The Gales of November bring a noticeable change to Michigan’s Great Lakes. The clear waters that dance and sparkle in the summer sun, darken and froth under under a deep-blue sky.
The Gales of November blow when cold air flows down from Canada, washing over the warmer waters in Lakes Superior and Michigan. This whips up storms with winds as powerful as tropical storms and sometimes even hurricanes.
Great Lakes’ lore includes more than one legendary storm. The storm of 1913 remains one of the worst in Great Lakes’ history. For four days in November, winds blew with gusts up to 90 mph, creating 35 foot waves. Thirteen ships sank, taking with them the lives of 240 men.
The 1975 November storm that sank the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald just outside of Whitefish Bay is another Michiganders won’t forget. Again waves reached 35 feet, with wind gusts as high as 75 mph. Gordon Lightfoot’s famous song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” memorializes the event.
While we find The Gales of November ominous, we’re also fascinated by them. Hundreds of Michiganders flock to the beaches to watch the churning surf. It’s a spectacular site to see the massive waves break on piers and beaches as the deafening roar blocks out any other sound. A few brave, intrepid souls even snap on their wet suits and paddle out to ride the waves on surfboards. Here are some of the best beaches in Michigan to find big breakers when the gales blow.
Lake Michigan, Lower Peninsula
Van Beach, Leland
This west-facing public beach in Leland, on the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, is positioned perfectly for on-shore wind and surf. A ¾ mile long shelf also helps create wave action. A north wind really gets things rocking here.
Sleeping Bear Dunes
Sleeping Dunes National Lakeshore is just down the road from Leland. The beaches in the park also make some great places to catch a wave on a windy day. Though teeming with tourists in summer, the beaches are all but abandoned in November. You’re likely to have them all to yourself.
Head south on the famous M-22 to Frankfort. Here you’ll find a south wind, long fetch and an elbow shaped pier that creates large waves on breezy days. There’s also a lighthouse that makes for nice photo opps.
Pere Marquette Beach, Muskegon
In West Michigan, Pere Marquette Beach is the go-to for surfers. They like the tall waves created by south swells. It’s also popular with folks who just want to watch the waves roll in.
Grand Haven, South Haven and St. Joseph
Farther south along lake Michigan, the beaches at Grand Haven, South Haven and St. Joseph can also see big waves on blustery days. Surfers do brave the waters here occasionally, but you’re most likely to see large crowds hanging out near the piers. They are there to watch the big waves break on the historic lighthouses that crown each of these beaches. The water has been known to splash as high at their light towers.
Upper Peninsula, Lake Superior
Of all the Great Lakes, Superior is the biggest, deepest, coldest and most treacherous. November storms whip up huge waves. Locals and visitors alike are mesmerized by her power. On the east end of Lake Superior, Grand Marias beaches feature sand bottom beach breaks with waves moving from west to east.
Au Sable Point
Au Sable Point is just a few miles from Grand Marias. Locals say this is the place to go if you’re looking for big, long waves to ride. Located inside Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the sandstone cliffs create a stunning backdrop against the angry water.
Whitefish Bay has a beach break that consistently stirs up big surf on windy days. It can get crowded with surfers and gawkers, but the view is worth it. There are rock hazards here, so use caution if you paddle out.
Marty’s Cove, Marquette
Just down from the Marquette Lighthouse, Marty’s Cove is a popular place for surfers. The break actually runs all the way from the lighthouse to picnic rocks, along Lakeshore Boulevard. When a big storm blows in, social media is often flooded with videos and photos of the waves along here. Sometimes the surf gets so big, authorities have to close the road.
Jutting out into Lake Superior, the Keweenaw Peninsula is the farthest north you can get in Michigan, unless you venture out to Isle Royale. Large waves slam into the rugged cliffs along the shoreline making for some incredible views. The route along M-26 to Eagle Harbor is a good place to take in the waves.
When the waves are rolling, stay off the piers and rocks near the water. Big waves have washed people into the lakes and unfortunately taken many lives. Surfers should be experienced and be strong swimmers. The water is cold enough to give you hypothermia very quickly. A wet or dry suit is a must.