Four Great Lakes, along with more than 3000 miles of freshwater coastline, a mind-blowing total of 11,000 inland lakes, and miles upon miles of trout-filled rivers up north, surrounded by boreal, forever-green forests.
Michigan’s geography is truly a sight to behold – and a kayaker’s paradise, might I add.
Can you say you’re surprised that kayaking is among Michigan’s fastest-growing recreational activities?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Whatever you’re into – casual paddles on small lakes, fishing trips, or adventures in the roaring whitewater – Michigan’s the state that’ll float your boat.
But that’s the thing, though – how does one pick where to start exploring Michigan’s waterways?
That’s kind of the reason why I put together this best kayaking in Michigan list. You could start with the 14 paddling locations covered in this guide – and go from there!
Kayaking (And Fishing) Laws & Regulations: Things To Be Aware Of When Kayaking In Michigan
Having four – out of five, mind you – Great Lakes right at its doorstep, along with the abundance of rivers and streams tumbling and pooling through it, Michigan is a kayaker’s dream come true.
I’m honestly not surprised that it has the largest number of registered boaters in the US.
Now, I get that you can’t wait to go straight to the fun part – deciding where in Michigan to launch your ‘yak next. I’m every bit as excited about it as you are.
Not so fast, though.
I think it’s vital that we take a moment to go over Michigan’s kayaking laws and regulations and other things you’ll have to keep in mind before you load up that ‘yak of yours.
With that said, here’s a summary of some crucial law-related rules and regulation points to be aware of:
- You don’t require a license to operate a paddle-propelled kayak in Michigan. The same goes for motorized kayaks with a trolling motor of no more than 6 horsepower.
- All vessels, regardless of size or propulsion method, must be equipped with US Coast Guard-approved PFDs for each person on board. Kids under the age of 6 should wear a Type I or Type II PFD.
- Vessels that are 16 feet in length or shorter and are powered solely by paddles – which applies to non-motorized kayaks – do not need to be registered in Michigan.
- Motorized vessels, including kayaks fitted with a trolling motor, must be registered with the Michigan Department of State, with a three-year renewal period.
- Michigan has laws regarding boating under the influence (BUI). A blood alcohol content of .08% or higher is considered illegal and will lead to BUI chargers, which are deemed a misdemeanor offense.
- Any overhang of four feet or more has to be properly labeled with 12-inch red flags and a red light at night. Keep that in mind when transporting your kayak.
- The state of Michigan requires anyone who’s 17 or older to have a fishing license, which should be renewed yearly. The annual fishing license fees will cost you $2.6 and be purchased on the Department of Natural Resources website for from a local licenced retailer.
Where To Kayak In Michigan – Top 14 Spots To Dip Your Paddle
If there’s one thing that should be evident by now, it’s that Michigan has no shortage of fantastic paddling opportunities. I mean, even the state’s name comes from the Ottawa word “mishigami” – which translates to “large water” or “great water.”
That’s a fitting name if I ever saw one.
I couldn’t possibly fit every single paddling spot in Michigan into a single guide. I’m pretty sure it would require a full-blown book.
So, I guess this round-up of the 14 top paddling spots will have to do for now.
1. Au Sable River
Best For: Kayak camping
We’ll start off with the Au Sable River – one of the most picturesque that Michigan has to offer. It stretches for more than 130 miles across Michigan’s northern lower peninsula before emptying into Lake Huron, where you’ll find the small community of Au Sable.
Starting north of Grayling, its 138-mile long route through Michigan passes multiple towns – and offers a plethora of campsites located along its shores, too.
The Au Sable is also one of Michigan’s finest locations when it comes to trout fishing. But even if kayak fishing isn’t your cup of tea, it’s still a stunning river to paddle – not only for the scenery but for the wildlife, too.
You might get a chance to say “Hi!” to a couple of otters along the way!
The river is generally calm, but you might encounter some milder whitewater rapids – Class II, at most. Also, be prepared to do some portaging; the river features several hydroelectric dams.
Oh, and here’s an interesting fact:
The Au Sable River is home to the annual Canoe Marathon, a part of the Triple Crown of canoe racing. Every year in July, professional paddlers from all over North and Central America gather in Grayling to start this ultra-competitive 120-mile marathon.
2. Two-Hearted River
Best For: Beginner paddlers and day-trippers
Another one of Michigan’s gems, the Two-Hearted River, stretches across the upper peninsula. Well, “stretches” is a bit of a stretch – pun intended – considering that the river flows through the wilderness for a mere 23.6 miles before emptying into Lake Superior.
Where does it get its name from, you ask?
Well, the river splits into two branches – hence the name.
