Old-timers like telling stories of an Up North gone-by: when five-and-dimes ruled, when lakes had less traffic and more calm, when cottages were simple, and when small-town character was so real nobody even noticed it. Experience such nostalgia in real time on an autumn Torch Lake color tour this year by exploring five small burgs—Elk Rapids, Ellsworth, Central Lake, Bellaire and Alden—along the shore of the Chain of Lakes, an evocative realm of valleys and ridges, folding land and intimate, connected waters, where on a sunny fall day surrounded by color “back in the day” seems to exist right now.
This article was featured in the October 2011 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. All photography by Todd Zawistowski.
Drive this 69-mile circle around the Chain of Lakes (less than an hour north of Traverse City), and you’ll be tempted to stop and check the date—year, specifically—just to make sure there’s no time portal you passed through when you turned off U.S. 31 to roam the roller coaster roads to the east. Road builders don’t chart highways like M-88 anymore, the easiest route for exploring nine of the Chain’s twelve lakes. The asphalt twists as if its wise designer equated happiness with “go slow; take notice.”
Begin and end your color tour in Elk Rapids, at the southwestern point of the route. Head 20 miles north on U.S. 31 before hanging a left on C-48, Atwood Road, a pastoral up-and-down straight shot to Ellsworth, on the shore of Ellsworth Lake, and your connection with M-88. From there on you swerve and sway and roll from one water view to the next—lakes Wilson, Benway and Hanley, then the long, slim Intermediate Lake, and the deeper waters of Lake Bellaire, and the sliver of Clam Lake.
All waters slender and wide are coupled with farms, backed by red-, orange- and yellow-leafed hardwoods and occasional bursts of deep green pine stands. Bright barns, gleaming silos and working fields mark space between villages dotted on the map; most towns are less than 15 miles apart. The route’s crown jewel, Torch Lake, is Bahama blue and hard to leave. Good thing heading back to Elk Lake means cruising the orchard-heavy C- 593 (in rural tradition, it changes names along the way: Crystal Beach, Cherry, and finally, Cairn) until reuniting with U.S. 31.
Fall is ideal for getting lost (or found) along such a route. So pack your bike, kayak, camera … and go get your own front porch stories to tell on a Torch Lake color tour.
Sandwiched between Elk Lake and Grand Traverse Bay, 17 miles north of Traverse City, Elk Rapids is an antiquer’s paradise, with more than seven (big) shops full of finds ranging from valued treasure to amusing tchotchke. Second-hand devotion is detailed everywhere, from the historical Island House District Library to the car mechanics garage turned urbane and sexy, local seafood haunt, Siren Hall (here’s a look at what the chef is cooking up). Stay a mile out of town at Elk Rapids Beach Resort, where cheap fall rates will help you afford those antique oxen yokes sitting outside the Harbor Antique Mall.
Spend part of your day meditating on autumn’s glory while walking one of the largest labyrinths in the Midwest, fishing off public platforms, catching an archery competition … and doing all three in the town’s four-acre community park. For dining, foodies swoon over the legendary Rowe Inn, an ode to French country cuisine (complete with world-class wine list). Warm up fireside in one of The House on the Hill B&B’s carriage rooms, and wake to good food and karma at Ellsworth’s Front Porch Cafe, a nonprofit, volunteer-run eatery, where home-cooked meals come with “suggested donations” but no set price.
Line your pockets with two-penny candy from Bachmann’s, the has-it-all store where Kitty the doll has been smiling in the front window since the 1950’s. Keep strolling Main Street and check out Adams Madams, a three-room shop with local art, books and a whole bunch of lamps. Dine and stay the night at the Blue Pelican where, as legend has it, you’ll want to beware of (friendly) ghosts (231.544.2583, thebluepelican.com), or venture over the babbling brook bridge to the aptly named Bridgewalk Bed and Breakfast. 231.544.8122, bridgewalkbandb.com.
Belly up at Short’s Brewery and sample your fill, because everything in town is within walking distance. This works out well, considering kind folks at stores like Uniquely North only let you buy stuff you’ll still love the morning after (which is, um, everything). Stock up on late-night snack food in the form of fresh, straight-out-of-the-smoker whitefish from Bellaire Smokehouse, where you can also buy microbrew six packs. Like more Short’s. Guarantee yourself a good night’s sleep by simply strolling across the street to Stone Waters Inn.
A town with the motto “Where neighbors care!” is worth visiting, especially when tucked along the shore of Torch Lake. Browse apparel, spices and other tasty goods at The Mill House, P.K.’s Place, Winter Workshop and LaVoie Designs, which sits below the posh comfort of the Inn at Torch Lake. The inn’s a stellar fall color deal, with spa tubs, private decks and European-style breakfasts each morning.
Stretch Your Limbs
The Chain boasts a plenitude of launch spots for kayaks and canoes, though many are the endearing rustic ramp variety. Rustic, as in overgrown cut-outs with cracked concrete just wide enough for a canoe or tiny motor boat. But still. The stirring liquid reflections of fall color on hushed lakes is so lovely, you could stop in the five towns we discuss (each has public access) and spend the day paddling shorelines, little rivers, and hidden nooks with half-sunken docks.
Lakes in the Upper Chain (Lake Bellaire and north) are relatively narrow and protected, so make good choices on windy days. Rent sit-on or sit-in kayaks at Alden Outfitters, launch from the town’s municipal marina, and explore Torch Lake, Torch River, and Lake Skegemog to the south. Important reminders: some lakes have low-clearance bridges, so hats are key to avoid spider-hair. On breezy days, watch for chop, rollers and headwinds.
If you’d rather work your legs while fishing, make a pitstop in Central Lake and rent paddle boats outfitted with pole-holders at the small yet eclectic (you can also buy Bob Marley guitar tabs, daisy-covered fly swatters, and margarita-shaped sunglasses) Bedell’s Crossing.
Fuel up pre-ride at farm stands along U.S. 31, where apples and other fall goodies brim from baskets. Find homemade pies here too, (pack a fork in the glove box). Once the calorie-loading is complete—and you’ve driven to quieter roads—you’ll find great cycling along the Chain of Lakes. Follow Ellsworth and Rushton Roads for a flat 22-mile loop around Ellsworth, Wilson, Benway, and Hanley Lakes, with campsites available at both ends. Or over-indulge and eat two pies, then ride down and back along Torch Lake Drive, which hugs the shoreline for 17-plus miles each way. Go early, color tour traffic is steady, and not everyone gets the “drive slow” memo.
Binoculars and bird books are necessities when wandering the easy (short, flat) cedar-chipped trail to the lakeside viewing platform at St. Clair Lake-Six Mile Lake Natural Area. Spy on happy great blue herons, kingfishers, and migrating waterfowl, as well as otters and minks. People, on the other hand, will be in short supply. From Ellsworth, take C-48 two miles to South Arm Township Park’s roadside lot.
Better to know up front that the Grass River Natural Area closes at dusk, otherwise visions of setting up camp—and never leaving—could seize your imagination upon arrival. Dozens of different trees, from silver maples to balsam firs, and 400 species of plants make for seven miles of easy going. In autumn, Technicolor trails so ah-mazing just walking them is enough to inspire Walden, part II (or Grass River Part I). Visitors often spot bald eagles along the preserve’s marshes, brooks and 2.5 miles of river. The 1,400-acre wild wonder is four miles northeast of Alden off Alden Highway and is accessible by boat at the Grass River Dock, between Clam and Bellaire lakes.
Take a peek at Antrim County’s hidden jewel, Grass River Natural Area, in this MyNorth video.