas and a beachfront mainly promoted as a place to walk, jog or swim. Info: 905/937-4783, portdalhousie.com.Kelleys Island—at 4 
square miles, is the largest American island in Lake Erie.

If you head west, you’ll find one of the best Lake Ontario swimming areas: Fifty Point Conservation Area in Stoney Creek, near Hamilton, Ontario. Some human intervention has created one of the “warmest and cleanest beaches” on the western end of Lake Ontario. Facilities include changing rooms, campgrounds, full marina facilities and the Landing Restaurant. The fishing is good, too: Try salmon fishing in Lake Ontario; charters are available. Info: 905/525-2187, conservationhamilton.ca/parks/visit/fifty_point.asp.

If you stay in the States, there is a string of state parks along the shores of Lake Ontario as you travel across the top of western New York toward Rochester. These include Fort Niagara, Four Mile Creek and Lakeside Beach (no swimming allowed) state parks, each with a variety of outdoor activities and amenities. Only Hamlin Beach State Park in Hamlin, N.Y., promotes swimming in the lake, with its clear-water, sandy beaches and a bluff area known as “Devil’s Nose.” Info: 585/964-2462, nysparks.com

These destinations—from Marblehead, Ohio, in the west; to St. Catharines, Ontario, in the north; to Hamlin, N.Y., in the east—may feel like another world. But you can reach these “exotic” locales—including wonderful beaches on sparkling endless water—in less time than it takes to get to most parts of the Atlantic Coast. There’s a reason these big bodies of water are called Great Lakes.

Even Closer to Home: Beaches on Little Waters

An afternoon at the beach? No sweat. Just point your vehicle in almost any direction from Pittsburgh and be basking on a sandy shore in an hour or two.

Lake Arthur, a 3,225-acre lake in Moraine State Park (225 Pleasant Valley Road, near Portersville, Butler County; 724/368-8811, dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks/moraine.aspx) has two swimming beaches: Pleasant Valley Day Beach on the south shore is a 1,200-foot-long turf and sand beach; and Lakeview Beach on the north shore is a 550-foot sand beach. Lifeguards at Lakeview Beach through Labor Day, showers, changing facilities and food concessions are at both beaches.

Go a little farther north, and you can swim in a 150-acre spring-fed glacier-formed lake: Sandy Lake (off Franklin Road, Stoneboro, Mercer County; Info: 724/376-3541). It’s privately owned, but accessible for a small fee. Amenities include four diving boards, docks and boat launches for fishing or waterskiing, changing rooms and a small concession area.

Raccoon Creek State Park (3000 State Route 18, Hookstown, Beaver County; 724/899-2200, dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks/raccooncreek.aspx) includes 101-acre Raccoon Lake, with an 800-foot, handicapped-accessible sand and turf beach that’s lifeguarded to Labor Day; bathhouse and refreshments nearby.

Laurel Hill State Park (1454 Laurel Hill Park Road, Jefferson and Middlecreek townships, Somerset County; 814/445-7725, dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks/laurelhill.aspx) has a 1,200-foot sandy beach on its 63-acre Laurel Hill Lake, which is surrounded by pristine state forest lands. The beach is lifeguarded through Labor Day, and there’s a snack bar nearby.

Crooked Creek Lake (7 miles south of Kittanning on Route 66, Bethel Township., Armstrong County; 724/763-2764, 724/76-3161, lrp.usace.army.mil/rec/lakes/crookedc.htm) is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lake has a sandy peninsula beach at Tunnelville.