Again, the Two-Hearted River’s not that long, but it will take you on a stroll through the stunning Upper Peninsula scenery. It’s perfect for beginner paddlers and shorter trips – but if you’d like to extend your stay, you’ll be glad to hear that there’s a small campground at the river mouth.
Oh, and if sit-back-and-catch-fish is more up your alley, know that the Two-Hearted River is rich with salmon and steelheads. So, grab your rods, power up your fish finder – and go get ‘em!
Here’s an interesting fact:
The river was made famous by Ernest Hemingway, appearing in the title of his short story, “Big Two-Hearted River.” Given the story’s descriptions, it’s now evident that he was likely referring to the Fox River near Seney – but that doesn’t make it any less popular.
3. Grand River
Best For: Multi-day excursions
Situated in Michigan’s southeast region, near Jackson, you’ll find the headwaters of a river that’s more than deserving of its name – the Grand River.
Why the whole “deserving of its name” part?
Well, stretching north and then west for nearly 260 miles – 252 miles, to be exact – before finally reaching Lake Michigan, the Grand River is the longest waterway in the entire state of Michigan.
If you wish to earn the bragging rights for paddling Michigan’s longest river, then a multi-day trip down the Grand River is something to add to your bucket list.
You don’t have to go all-in, though. If you’re not ready for multi-day excursions, that’s fine, too – you can still enjoy the experience of paddling down the Grand River.
There are many sections of the river to choose from – most surrounded by stunning scenery and pristine nature, unspoiled by human civilization, with some sections flowing through towns, such as Lansing, Grand Haven, Eaton Rapids, Grand Ledge, and Portland.
That said, there’s one particular portion of the Grand River I’d generally advise you to stay away from – the section running through Grand Rapids. It’s riddled with low-head dams, which, as you might know, are the number one hazard for river paddlers.
Low-head dams didn’t get the nickname “drowning machines” for nothing. So, my advice to paddlers is to stay away from Grand Rapids.
There are plenty of other more scenic sections to paddle, anyway.
4. Detroit River
Best For: Urban kayaking
The Detroit River stretches from Lake Huron and down to Lake Erie, dividing Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, along its 28-mile route.
And for the urban paddler, there’s no better big-city experience than paddling through downtown Detroit in a kayak. Yup, you read that right:
This dynamic waterway takes you on a stroll through the urban areas of downtown Detroit – with a touch of the serenity of the International Wildlife Refuge.
Here’s the best part:
The river is organized into different paddling segments, each offering a unique experience. You don’t have to paddle the entire thing to get a taste of urban kayaking!
There was a time where the mere mention of kayaking the Detroit River would’ve been met with blank stares, raised eyebrows, and quite a few “Nope, that’s a bad idea” type of comments.
You see, this river has a long history of industrial use; recreation was the last thing on anyone’s mind. However, the clean-up and conservation efforts have made a significant difference during the past few decades.
And today, it’s part of the Michigan Water Trail Program – and belongs on every kayaker’s list of urban hot spots.
5. Platte River
Best For: Different types of kayaking
Sitting in the Northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the Platte River originates at Long Lake in Grand Traverse County.
Right off the bat, I’ll say that it’s a true gem among Michigan’s paddling destinations.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner looking for a relaxed paddle with some breathtaking views or a more experienced paddler wanting your heart to skip a beat on some turbulent waters.
This river has you covered, either way.
It stretches for roughly 30 miles before emptying into Lake Michigan at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Along its course, it meanders through stunning landscapes, which makes it a fantastic choice for wildlife viewing.
Now, here’s an interesting fact:
The Platte River features two distinct sections – the upper and lower part.
What’s the difference, you ask?
Well, the Lower Platte River mainly caters to beginners and families with kids. The current gets more gentle, the turns are gradual, and the waters are warmer, too.
Now, the Upper Platte River is where things get swift. This section of the river, with its tight turns and speedy course – and some Class II rapids thrown in – will capture the hearts of adventurous kayakers.
Or you can paddle the whole thing, start to finish, if you’re up for it. Whatever floats your boat.
6. Crystal River – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Best For: Spotting wildlife
If you’re looking to meet some enchanting wildlife in a picturesque setting – without having to break much of a sweat – you’ve found your place with this scenic river.
This river is pretty short – it’s a mere 6.3 miles long – but these six miles are filled with wonderful crystal clear water. It goes from Glen Lake and empties into Lake Michigan to the north of Glen Harbour.
But along the short route, it features an abundance of wildlife – aquatic and land-based. Some of its most famous “residents” include otters, bald eagles, frogs, white-tail deer, and blue herons.
So, get your cameras ready – and snap away.
