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With countless inland lakes and rivers and over 3,200 miles of freshwater coastline, it’s easy to see why Michigan is one of the most popular places in the US for kayaking.
But if you’ve never been before, it can be difficult knowing which spots are the best for your skill level. Some are great for families while others are better suited to solo kayakers who are experienced with class II rapids and above.
If you’ve always wanted to visit this renowned area, this post will run through the 19 best places to go kayaking in Michigan and what you can expect from each.
Looking for a kayaking adventure of a lifetime? Learn all about night kayaking at Key West here.
Best Places to Kayak in Michigan
Michigan is renowned for its kayaking, with so many incredible spots to choose from. Here are 19 of the top places to add to your bucket list.
Most popular between late spring and early fall, Lake Michigan is one of the most popular spots to kayak in the state. The sixth-largest freshwater lake in the world, you can access it from shorelines in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
For beginners, paddling adventures off any of the shores of Lake Michigan make for a great day out, with campgrounds dotted around for a much-needed break at the end.
For those looking for something more full-on, you can take a kayaking trip across the lake which will take just under 16 hours in total. But be warned, the winds pick up at night making the waters rough.
You don’t need a permit or license to operate a kayak in Lake Michigan since they’re private, non-motorized vehicles.
You’ll need to take a ferry or seaplane from Houghton, Copper Harbor, or Grand Portage to get to Isle Royale, but it’s worth the trip.
Alternatively, you can paddle around the interior lakes of the eastern half of the island. But this requires a pass which costs $7 per person per day.
Sit-on-top kayaks aren’t sturdy enough to live up to the swells around Isle Royale, so you’ll need a sea kayak. However, the interior lakes are still so sit-on kayaks are fine.
In the interior, you might spot moose or wolves wandering, which is a great sight to see from the lake.
This unique landmark is found in central Michigan on Lake Huron. The small island gets its name because it is shaped like a turnip growing up out of the water.
Turnip Rock is around three and a half miles offshore and only accessible by water. Since it is a bit of a trek, it’s recommended for experienced kayakers.
Once you’re at the oddly shaped island, the water is shallow enough to get out, relax, and explore before heading back. The shore near Turnip Rock is private land though, so keep within the lake while exploring.
Huron River starts at Big Lake in southeast Michigan. It’s around 130 miles long with a 104-mile long designated trail for kayaking.
The great thing about Huron River is that it’s great for all experience levels. For a more gentle paddle, the section nearest the mouth of the river is calmest. However, there are class II rapids further upstream for those looking for something a little more adventurous.
There are 36 different access points along the river with four different campgrounds nearby. So whether you’re looking for a day trip or an overnight stay with a few different trails, there’s something for you.
Not sure what to pack for an overnight trip? Check out our guide on what to wear kayaking for a full list.
Ann Arbor is famed for its kayaking. The Huron River runs through the Ann Arbor area and connects it to neighboring Ypsilanti and Dexter. This gives you a great trail to explore if you’re looking for a day trip.
People head to Ann Arbor for the scenery. Surrounded by wide, open spaces of green and blue, there really is nothing like it.
The section of the river that takes you through Ann Arbor is scenic, winding through forests and small towns and few historic bridges and landmarks to look out for.
For sunrise and sunset kayaking, you can’t beat Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. With beautiful rock formations, lighthouses, and abundant wildlife, the entire area comes to life with the rising and setting sun.
The Grand Hotel is at Mackinac Island too, so you can paddle to see the sunrise at dawn and then stop for their famous french toast.
It’s about two and half miles to paddle to the island from St. Ignace, but it is a fairly calm trip for confident kayakers.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is the south shore of Lake Superior. It got its name from the rainbow-colored cliffs standing in the turquoise waters, but you’ll also find caves and arches to explore.
Lake Superior is massive, so early morning paddling is advised. There isn’t any kayak rental at the lake so you’ll need your own kayak, and make sure to check the weather – it’s known to change quickly.
Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness Area
This is a National Wild and Scenic River that people come from all over the US to kayak down. From the 300-foot sandstone cliffs to the red and white pine trees, you’ll quickly understand why it’s called a scenic river.
The river runs down the northern part of the wilderness area, over 20-foot volcanic outcroppings of Sturgeon Falls and through the 350-foot gorge.
There are some great areas for rapids if you’re very experienced, with the entire trail taking around five and half hours. This one isn’t recommended for beginners since the river has a strong current and some difficult passes in areas.
Sylvania Wilderness Area
Almost on the Wisconsin border, the Sylvania Wilderness Area is another popular spot for kayaking in Michigan. The lakes within the wilderness area are pristine, fed by clear spring water.
The waters are incredibly calm and sheltered by the surrounding forests, making them ideal for beginners or families.
There are a few campsites around the lakes if you’re planning an overnight stay, with hiking trails and other activities to make the most of your visit.
