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.

 

Avalanche Morning

5 am wake up calls always seem to hurt—I hate leaving a warm bed, I hate the feeling of my feet hitting a cold floor. But if I have my alarm set for 5, it’s usually for a good reason.

My good reason this particular time was trailhead parking in Glacier National Park—parking you won’t find much later than 10 am. Our goal was to be inside the park by 7.

I made myself a cup of tea, and eased myself into hiking boots before waking up my dad and sister. We made it inside the park around 7:30, with another half hour drive from the West Glacier Park entrance to the Avalanche Lake trailhead.

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Old growth Cedars along the Trail of the Cedars; sibling included for scale

It was drizzling for the first time in a while, and smoke from the recent wildfires lingered in the Lake McDonald Valley while we tooled along the lowlands of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The entirety of Glacier National Park seems exceptional compared to the surrounding mountains—the creeks are bluer, the flowers bloom longer, the cliffs are more dramatic. Glacier seems a place apart. A little under 6 miles roundtrip, the Avalanche Lake out and back hike is no exception.

We started walking on the Trail of the Cedars, an old growth forest. From here, we split off alongside Avalanche Creek toward the lake.

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A waterfall in Avalanche Gorge

Walking alongside the creek gives you the first view of Avalanche Gorge—where Avalanche Creek and its electric blue water have cut through red stone. Between the soft drizzle and the bright colors, it didn’t feel like the dry and very yellow Montana we drove through to get here.

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The edge of Avalanche Gorge

After playing near the gorge for a few minutes, we moved up the trail, running into a couple. They told us that an earlier hiker had seen a black bear about a half mile up the trail.

In general, you won’t see bear on the Avalanche Lake trail if you hike in large groups around midday (11am- 3pm), when the trail is heavily trafficked. On the other hand, it’s hard to find parking at this time. Bear sightings and encounters are far more common in the mornings and evenings. Between easy parking and bear risk, we went for easy parking.

We didn’t see the black bear hiking up the trail, but we did meet up with a larger group from Chicago, as well as the hiker who did see the black bear.

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Avalanche Lake as the sun poked through some clouds

By the time we reached Avalanche Lake it had started to rain for real, but it felt good. It was the kind of rain that feels clean, the kind of rain that you would play in as a kid. I snapped a few photos and we watched the clouds move in and out of the mountains across the lake.

It was after the rain let up that we noticed the bear. Only about 100 yards from us across the lake—too close—a large, dark bear was rustling around in the bushes.

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The grizzly we saw, before we realized it was a grizzly (*taken with telephoto lens)

At first we thought it was a black bear, and weren’t too worried. Don’t get me wrong—black bear can be dangerous too, but a black bear is a lot more afraid of you and seemingly predictable than a grizzly.

Then we noticed the hump—the difference between a black bear and a grizzly is not coloring. It’s the hump on the back.

And grizzlies are a lot scarier than black bear.

“One way to tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear is to climb a tree,” a tour guide had joked with us earlier that week. “If the bear follows you up and eats you, it’s a black bear. If it tears the tree down, then eats you, it’s a grizzly.”

I thought about that while we talked in low voices and made our way back to the trees.

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Mountains along the trail

We walked back a little nervous at first—because if that grizzly got curious it could easily follow us up the trail before we knew what happened. But it didn’t (obviously, we’re all alive and well and un-mauled).

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Mule deer along the trail

On the way back, we ran into a family of mule deer, probably looking for food from us. As cool as it was to get that close to the deer, it was kind of overshadowed by the fact that the animals were too close to us for their own safety, and that baiting wildlife with food led to these animals being too trusting.

It started to rain for real when we hopped back on the Trail of the Cedars, thick warm drops that rolled off of leaves and made everything look very green. People complain about rainy hikes, about how they are cold and muddy, but I honestly think I prefer the rain.