It’s not a particularly deep river, either.
Most sections are barely more than a foot deep – and since the waters are so clear, you can see different types of fish as you paddle your way through.
Oh, and you don’t have to worry about capsizing; given how shallow it is, the risks are almost as low as the water levels. See what I did there?
Keep in mind that there are several portages along the Crystal River – primarily in areas where it intersects with drainage pipes.
7. Manistee River
Best For: Day trips
Starting in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula – near the Mancelona Township – the Manistee River runs parallel with the Au Sable River for 12 miles straight before turning southwest. Those 12 miles are nothing compared to this river’s total length:
It stretches for 190 miles – passing several cities, including Sharon, Smithville, and Mesick along its route – before emptying into Lake Michigan.
The Manistee River is broad and relatively slow-moving – and that makes it a versatile kayaking destination. Most of it is pretty mellow, although you might encounter some milder rapids as you head for the headwaters.
Here’s the best part, though:
You can opt for a day trip and stay for a couple of hours; that would be option number one.
What about option number two?
Pack some extra gear – and turn this into a multi-day trip. There are several campgrounds along the river’s shores that would allow overnight stays.
Oh, and while you’re at it, bring your fishing rods, too. The Manistee River’s one of the best for salmon and trout fishing.
A word of caution, though:
You might come across some difficult dam crossings. So, plan your route – and prepare to carry your ‘yak if need be.
8. Huron River
Best For: Recreational kayakers with kids
The Huron River is located in southeastern Michigan and stretches for an impressive 130 miles! To put that into perspective, different sections of this river touch a total of six counties – Oakland, Washtenaw, Ingham, Monroe, Wayne, and Livingston.
The word “vast” would be an understatement.
It begins its journey in Big Lake and the Huron Swamp, then stretches down to the marshes of Point Mouille before finally reaching Lake Erie.
There are more than 96 dams along its course, which contribute to its slow streamflow, making it an ideal destination for recreational kayakers.
While they add to the overall laid-back tempo of the river, I get that dams can sound intimidating when it comes to maneuvering.
Don’t worry, though. Most of these dams are pretty small; you’ll have no trouble portaging them – if you have a lightweight ‘yak, that is.
Now, here’s the best part:
It also offers 13 recreational areas along its slow-moving route – including parks and game tracts – and plenty of fishing opportunities.
So, there’s something here for everyone!
I believe that the Huron River would be a treat for families with kids, especially those who enjoy other outdoor activities and are looking for a peaceful float down a broad – and somewhat lazy – river.
9. Pine River
Best For: Whitewater kayaking
On the opposite end of the paddling spectrum, you have the Pine River, situated in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, near Cadillac. If you’re looking for a challenge, I think this river might just give you what you want – and then some.
As a dynamic, exciting river – considered one of the fastest-flowing waters in entire Michigan – the Pine River will add that touch of adrenaline to your paddling trips.
While the Huron River is ideal for families with kids, I’d only recommend this river to those who know how to control a ‘yak in some more turbulent waters.
The river offers about 67 miles of navigable waters, which are protected on two fronts – a special river, wouldn’t you say?
These protections are established by the Michigan Natural River Designation and Plan and the Federal Wild and Scenic River Designation and Plan.
And now, a special treat for all of you adrenaline junkies out there:
Pine River is considered to be one of the best for paddle sports in the entire Midwest. You won’t find this kind of whitewater rapids and narrow twists elsewhere.
So, if you’re up for some whitewater kayaking, I think this is the spot for you!
10. Lake Superior – Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Best For: Casual paddling and sightseeing
Now, here’s a breathtaking kayak destination if I ever saw one.
Situated along Lake Superior’s jaw-dropping coastline in the state’s Upper Peninsula, you’ll find the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore running for 15 miles straight with no shortage of beauty.
You’ll get a taste of the monstrous water body that is Lake Superior and the stunning scenery of its multi-color-streaked cliffs.
Charge your camera batteries because you’ll definitely be needing them on this trip!
The Pictured Rocks – I think it’s pretty evident where their name comes from – tower above Lake Superior, reaching heights between 50 and 200 feet.
That’s not all, though.
Besides the beautiful sandstone cliffs, you’ll find stunning beaches with crystal clear water, caves, sand dunes, and waterfalls – and a couple of lighthouses, too.
You can visit this dreamy location for a couple of hours. However, I recommend that you opt for a multi-day trip and explore all the wonders it has to offer. There’s no shortage of campgrounds along the shore.
If you want a kayaking experience like no other – that will satisfy both your eyes and your soul – you have to visit the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, period.
This one’s for you, aesthetes!
11. Lake Michigan – Elk Rapids
Best For: Small-town experiences
No, not actual whitewater rapids.
