The 10 Best Places to Paddle in Michigan

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Michigan’s geography has no equal. Its shorelines abut the second, the fourth, the fifth, and the eleventh largest lakes in the world. Up north, trout-filled rivers tumble and pool through boreal forests, which are forever green and sweet smelling. In the mitten that’s lower Michigan, inland lakes and sugar maples abound. Some of those lakes are coffee-colored and others so clear you’ll feel like you’re flying as much as floating.

Whatever water you prefer, cozy or ginormous, flat or roaring, Michigan is the state to float your boat, whether it’s a whitewater kayak, an ocean kayak, a sit-on-top kayak, or an old-school canoe, laden with portage packs. Here are some prime places for paddling in The Wolverine State.

Michigan’s stunning Miner’s Falls.

BIG WATER PADDLING

Isle Royale

Isle Royale does take some planning and pesos, as it’s way out yonder in massive Lake Superior. It is accessible via four ferries and one seaplane (leaving from Houghton, MI, Copper Harbor, MI, and Grand Portage, MN).

Two paddlers navigate through Isle Royale’s Tobin Harbor in a canoe.

If you want to paddle the water around Isle Royale, sit-on-top kayaks are as advisable as poking Superman in the eye. On the other hand, 16-to-19-foot sea kayaks will give you a swell time in the swells instead of wishing you were home. You can also paddle the interior lakes of the eastern half of the island, if you like irony, which is what you get when you paddle lakes within a lake. It’ll cost you seven dollars per person, per day for an Isle Royale pass, but it’s a bargain, as moose and wolves abound.

Brilliant fall colors illuminate Lake Superior’s shoreline.

Trails can also be a part of your paddling trip, as there are 169 miles of them. Canoeing isn’t confined to the nine, portage-connected inland lakes, as the fjord-like bays of the eastern shore will abide an open boat when the wind is right, but respect Gitche Gumee, the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Pictured Rocks

Aquamarine water lapping at rainbow-colored cliffs might describe Heaven, but it also describes Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It is the south shore of monstrous Lake Superior, so early morning paddling, closed boats, and big water experience are your best bet.

The many colors of Painted Rocks.

If you want extra security, Pictured Rocks Kayaking company follows its tandem kayakers with a launch boat, which also has restrooms. You’ll see sea caves, arches, colossal cliffs, and the peerless, vertical bands of color that give the Lakeshore its name.

Painted Rocks lives up to its name.

Mackinac Island

If you’re the sort of traveler who likes room service, you might prefer to paddle Mackinac Island, which comes with all the niceties. You can paddle to see the sun rise in the morning and then order Apricot Cream Cheese Brioche French Toast with caramel sauce for breakfast at the Grand Hotel.

Michigan’s Mackinac island.

After breakfast, go and bike around the island, where cars are banned and bikes rule the road, before taking to the water again to watch the sun set behind the Mighty Mac, the breathtakingly high bridge that connects the two Michigans – the mitten and the Yoopers.


WHITEWATER PADDLING

Huron River

The Huron River is a fun, wide run and a good place to develop whitewater skills with Class I and II drops, turbocharged by spring’s snowmelt. It’s due west of Ann Arbor, a city that hasn’t just been named Michigan’s top town, but America’s…more than once.

Lake Superior’s shoreline is dotted with historic lighthouses.

Ann Arbor has aspirations of being a forest one day, as it plants 1000 trees every year. Beneath those trees, coffee shops, vintage stores, and music shops abound. Paddle the flatwater portions of the Huron right into downtown Ann Arbor and treat yourself to French Dip sandwiches, onion rings and craft beer at the old-school Casey’s Tavern, a block’s walk from the river.

Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness Area

The Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness Area is a National Wild and Scenic River, so it delivers old growth red and white pines, sugar maples, and birches atop towering sandstone cliffs. In the fall, the trees can surpass the fire of the red sandstone cliffs. Those cliffs can be 300 feet high, which means you’ve got to finish what you start.

Go equipped with savvy and moxie, especially in the spring, but if you have the skillset to do a remote, technical, swift, and unforgiving run, you’ll be hooting and hollering for joy in that deep, misty gorge. There are three Sturgeon rivers in Michigan and this wild one is in the Upper Peninsula, south of Houghton.