Big Island Lakes Wilderness
Located in the Upper Peninsula, Big Island Lakes Wilderness has 23 different lakes. The smallest is just five acres while the largest is 149, all spanning a 5,800-acre expanse.
There are no camping fees or permits needed to visit Big Island Lakes, and since some of the lakes can only be reached by bushwhacking, it can be an incredibly quiet place to explore.
On the other hand, the most popular lakes have large, flat trails which are popular in peak season. There are campgrounds on the shorelines of the lakes which are great for kayaking trips if you want to start early and watch the sunrise.
The Manistee River begins in the northern lower peninsula, near Mancelona Township. It runs parallel to the Au Sable River for around 12 miles before diverting southwest and ending in Lake Michigan.
This river is great for short paddles or multi-trips, but you will run into dam crossings throughout the river which can become a nuisance for long floats.
Even so, the river is mostly calm with the most difficult sections only reaching class II.
Island Loop Route National Water Trail
This national water trail includes the Black River, the Black River Canal, Lake Huron, and the St. Clair River. With so much water to cover, this trail has something for everyone.
The muddy Black River is most known for its scenery. From the undisturbed wildlife to the blue herons flying overhead, it’s a stunning part of the trail to begin with.
It is best to take on this trail early in the morning when it’s most quiet. Commercial boat traffic can make the waters rougher throughout the day and spoil the scenery.
But even so, most of the route is calm and slow which is great for all skill levels.
Lake St. Clair
There are 16 different launch sites and four paddling trails to choose from at Lake St. Claire. With the largest freshwater delta in the entire world, there are hundreds of canals and creeks to anchor on and explore.
The lake itself offers much rougher waters for an exhilarating adventure. Because it has shallow, the waves are much sharper and can make for some white knuckle kayaking in strong winds.
On the other hand, the canals are more gentle for beginners and little ones.
There are many different branches of the Ontonagon River, each one around eight miles long. There are a few different campgrounds along the river if you want a camping trip, and each section of the river has different classifications for kayaking.
From gentle paddling to whitewater rapids, there’s something to suit all skill levels along this river, with most areas being fairly gentle.
Onekama to Arcadia
This trail is a popular part of Lake Michigan that lets you explore the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. There are four different access points, each giving a different length paddle to get to the dunes.
The trail can be anywhere from five miles to over ten, depending on the launch site you choose, but it’s worth the trip. The sandy beach and 100-foot high dunes are not to be missed.
The East Side Canals of Detroit River is a mixed bag for kayakers. With dozens of access points, the river starts wild and goes through Motor City, eventually coming out on a Great Lake where you’ll be paddling alongside boats and freighters.
It’s choppy in areas and offers whitewater kayaking in places for the more experienced. But a lot of the river is scenic and gentle, with opportunities to take in the wildlife.
If you’re looking for the hardest areas of the river for a white knuckle paddle, Downtown is one of the more advanced areas.
Starting out at Long Lake in the northern peninsula of Michigan, Platte River is only around 30 miles long.
The River is split into two parts (upper and lower) and eventually empties into Lake Michigan.
Upper Platte River is much more scenic but is more geared towards experienced kayakers. The rapids are class II, but it’s fast and has some tight turns to navigate.
On the other hand, Lower Platte River is suitable for all skill levels. It has a gentle current and gradual turns.
Bear in mind that if you visit between August and October, Michigan’s Fish Weir will be in operation, so you’ll have to get out and walk your kayak around it. It’s a cool thing to see in action during the salmon migration though.
Two Hearted River
Another short river, the Two Hearted River is only around 23 miles long and flows into Lake Superior. It’s a really beautiful river to kayak and a good one for newbies or families to try. There are some small rapids up to class II, but most of the river is gentle and scenic.
There are also a few different campgrounds along the river if you want to turn it into a multi-day trip.
Elk Rapids is a small town in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan and is surrounded by water. The Grand Traverse Bay is to the west, while Elk Lake sits to the east.
Since it’s a town surrounded by water, it’s a popular tourist destination for kayaking in Michigan.
It’s a great spot for a multi-day trip that starts with kayaking in Lake Michigan’s East Wing Grand Traverse Bay, followed by camping at Barne’s Park Campground, then moving on to Lake Michigan on day two.
In Elk Rapids, you can also take on the Chain of Lakes. This tail has 12 lakes interconnected by four rivers and has some great rapids dotted throughout for experienced kayakers.
The best kayaking in the US
It’s safe to say Michigan is one of the best places to go kayaking in the states. From the expansive lakes to the whitewater rapids in the long stretches of rivers, it is a kayakers paradise.
But there are so many other incredible places to add to your kayaking bucket list you won’t want to miss. Head to our guide on kayaking Red River Gorge in Kentucky or find out more about underground kayaking in flooded mines for a trip of a lifetime.