When we think of a Great Lakes beach, we might think of an open expanse of sand teeming with tourists on a summer afternoon. Or we might think of a remote stretch of land bordered by thick forest. This diversity is one of the basin’s many attributes.

In technical terms, a beach is the zone extending from the water’s edge to the limit of the highest storm waves. Often beaches act as the first zone of a coastal dune complex. Beaches and other upland habitats can also be interspersed with coastal wetlands and emergent marshes.

Great Lakes beaches can be divided into several different plant zones. Typical plant zones include shallow water and marsh; damp mud or sand flats; recently exposed sand and gravels; herbaceous vegetation; shrubs and small trees; and forests.

Away from the water’s edge, beach vegetation may be relatively stable. Near the water, however, extreme conditions—including wind, rapidly changing water levels, waves, temperature extremes and intense sunlight—often prevent plants from reaching maturity.

Undisturbed Great Lakes beaches provide important foraging habitat for many shorebirds, as well as nesting habitat for the federally endangered piping plover.

To learn more general information about beaches, visit:

Fine Grains

Sand forms when minerals and rocks break down over time into smaller and smaller particles. These particles are nearly indestructible. In a lake, they’re cushioned by a film of water, so that even a pounding surf has little effect. Sand from Great Lakes’ beaches and dunes is generally made up of 87-94 percent quartz.