QUIET, PRISTINE PADDLING

Manistee River

It’s 190 miles of choices. In the upper reaches, cast to its fabled brook trout. Farther downriver, brown and rainbow trout rule the river. Below Tippy Dam, steelhead and salmon swim.

If you prefer to float, dunk your toes and watch the low banks slide by, as the Manistee’s steady current will give you a fine ride. If you want to paddle all the way to the inland sea that’s Lake Michigan, there are campsites, many free and first come-first serve and some private, all along the way.

Sylvania Wilderness Area

Located tight to the Wisconsin border, the Sylvania Wilderness Area will remind you of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area. There will be eagles overhead and otters and loons watching you watch them. It was originally owned by lumber barons, who wanted some pristine forest preserved. Bing Crosby and Dwight Eisenhower once dangled their toes in its lakes, as clear as spring water because that’s what feeds them.

Picturesque Manabezho Falls can be found on the Presque Isle River in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

Sylvania’s lakes are cozier than the Boundary Waters, which means you won’t be windbound most days, if you prefer paddling and portaging to playing cribbage in a tent. It’s also not as rocky as the Boundary Rocks, as it’s not the glacially-exposed Precambrian bedrock of the Canadian Shield. Lots less rock means easier portages. Even the campsites are different, set back into the woods, so you feel like you have this wilderness to yourself, whether paddling or in camp.

Big Island Lakes Wilderness

This is another Upper Peninsula gem, with 23 lakes ranging in size from five to 149 acres in a 5800-acre area. The parking lot is often empty, meaning this rustic playground can be utterly yours. There are no camping or usage fees and some of the lakes can only be reached by bushwhacking, requiring orienteering skills, but the portage trails that do exist tend to be pretty wide, fairly level, and easy to find. The campsites, unlike Sylvania’s, are set on shorelines, but you’re unlikely to have other paddlers passing and disrupting your sweet solitude.


MIXED BAG PADDLING

Detroit Heritage River Water Trail

The Detroit Heritage River Water Trail is a mixed-bag of paddling: a river that starts wild, lets you paddle through downtown Motor City, and then spits you out on a Great Lake alongside freighters as long as football fields. There are also a plethora of launching sites.

Belle Isle, Detroit River.

“We have dozens of access points and we’re adding to that every year,” said Mary Bohling, MSU Extension educator with Michigan Sea Grant. “We have a couple different ADA accessible. Some have rollers or are electric, the latter lowering you in your boat into the water.”

The myriad launching sites lets you select a section appropriate for your skill level.

“There’s a lot of variation,” said Tiffany VanDeHey, owner of Riverside Kayak. “You can tour at different skill levels. The lower section where it empties into Lake Erie is easy paddling with lots of backwaters. Downtown is more advanced. Everywhere, there’s history to see.”

Island Loop Route National Water Trail

Comprised of the muddy Black River, the Black River Canal, Lake Huron, and the St. Clair River, the Island Loop Route has something for every paddler.

Michigan’s beautiful Blue Water Trail.

On the Black River, you’ll paddle between tiger lilies, irises, oaks, and maples. In addition, you’ll also be beside and beneath bald eagles, great blue herons, egrets, and Canada geese. If you’re especially lucky, you might even spy the threatened Least bittern, a small heron that looks like a cross between a woodpecker and a crow. There are unseen critters too, as you’ll paddle over the spawning grounds of the lake sturgeon. Sturgeons can live 150 years and grow as big as NBA players. 30,000 or more, the largest spawning population in the Great Lakes, gather beneath the Blue Water Bridge.

Downriver, there’s Fort Gratiot, the oldest lighthouse in Michigan, the Thomas Edison museum, and the Huron Lightship Museum, which is a buoy tender lightship moored on land in a park, and the Great Lakes Maritime Center.

More from CK

Best Paddling Towns: Marquette, Michigan

Meet a Water Trail: Michigan’s Island Loop Trail

How to Go Kayaking in Detroit, Michigan.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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