100-plus miles. 84 access sites. 12 interconnected lakes and rivers. 1 inspired mission to create the Chain of Lakes Water Trail. Get out there and experience this incredible Northern Michigan kayaking and paddling destination.

It’s just after 7 p.m. on a warm August evening when we push off from shore at Richardi Park in Bellaire. Deana Jerdee, executive director of Paddle Antrim, leads the way for our group of four kayaking the Intermediate River to Intermediate Lake and back, a short three-mile route for an after-work paddle. This is one of Deana’s favorite places on the Chain of Lakes Water Trail for beginners (me). It’s easy to access, you’re never far from shore and the scenery is a mix of cottages and beautiful undeveloped shoreline that’s home to abundant wildlife. (See the sidebar below for the route we took and another gorgeous paddle to experience this summer.)

The aquatic equivalent of a hiking trail for kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, the Chain of Lakes Water Trail has trailheads, parking areas, restrooms, potable water and picnic spots set strategically along the 100-plus-mile route, which passes through four trail towns—Ellsworth, Central Lake, Bellaire and Elk Rapids. Designed with paddlers in mind, the trail keeps people close to shore and the routes are designated as beginner, intermediate or advanced based on lake size, the distance between access sites and more safety considerations. The Chain is divided into an Upper section and Lower section, separated by a dam in Bellaire. The Upper Chain is generally regarded as beginner-friendly while the Lower Chain is more advanced due to larger lakes like Torch.

Photo by Grant Piering

Discover more Northern Michigan kayaking & paddleboarding adventures.

There are 84 access sites along the water trail, all open to the public, with wayfinding and educational signs installed at each, the last one pounded into the ground in September 2020. This year on May 26, Paddle Antrim held a ribbon-cutting ceremony as paddling season began again and people could experience the completed trail for the first time. Paddle Antrim, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect the area’s water resources by using paddle sports to connect people to waterways, hosts the trail and spearheaded the effort to create it. The idea is simple: the more people who can engage with and enjoy our lakes and rivers, the more people who will want to take care of them.

“What I love about the Chain is the clarity of the water; it’s just so amazing,” Deana says. “To be out there on the water, observing nature both on the shore and under the water—you can just escape. There are many times you can go and be the only one out there; places with over a mile of shoreline that’s protected.” She’s right. Tonight, we have this stretch of water to ourselves, only passing a handful of kids playing on shore and adults relaxing in lounge chairs.

While we paddle, Deana explains that though the trail has launched, they will continue to work with partners on improvements, such as adding more places to clean watercraft before and after your paddle to discourage the spread of invasive species. Deana tells me they’re planning to install racks near downtown areas so people can lock up their boats and go grab a bite. “The trail is great for day trips and the trail towns are great jumping-off points,” she says. “The communities provide amenities such as lodging and food and are landing spots for people to use as a home base.” One current project Paddle Antrim is collaborating on with Elk Rapids is funding a redesign for Rotary Park. The plans, approved in March, include a new parking area, a kayak wash station, a bathroom and a universally accessible launch.

This region-wide commitment was essential to creating the water trail. While Paddle Antrim acts as a host by sharing information with trail users, Deana works with 19 jurisdictions, including units of government and other nonprofits, to establish and improve access sites. All of this on top of Paddle Antrim’s equally valuable mission to educate people about paddling safety and stewardship by hosting classes such as Intro to Kayaking, Kayak Rescues and Identifying Aquatic Invasive Species.

Photo by Grant Piering

One partner making the most of the trail is Grass River Natural Area (GRNA), a nonprofit with a 1,492-acre preserve and an education center. GRNA sits along the 2.5-mile Grass River and the staff has been a part of the water trail project since its inception. This summer, visitors to the natural area can take part in public guided paddles as well as private tours that groups or families can schedule on their own. GRNA will also have kayak rentals available for the first time.

“To develop a true community project successfully, it takes vision, patience and a spirit of collaboration,” says GRNA’s Executive Director Jenn Wright. “That is exactly what Deana has brought to this project. Whether it was meeting with the individual governmental agencies, getting approval from landowners to place signs or raising the funds to complete the project, Deana’s passion for the program was the key to overcoming any hurdles that might have existed. Ultimately, this project benefits all of us: community organizations, residents, local businesses and visitors to our region. I am always impressed at how community-minded our region is.”

