The big lakes are the stars of the show when it comes to water in Michigan, but the state has its fair share of inland lakes and rivers that are perfect for paddlers of all skill levels. You just need to know where to go.
This article offers two options in each region of Michigan, but there are dozens of others that are worthy of exploration. Your best bet: Check with your campground or a local business and ask for the best spots. A resource, too, that is worth bookmarking is Kayaking – Michigan Water Trails.
The Two Hearted River, a name made famous in a poem by Ernest Hemingway, is 30 miles of serenity – a perfect respite from the busyness of the world. It is a calm, deep river that is perfect for beginners and encourages you to take it easy. You can expect some manageable portages (where you need to disembark and carry the kayak over land for a short time) and log jams along the way, but you can also come across breathtaking points where the river meets Lake Superior. Those who have kayaked the Two Hearted River recommend that you choose a time to paddle here when you don’t have anything else on the agenda. The time is a little unpredictable with the portages, and you may want to bask in the views without having to worry about the time.
If you’re really looking for adventure and a brand-new experience, then kayak the coastline at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. You won’t get a better view of the beautiful sandstone cliffs, colors, and waterfalls that most people only see by land. Per the National Park Service, an ordinary recreation kayak won’t do. A sea kayak, which is longer and slimmer, is the only type of kayak that should be used on Lake Superior. The design of the kayak helps to better keep water out of the boat and will better enable you to traverse the big, cold, often tumultuous water. Plus, the conditions around the Pictured Rocks can change drastically and unpredictably. Guided tours are available and recommended unless you have previous experience with sea kayaking on Lake Superior.
Lake Dubonnet is a sheltered inland lake located near Interlochen, just a short drive from Traverse City. It is a quiet and serene place – and the lake is loaded with fish. Kayakers can put in at the state forest campground and work their way around the perimeter of the lake, exploring the shoreline nooks and crannies and seeing abundant wildlife. Bring the fishing rod along!
Further west is beautiful Glen Arbor, which is situated between two lakes and near Lake Michigan. The Crystal River is a 6.3-mile winding water trail that gentle flows from Glen Lake through parts of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and into Lake Michigan just north of town. You may choose, instead, to end your paddle in town so that you can peruse the shops and restaurants or a glass of wine. One of the best, most exciting parts according to those who have paddled this river before is “Shooting the Tube.” You’ll just have to visit this clear, sandy-bottom river to find out.
Tawas Point State Park on the Sunrise Side is a favorite for locals and visitors because of its historic lighthouse, extensive beach, and access to the Blueways Water Trail. Tawas Bay, an inlet of Lake Huron, has been referred to as “The Cape Cod of the Midwest.” Just put in the kayak and follow the shoreline up and around the point. On one side of the point is Tawas Bay, on the other side is Lake Huron. Two experiences and two spectacular views in one paddling trip.
Although the seven-mile Turnip Rock Trail near Port Austin should not be missed, if you’re looking for a shorter paddle that has its share of impressive rock formations, then go on a two-hour paddle along the Broken Rocks Trail that begins at Veterans Waterfront Park (which has a wonderfully sandy beach). As you journey south-west along the Michigan shoreline, you’ll see landmarks Table Rock, Broken Rock, and Twin Sisters. You will even be able to visit some sea caves carved into the rock. Table Rock has an accessible stop to take a break. After a swim and a snack, turn around and follow the route back to the park.
The lazy Thornapple River is an 88-mile-long tributary of the busier and more popular Grand River. There are two segments to this water trail that runs between Airport Road north of Hastings to Middleville, so you can do either or both. If you choose to do both, you’ll be out for about three hours and there is a decent hike with the kayak between the two dams at Irving Dam. You can instead take out at Irving Dam or put in south of the second dam and float down to Middleville from there. Both stretches of river are remote and feel far from civilization, along with plenty of wildlife. There are other launches and sections of the Thornapple, but this route seems to be a favorite.
Flat River in Kent County is a calm, easy paddle from Fallasburg Park to Lowell. The trip is seven miles long and begins at the picturesque 1870s Fallasburg Covered Bridge before winding downstream. There is one portage at Burroughs Dam, and some paddling will be required to move through the lake-like backwater. This is a pretty simple paddle for all skill levels.
Designated as a National Water Trail in late 2020 by the National Park Service – only the fifth in the state – the Shiawassee River is 88 miles of water that flows from Holly to Chesaning. The slow-moving current makes it ideal for families and novice kayakers. More experienced paddlers can decide to get a workout and paddle upstream. Launch from Broad Street in Holly and follow the river seven miles to disembark at East Street in Fenton, a ride that takes about three hours. The best part about this river is the ever-changing, diverse natural scenery. There are no liveries, so you need to bring your own equipment.
The Huron River near Ann Arbor is a favorite for kayakers and canoeists. The water trail starts at Proud Lake State Recreation Area. Farther south near Grand Rapids, Gallop Park is the only universally accessible boat launch on the river. If you’re more experienced and a thrill seeker, then you can partake in the short stretches of class II whitewater at Delhi Rapids, Mill Creek and Argo Cascades. There are plenty of one-way trips that go with the river current, or you can choose to take an easy round-trip paddles across flat water that doesn’t require arranging multiple modes of transportation. In the upper portion of the Huron River, a favorite is Proud Lake to Hubbell Dam. According to the Huron Water Trail website, “This nearly 6-mile-long stretch is a combination of flat water and gently flowing river that can be paddled both ways. Access points include the Proud Lake Campground Boat Launch, the access site on the north side of Proud Lake, the Wixom Road Access Site or from Central Park in Milford.”
You don’t need to travel Up North for an exceptional paddle. The Detroit River gives you a taste of both natural and urban worlds… plus some fantastic views of the magnificent city skyline from a vantage point few get to see. There are four segments along the Detroit Heritage Water Trail: Belle Isle (seven miles), Lower Detroit River (10 miles), Rouge River (six miles), and the Huron River (10 miles). You may, instead, choose to go on a two-hour guided tour of Detroit’s historic canals starting from Maheras-Gentry Park ($40 with kayak, $20 if you bring your own). Highlights include the Fisher Mansion and a view of the historic downtown. Paddlers have come to compare the experience to being in Venice.
For a decent day trip and an unforgettable experience, journey along the Krispin Blueway, which travels inland across Harsen’s Island in the St. Clair River. It’s a gentle journey on the Blueway, but you first have to get there. You have two options: (1) Put in at the DNR boat launch on the mainland and paddle across the St. Clair River to one of the access points to the island waterway, or take the car ferry across to the island and drive to one of the access points. The Krispin Blueway is a mellow paddle as well as a gorgeous one, as you’ll be in a wildlife refuge composed of mostly marshland. Wildlife abounds and you have the chance to see ducks, beavers, birds, and otters. This is definitely one of the more unique paddles on the list.