In general, people head straight for Traverse City and the Sleeping Bear Dunes for those classic Northern Michigan vibes, but less than thirty minutes north lies the Chain of Lakes. This waterway and surrounding area offers varied playground, ranging from secluded rivers and sedge meadows in the north to the tropical-like waters of Torch Lake. From Bellaire to Elk Rapids, the Chain of Lakes is a quieter alternative to the metropolis of Traverse City.
Hidden on the south side of Torch Lake, Alden is your perfect small lake town, with Higgins Store Ice Cream, public access to Torch Lake, and the little Alden light house. My favorite public access sites are down North Lake Street, where you can take a dip in Torch and walk as many as a hundred yards out into the lake. One of the access sites has a spit with a bench at its tip and is a prime stargazing and northern lights hunting spot.
The tiny town of Torch River is the closest public access site to the infamous Torch Lake sandbar. In the heat of summer, hundreds of motors boats collect in the turquoise water of Torch. At the Sandbar, water ranges from three feet deep to three inches.
Nearby, the Torch Rivera offers a stellar array of food, including breakfast, and the Torch River itself acts as the connection between Torch Lake and Lake Skegemog.
On the shores of Lake Bellaire at the northern side of the Chain of Lakes is Short’s Brewery, a bucket list stop in Northern Michigan. My Short’s short-list includes the brews Soft Parade, Local Light, and Bellaire Brown. If wine is more your jam, visit Hello Vino across the street for stellar service, a beautiful selection of wine and cheese, and newly introduced cocktails. The local Beewell Meadery is another hot stop on your Bellaire booze cruise, with its inviting and bee-themed interior.
Not into the alcohol scene? Worry not! Short’s has a phenomenal menu as well as beer selection, and occasionally live music. The nearby Market M-88 offers a nice breakfast venue/ bakery. Your fun doesn’t have to end with the snow—visit Shanty Creek Ski Resort in the winter.
Grass River Natural Area
The Grass River connects Lake Bellaire to Clam Lake, and the Natural Area offers trails and hiking in the summer and snowshoeing/cross-country skiing in the winter. Cold and clear streams wind through the area, and the preserve is even home to otters!
Glacial Hills Pathway
Just outside of Bellaire are the legendary mountain biking trails at the Glacial Hills Pathways. The trails offer both beginner and advanced routes, and are especially beautiful in the fall. Not into biking? That’s okay! Parts of the trails are open to hikers as well!
Nestled between Elk Lake and the Grand Traverse Bay, Elk Rapids is a spunky little town with both a shopping and outdoors scene. Take a walk to any of the few beaches in the area, or visit Siren Hall, the old fire station turned delicious, for dinner and drinks. Your go-to coffee shop is Java Jones, and just outside of town lies Pearls New Orleans Kitchen.
Looking for the best hikes, paddles, and hidden gems of the Upper Midwest?
Check out my book, Hidden Gems of the Northern Great Lakes: A Trail and Paddling Guide. Let me help you find not only the best adventures for your skill and comfort level, but also semi-secret photography spots, countless waterfalls in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Northern Wisconsin, intrepid canoe routes near Traverse City, Michigan, hidden sea caves, and some of the best campsites the region has to offer.