Adventure Guide to the Chain of Lakes: Michigan’s Best Kept Secret

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.

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Sunset over Torch Lake from Alden

Alden

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.

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The Torch Lake sandbar

Torch River

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.

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A windy day near Torch River

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.

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Lake Bellaire

Bellaire

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.

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Northern Michigan sunset over a small inland lake

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.

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The Sedge Meadow Loop in the Grass River Natural Area

Grass River Natural Area

The Grass River connects Lake Bellaire to Clam Lake, and the Natural Area offers 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!

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The Grass River Natural Area

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!

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Antrim County backroad

Elk Rapids

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.

 

Where to next?

As always, all recommendations and opinions, especially the bad ones, are my own.

 

How to Catch a Great Michigan Sunset

One of the questions I get asked the most—next to “what is it you do exactly?”—is “how do I get a good sunset picture?” Luckily, I have a few tips for catching a good sunset, and most of them are pretty easy! Here are a few things to keep in mind:

The Sun Sets in the West

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Okay, so this one seems obvious, but there have been times when I have completely envisioned watching the sunset over a lake only to realize the lake/beach in question does not at all face west. Moreover, the sun sets more to the North or more to the South depending on the time of year, so be sure to keep in mind exactly where the sun is setting.

Sun Set Time

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Sunset time is usually available online, but keep in mind that the 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after can also have some pretty dramatic clouds.

Watch the Weather

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Speaking of clouds, partly cloudy days tend to yield the coolest sunsets—storms can also lead to a pretty dramatic show, but can be a little more unpredictable. In general, clear cloudless days won’t lead to a crazy sky, and on completely cloudy days you might not catch the sunset at all.

Clearings and Elevation

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If you can get up high or somewhere clear, you get less of the sky blocked by trees and more foreground. This is good especially for photography, because a strong foreground makes an image a lot more interesting.

Find Water

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Reflections of sunsets are often almost as good as the sunsets themselves, and lakes, rivers and ponds are the ideal spots for this. Different water holds light differently, so there is something new to appreciate every time.

 

So where do I like to catch a sunset from?

Overlook No. 9

In the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, Overlook No. 9 puts you 450 feet above Lake Michigan looking out to the West. 

Alden, Michigan

Torch Lake’s waters range from glassy Caribbean blue to stormy, but either way the small town of Alden is a beautiful place to take a dip and watch the sunset from the marina.

From a Kayak

There’s nothing like a sunset from the water, particularly when there’s no one but otter and eagles for miles around. This sunset picture was taken at the Big Island Lakes Wilderness Area in the Upper Peninsula, but watching the sunset from a boat anywhere can be phenomenal.

The Coves

Hidden in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, this area off the North Country Trail has some of the best swimming in Michigan as well as the best sunsets if you are willing to brave the Lake Superior cold.

The Side of the Road Somewhere

The best sunsets I have ever seen I’ve caught pulled over on the side of the road or driving somewhere—like this sunset off the side of a road near Grayling, MI.

What great sunset spots did I miss? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know or reach out to me through Instagram!