Mary Faculak, president of the East Jordan Area Chamber of Commerce, which represents Ellsworth at the northern tip of the trail, also recognizes the opportunities the Chain offers. “It’s taken many hands and many hours to make the Chain of Lakes Water Trail what it is and for it to actually become a reality,” Mary says. “It’s been an awesome journey, but I also see it as just the beginning for Ellsworth and all the communities along the water trail to grow, to introduce people to our region, attract new businesses and help existing businesses. Paddlers discovering this area for the first time just can’t believe the beauty and all that we have to offer.”

As we pull our kayaks back on shore in Richardi Park, the sky is fading into a soft, hazy pink. We load up the boats, ready to grab dinner in Bellaire. Taking one more look at the river, we can’t believe how beautiful it is.

Photo by Grant Piering

2 Easy Paddle Trips on the Chain of Lakes Water Trail

Deana shares two of her favorite routes, both great for beginners, taking paddlers on some of the Upper Chain’s smaller lakes.

Trip 1: Richardi Park, Bellaire (Out and Back)

Richardi Park is located near downtown Bellaire’s restaurants and Short’s Brewing Co. This launch has a swimming beach, pavilions, playgrounds, basketball courts, tennis courts, restrooms, potable water and outdoor showers. It’s a perfect down and back paddle for those looking to get on the water for a short time and not have to worry about shuttling cars. (For a full day outdoors, pair this paddle with a bike ride at Glacial Hills in Bellaire.) From the park, paddle north on the Intermediate River, which has quaint cottages and a lot of undeveloped shoreline. Go 1.5 miles to where the river meets Intermediate Lake and turn around, or you can head a little bit into the lake and check out a small island. Paddle time: 1.5 hours

Trip 2: River Park, Ellsworth >Thurston Park, Central Lake

Ellsworth’s River Park is a short walk from town where you can find several restaurants. This park has a sandy beach (great for swimming), a pavilion, portable restrooms and is located next to Wooden Shoe Campground. Launch here and head south for seven miles through four small, pristine lakes to the Village of Central Lake where you’ll exit at the boat launch at Thurston Park. Thurston Park offers lakeside camping as well as a swimming beach, playground, restrooms, water, pavilion and fishing docks. Restaurants and shops are just a short walk away. If you don’t want to go all the way to Central Lake, there’s a DNR launch halfway between the two parks, which makes a great spot to stretch, use the restroom or to create a shorter paddling experience. Paddle time: 3–4 hours

Kayak Rentals: Paddles & Pedals in Bellaire offers single and tandem kayaks along with stand-up paddleboards and fat tire bikes. Rent for two to four hours, by the day or for a week; delivery available. Find more kayak and paddleboard outfitters.

More Routes: A 30-page waterproof guidebook with maps and resources to dining, lodging and liveries is available for purchase online or locally at several stores. Find the list of locations at paddleantrim.com. Also view beginner, intermediate and advanced route suggestions, along with a digital map via Avenza Maps, on Paddle Antrim’s website.

Photo by Grant Piering

Water Trail & Paddling Safety Tips

Paddle Antrim’s tips for a safe day on the water.

  • ALWAYS WEAR A LIFE JACKET: Adjust so it’s snug and doesn’t lift up when pulled by shoulders.
  • CARRY THE ESSENTIALS: This includes a signaling device (whistle) on your life jacket, communication device (VHF radio, cell phone, personal locator beacon), first aid/ safety equipment, extra clothing and water/snacks.
  • KNOW YOUR LIMITS: Be prepared for the unexpected. If you don’t feel comfortable, return to shore.
  • PLAN FOR CHANGING WEATHER CONDITIONS: Be aware of the horizon and changing wind speed/direction. If the weather worsens, get off the water right away.
  • DRESS FOR IMMERSION: This means dress for the water temperature. Temperatures below 70F are considered cold, wearing a wetsuit or drysuit will keep you warmer. Always avoid cotton.
  • DRESS FOR VISIBILITY: Choose bright colors so others can see you. Carry a light if heading out early or late in the day.
  • SHARE YOUR PLAN: Tell a friend where and when you’re paddling and what to do if you don’t check in as scheduled.
  • TAKE A PADDLING CLASS: Paddle Antrim works with American Canoe Association certified instructors to hold basic introductory classes, such as kids kayaking and kayak rescues.

Photo(s) by Grant Piering