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.

 

Trail Guide: 7 Adventures in Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula

After living in Bayfield, Wisconsin for almost a full month, I completely see why the small Lake Superior town is a major tourist attraction. Between guiding kayak trips and exploring the area for myself by foot, I’ve come up with a fairly solid list of highlights of the Bayfield Peninsula.

Houghton Falls Nature Preserve

With sandstone cliffs, views of Lake Superior, and seasonal waterfalls, this 1.5-mile trail is an easy hike and a must visit. Be aware that in many areas going off trail is trespassing on private property, and the Bayfield Regional Conservancy asks hikers not to wander into the streamed, as it contributes to erosion.

Catch a Little Sand Bay Sunset

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Sunset behind Sand Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

One of the best spots to watch the sun set over Lake Superior might be Little Sand Bay. Here you can watch the sun sink behind Sand Island, and stroll down the pier, and out to a small river/estuary.

Corny Beach

Looking for a place to swim and get some of the best smoked fish around? Look no further than the small town of Cornucopia, right on Lake Superior. If you’re looking to add some mileage to your beach day check out nearby Lost Creek Falls for a little over a 2 mile hike. 

Kayaking the Sea Caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

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“The Crack”, Mainland Sea Caves, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

The Mainland Sea Caves are often what brings people out to Bayfield, and fairly so. Objectively glamorous, the sea caves are an incredible experience, and kayaking is probably the best way to really experience these caves.

That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first thing to remember is that Lake Superior isn’t really a lake; it is a freshwater sea. Just last fall, a 28.8 foot wave was recorded near Marquette, Michigan, and the weather at the Sea Caves can change very quickly, from glass to dangerous in under an hour. Kayakers should use ONLY sea kayaks, and have spray skirts, wetsuits, PFDs (which you should actually wear!!!), a bilge pump, a paddle float, first aid kit, and extra water, and all of this at the very least.

If you are going to paddle the sea caves and you have access to all of this equipment, great! Make sure you can either self-rescue or you are with someone who can T-rescue—preferably both. I would also recommend checking the marine forecast, and understanding what that forecast means. At the Mainland Caves, strong wind from the Northeast generates pretty large waves that can rebound off the cliff walls.

All this to say, if you don’t have sea kayaking experience and access to equipment, going with an outfitter is an excellent and much safer way to experience the sea caves! Check out Living Adventure and their various tour options here!

Kayaking the Islands

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Looking East from the Oak Island Dock after sunset

While the Mainland Sea Caves are awesome, the whole of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore features more, less accessed sea caves. By touring the islands on a multi-day sea kayaking trip, you can experience more remote caves and garner some more experience sea kayaking. Check out Living Adventure’s different multi-day trips!

(For staff training this year we did a three day overnight that looked something like Beaches, Waves and Caves, but with a lot more capsizing and rescue practice! The sea caves on Sand Island are incredible, (even when you’re upside down in a kayak and freezing in them) and having lunch on the Raspberry Island Sandspit might be one of my favorite experiences to date, sunburn included. The photo above was taken from the Oak Island dock during an overnight trip. If you’re at all up for some island camping and interested in paddling, this is really the sort of experience you want to have in this lakeshore.)

Hike Meyers Beach Sea Caves

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“The Crack” from the hiking trail above rather than from the water

If you don’t get out in a kayak to the Sea Caves don’t stress too much—you can experience the caves from above the cliff line at the Meyers Beach. This trail is usually considered to be moderate, and is as long as you make it. Keep your eyes peeled for black bear, which are known to frequent the area.

Apostle Islands Grand Tour

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Devil’s Island Sea Caves 

Hop on one of the cruises starting in Bayfield to get a three hour tour of the Apostle Islands from a ferry! Try for the top deck of the boat for the best view, but be sure to dress warm—the air up there is cold and it only gets colder the farther out you go!

Questions, comments, concerns? Feel free to leave me a message below!