Elk Rapids is a small community tucked away in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula – right in the southwest corner of Antrim County. The town’s surrounded by tranquil bodies of water, with the Elk Lake to the east, the Grand Traverse Bay to the west, and Bass Lake to the north.
There’s even a river running between these bodies of water and splitting the town right down the middle – the Elk River, in case you were wondering where this community gets its name from.
There’s water everywhere you look!
I have to add that this is one of the most charming examples of small-town America I’ve seen – a harbor town encapsulated in terrestrial beauty of rural landscapes and bodies of water.
So, given that there’s water all around, it’s safe to say that Elk Rapids has no shortage of nearby kayaking opportunities. If your travels ever take you to Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and you end up in this little town, don’t miss out on the opportunity to kayak the Chain of Lakes.
What’s that, you ask?
It’s an inland water trail comprised of 12 interconnected lakes and four rivers that begins at Elk Lake and empties into Lake Michigan some 100 miles later.
12. Lake Erie
Best For: Kayak fishing
You’re familiar with the Huron River, which stretches between the Big Lake, located northwest of Pontiac, and Lake Erie, located south of the Detroit River. I know you are because I talked about these kayaking locations already.
And, well, I figured that Lake Erie deserves its very own spot on this list, too.
It might be the smallest of the four Great Lakes touching Michigan’s shorelines – but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful or not worth visiting.
Lake Erie stretches from Ohio’s border to the mouth of the Detroit River, covering the surface of 9,910 square miles. Oh, and it’s also the shallowest one, with its average depth clocking in at 62 feet.
The lake – which, by the way, gets its name from the Eire people who lived on its beaches – is known for sport fishing. The waters are filled with walleye and yellow perch.
If you don’t already own a fishing kayak, now might be the time to get one.
That’s not all, though. The surrounding wetlands and coastal marshes offer great opportunities for wildlife viewing – raptors are no strangers to this area.
13. Tippy Dam Pond
Best For: Exploring nature
Now, let’s paddle further north to the far-removed backwaters surrounding the Tippy Dam – also known as the Tippy Dam Pond.
The Tippy Dam Pond was formed in 1916-1918 when the Tippy Dam was constructed, covering roughly 1,540 Acres of this secluded, largely-undeveloped, and oh-so-peaceful wilderness area.
I like to think of this as a hidden gem of Nothern Michigan.
The tree-lined shores, wooded islands, and little coves – free from any traces of civilization – do make for a scenic setting. Also, don’t be too surprised if you find yourself surrounded by wildlife!
Those who enjoy kayak fishing won’t be disappointed, either. The Pond’s known for its variety of fish species, including rock bass, sunfish, bluegill, black crappie, yellow perch, largemouth bass, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, northern pike, and walleye.
Watch out for the larger, motor-powered vessels, though. There tends to be a lot of boat traffic in the area.
Oh, and there’s also a small, rustic campground sitting at the northeastern shoreline of the Tippy Dam Pond, a short distance from the dam itself. If you’re up for camping near the water, this is a perfect spot to “park” your ‘yak and set up camp.
So, if you’re a bit of an adventurous spirit and would like to spend time in and explore untouched nature, the Tippy Dam Backwaters are a highly recommended paddling spot.
14. Turnip Rock (Lake Huron)
Best For: Sightseeing
Okay, this somehow ended up being the last of these must-visit kayaking spots in Michigan. But I think it’s safe to say that it’s the number one on any Michigan paddler’s bucket list.
I mean, look at this thing! If you ever needed proof that nature is art, just look at Turnip Rock.
I don’t think the name “Turnip Rock” requires any in-depth explanations. It’s a giant rock shaped like a turnip growing out of water; that pretty much sums it up.
Jokes aside, this unique rock formation – which is, technically, a small island – is located on Lake Huron and can only be accessed and explored from the water. You’re in luck in that sense; ‘yaks are the best way to reach it.
That said, you’ll be in for a 3.5-mile paddle to get to the Turnip Rock. It doesn’t sound like much – until you factor in the 3.5-mile trip back. So, if you’re a total beginner, that’s something to keep in mind.
The good news?
The waters around it are pretty shallow. So, you can hop out of your kayak and explore if you’d like.
Top Michigan Kayaking Locations: Conclusion
Look, if you’re having a tough time deciding where to kayak in Michigan, I get it. The great news is that it honestly doesn’t matter which part of the state you’re in; there’s an abundance of lakes and rivers everywhere you turn.
So, no matter where you are at the moment, I’m willing to bet that you’re not that far away from a stunning put-in spot.
That’s the magic of Michigan, I guess!