The State’s Best Rivers and Lakes
From wild rivers to serene lake paddling, Michigan has more than 3,000 miles of designated water trails to canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard.
The aptly nicknamed Great Lakes State is literally surrounded by water, the only state that touches four of the five Great Lakes. And then there are all the inland lakes (11,000+) and rivers and streams (36,000 miles, including more than more than 12,000 miles of cold water trout streams). In other words, you’ve got options.
Southern Lower Peninsula
1. Detroit River, Detroit
While the resurgence of Detroit has been well documented, there’s one comeback story that’s received very little ink: the cleaning up of the Detroit River, which is now home to a walleye fishery and naturally reproducing sturgeon. The two best options for a quick and easy paddle: Rent a kayak or SUP on Belle Isle Park (designed by Central Park landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted) and cruise around the island, or book a guided trip with Detroit River Sports for a tour of the lower Detroit River near Grosse Isle, including Humbug Marsh.
2. Huron River Water Trail, Ann Arbor
The only designated Natural River in southeast Michigan serves up an easy flow, with only a few not-too-tricky rapids, as it meanders past historic water mill sites and some of Michigan’s classic small towns. Anglers, feed out a line for largemouth bass, walleye, catfish, and more. A pro tip for overnights: Campgrounds are plentiful along the 104-mile trail’s upper stretch but scant as you reach the urban areas near the mouth at Lake Erie. Rentals: Argo or Gallup Canoe Liveries, Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation.
3. Kalamazoo River, Saugatuck
The Kazoo River might only be a few hours from Chicago, but it feels worlds away. Our favorite all-day excursion: Rent a kayak or SUP and float the 23-mile section serpentining from Lake Allegan to the Lake Michigan town of Saugatuck, one of the Great Lakes’ liveliest harbor towns. Be sure to pack your fly rod, because thanks to a plenitude of rocky-bottom structure and a cold ground-fed flow, there’s trophy smallmouth bass fishing along the way. Rentals: Running Rivers.
Northern Lower Peninsula
4. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire
With dune bluffs rising 450 feet from the waterline, 35 miles of undulating dune grass, and windblown white pines, Sleeping Bear has been rightly voted as one of the most beautiful places in America. Families can find calm paddling on the sleepy Platte River or on the park’s inland lakes, like Shell or Bass Lakes. For even more solitude, ferry your boats from Leland harbor to South or North Manitou Islands and paddle 35 miles of sandy isle shore. Boat rentals: Crystal River Outfitters. Rentals: Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak. Guide: Uncommon Adventures.
5. Chain O’ Lakes, Bellaire
Kid Rock’s teenage heart swooned on Torch Lake, and his dreamy memories conjured a love ballad: All Summer Long. Whether the tune is mega or meh for you, Torch and the Chain O’ Lakes it connects to—14 lakes, 75 miles long—are undeniably awesome. Explore massive (30 square miles) Torch Lake on calm days, look for bald eagles along the shores of Skegemog Lake swamp preserve, or head to the protected waters of St. Clair Lake or Six Mile Lake if the wind kicks up. Rentals: Paddles & Pedals.
6. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Alpena
This protected area in Lake Huron contains some of the world’s best-preserved shipwrecks. The bonus for paddlers is that many ships sank in the shallow waters not far from shore—dubbed “Shipwreck Alley”—meaning easy day-trip distance. Grab the sanctuary’s handout, which includes shipwreck tales and a map, and aim for the marker buoys to gaze down on tall-masted schooners, sidewheel steamers, and other wrecks from the glory days of Great Lakes shipping. Kayak rentals aren’t available in town, so it’s BYOB.
7. Au Sable River, Grayling
Trout Unlimited was founded on the banks of this classic Michigan stream back in 1959, and it still ranks as blue-ribbon trout water. The clean, cold, surging current keeps trout healthy and makes for sublime paddling, too. Reserve a canoe at a livery in Grayling for a few hours’ paddle. For a longer, more secluded float, ease into the Au Sable’s South Branch, specifically the Mason Tract: 11.5 miles of preserved river with few houses and plenty of muscular brown trout (flies only, catch and release). Rentals: Carlisle Canoe Livery.
8. Pine River, Cadillac
Nestled in a deep river valley and flowing predominantly through the Huron-Manistee National Forests, the Pine River has something for everyone. The section from Dobson Bridge to Low Bridge has tons of Class I and II rapids, making it popular with rafters, tubers, and canoeists looking for a little adventure. It’s also one of the state’s premier trout streams and, thanks to its Natural River designation, is bounding with wildlife, making it a great spot for birders and any budding naturalists in the family. Rentals: Pine River Paddlesports.
9. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising
With Mediterranean-like green waters, sea caves, stone arches, and 200-foot sandstone cliffs painted with green, blue, and red mineral stains, Pictured Rocks deserves a spot on any paddler’s bucket list. (It’s no wonder that the National Park Service designated the area, on the southeastern shore of Lake Superior, the first national lakeshore in America.) Seasoned kayakers: Put in at Miners Castle Beach and head to Chapel Beach. Everyone else: Lake Superior is cold and powerful and probably best experienced with a guide. Northern Waters Adventures offers everything from half-day trips to multi-day paddles along the 42 miles of park shore.
10. Two Hearted River, Grand Marais
Hemingway’s famous short story, Big Two-Hearted River, lodged this river into the national consciousness, even though the literati says he was describing the nearby Fox River. Either way, the Two Hearted is a gem: slow and mellow enough to canoe with the kids, beautiful enough for Instagram snaps, and home to enough hefty brown trout to satisfy anglers. Rock hounds in the family? The take-out where the river empties into Lake Superior is prime agate-hunting area. Rentals: Grand Marais Outfitters.