Iconic Outdoor Attraction: Lake Charlevoix

Michigan’s third-largest inland lake sprawls out across Charlevoix County, covering more than 17,000 acres. Generations of Midwesterners have loved this oasis for its sparkling-clear waters and stunning sunsets, but the lake finally caught the nation’s attention in 2012, when it was nominated for the title of America’s Best Lake by the readers of USA Today—and came in second place to only Lake Tahoe.

Lake Charlevoix is 18 miles long and multi-lobed, with a larger main basin and a skinnier south arm; it is fed by the Boyne and Jordan rivers with depths up to 122 feet in the main basin to just 58 feet in the south arm. All this varying habitat has made it a world-class fishery, home to walleye, northern pike, muskie, bluegill, crappie, rock bass, smallmouth bass, brown trout, lake trout and rainbow trout. Smallmouth and walleye are plentiful near the East Jordan launch in the South Arm; perch, steelhead and brown trout are common catches at the Ironton narrows; brown trout, rainbow trout and walleye love the steep drop-off in front of Young State Park in the east end of the main basin; warm water from Horton Creek in Horton Bay attracts northern pike in the spring and salmon in the fall. Heavy boat traffic all around the lake during summer’s peak can make fishing a challenge during the day; the sweet spot is either early morning or late evening.

The lake is also a favorite for boaters, what with access to so many beaches, natural harbors and three of the North’s best small towns: East Jordan at the end of the lake’s south arm; Boyne City at the eastern edge of the north arm; and Charlevoix on the lake’s western edge. The lake is so long that wakeboarders, tubers and waterskiers can ride for what feels like forever. But for those who prefer to stay put in one spot, a shallow ledge that outlines the entire lake invites boaters to drop anchor and lollygag all day.

Because inland lakes like Lake Charlevoix are warmer than Lake Michigan, the waters here are great for swimming. Favorites spots include Depot Beach next to Charlevoix’s charming old train depot (now a historical museum); Elm Pointe, formerly a pioneer homestead, now a lovely East Jordan park with frontage on the lake’s South Arm; Peninsula Beach in Boyne City, where the amenities also include picnic tables and grills for cook outs; and Young State Park, with 560 acres, a gorgeous beach, and rustic camping for overnights.

Lake Charlevoix is also home to one of the North’s quirkiest novelties: the cable-guided Ironton car ferry, one of the shortest ferry rides in the world. Every day the wee ferry transports up to four cars at a time across the south arm of Lake Charlevoix at one of its narrowest points. The ferry significantly shortens the drive along the main basin’s south shore between Charlevoix and Boyne City, but it’s also a fun way to break up a Lake Charlevoix circle tour by bike (fare is $1 for cyclists, $3.25 for cars).