Some of the best Northern Michigan kayaking and paddling can be found in Leelanau County, including Lake Michigan along Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, crystal clear rivers and picturesque inland lakes, like Glen Lake. Explore five paddles to put on your list through these excerpts from “Leelanau by Kayak” by Jon R. Constant with Larry Burns and published by Mission Point Press.

Jon Constant was so inspired by his picturesque Leelanau paddles, that he decided to capture the breathtaking views, challenges and advice for traversing the peninsula’s waterways in his book, “Leelanau By Kayak.” This collection of 37 uniquely scenic trips—along the Lake Michigan shore, across inland lakes and down pristine rivers—is presented with stunning photos, handy tips and stories from Jon and his longtime friend and kayaking partner, Larry Burns.


Jon’s connection to the water runs deep—he grew up in Grand Haven and vacationed with his family on Little Glen Lake in the mid-1960s. He eventually bought a home on Cedar Lake and became a social studies teacher at Traverse City Central High School for 38 years, and coached football and basketball, the latter with Larry.


After both retired from their teaching and coaching careers, Jon and Larry found time in their 60s and 70s to paddle (and document) the entire 100-mile perimeter of Leelanau, as well as its lakes and rivers. We share a handful of those paddles here. – Allison Jarrell

Related Read: This article first appeard in the September issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. View our digital issues or subscribe to get Traverse delivered to your door each month.

Explore the Leelanau Shoreline at Sleeping Bear Dunes

For years I visited the Pierce Stocking Overlook perched high over the seemingly endless horizon of Lake Michigan, and would often see kayakers paddling in the waterway down below. Wouldn’t it be fun, I’d say to myself, if I could be down there looking up at the people like me? Eventually, I got that chance.


This is my all-time favorite Leelanau paddling location. The experience of paddling on such a big body of water with a wall of sand stretching for miles on one side of your kayak is as good as it ever gets. If you can go when conditions are accommodating, you will have the paddle of a lifetime. We’ve been fortunate that all three of our paddles to “The Bear” were in the best of conditions.


Location: Just north of Empire and extending to Glen Haven.
Access: Cannery Boathouse Museum parking lot in Glen Haven; Life-Saving Station Museum parking lot (closer to Sleeping Bear Point); Lake Michigan Beach Park in Empire; North Bar Lake beach north of Empire.
Distance/Time: Empire to Glen Haven: 9miles, 3 hours (one way); Empire to Pierce Stocking Overlook: 2 miles, 1 hour (round trip); Glen Haven to Pierce Stocking Overlook: 5 miles, 4 hours (round trip).
Strategies: If you’re using just one vehicle to transport your kayaks, it’s important to consider wind direction and wind speeds. The best conditions would be light winds from the east. If you’re putting in at Glen Haven and heading south to Empire, a southerly or easterly wind is preferable.
Highlight: The massive sand dune around the Overlook is an amazing thing to see from a kayak. This wall of sand extends for several miles, from just south of the Overlook, all the way to Sleeping Bear Point. These dunes are called perched sand dunes, or dunes that develop on a pre-existing hill or cliff. Here, the existing cliff is the rock and residue left from the action of the last glacier, about 10,000 years ago. There are also many lower sand dunes as you paddle closer to Glen Haven.

Sleeping Bear Dunes Kayaking trip

Photo by Jon R. Constant

Paddle Leland North to Clay Cliffs

This day trip turned into one of the most pleasant surprises of all our times paddling off the coast of Leelanau. Other areas, like the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pyramid Point, are much better known and get more visitors, but the colors of the water, sky and wooded shoreline were as good as it gets for kayaking—and for observing nature’s beauty.


Location: Clay Cliffs Natural Area is located a little more than one mile north of Leland, tucked between North Lake Leelanau and Lake Michigan.
Access: Van’s Beach in Leland; the beach at the end of Onomonee Road, located north of M-22 between Leland and Northport.
Distance/Time: The main area of Clay Cliffs from Van’s Beach: 1.5 miles. It took about 3 hours to paddle from Leland, past Clay Cliffs, to Gills Pier and back.
Strategies: This area’s exposure to winds from the west, northwest and north means that care must be taken on when to go and which way to paddle. Calm conditions or light winds from the south or east are optimal.
Highlight: Clay Cliffs have their own unique look. Rugged and worn by the actions of wind and water, the area makes for excellent viewing from the cockpit of a kayak. These bluffs rise almost vertically over 200 feet above the shore. Clay Cliffs Natural Area was preserved in 2013— it’s owned by Leland Township and managed by the Leelanau Conservancy.

Clay Cliffs in Leelanau

Photo by Jon R. Constant

Paddle from Omena to Northport

This was one of our last paddles on the tour around Leelanau, and it was one of the finest. When you’re traveling by car along M-22 between Omena and Northport, you don’t get to
see much of the water or shoreline. Paddling between the two gives you that view, and it is a very interesting one.


Location: Omena is 23 miles north of Traverse City on Omena Bay in Grand Traverse Bay. Northport is 26 miles north of Traverse City on Northport Bay.
Access: Southern access point: The small township park and beach on Omena Point Road, east of M-22, in Omena’s business district. Parking is across the road from the beach. Northern access point: The Northport public beach just east of the central business district and next to the marina.
Distance/Time: Approximately 7.5 miles, one way, following the shoreline. It took us 3.5 hours in conditions of slightly increasing winds from the west as we rounded the northern part of Omena Point.


Paddling Omena to Northport

Photo by Jon R. Constant

Strategies: This section is well protected from winds from the southwest, west and northwest. With a two-vehicle strategy, the direction of the trip could be changed depending on a north or south wind.
Highlight: Bellow (or Gullor Troutor Fisher’s) Island is located about 1.5 miles off the Leelanau Peninsula shore and about 3 miles south of Northport. It’s a mysterious-looking island with an abandoned house and two tall chimneys, all visible from your kayak. The Leelanau Conservancy acquired the island in 1995.


Photo by Jon R. Constant

Explore Big Glen Lake, One of the Most Beautiful Lakes in the U.S.

Big Glen is big enough that you can spend several days exploring. This lake is one of Michigan’s “must paddle” destinations. There’s great water, great views and some spectacular real estate!


Location: About a mile southeast of Glen Arbor, just east of Little Glen Lake and about 20 miles northwest of Traverse City.
Access: Little Glen Lake access on Day Forest Road; Old Settlers Campground on the southeastern side of Big Glen Lake (just north of Burdickville); county roads that dead-end at the lake; on the north shore, next to Glen Craft Marina at the end of South Lake Street; southern access at the end of Agnew Street, north of Burdickville.
Highlight: Big Glen is the deepest (130 feetin some areas) and second-largest (4,865 acres) inland lake in Leelanau County. It’s been called the most beautiful lake in the U.S., and it’s hard to argue with that. Set between wooded hills and sandy dunes, its spectacular water can be a Caribbean blue-green color.

Photo by Jon R. Constant

Paddle Cedar Lake, A Small Lake Near Traverse City

My favorite smaller lake in Leelanau, Cedar Lake is as unique as it is beautiful, and is the closest to the urban area of Traverse City. Only two miles from the biggest city in Northern Michigan, it can still feel like you are paddling in the Upper Peninsula or Canada—it is that unspoiled. How unusual to find a lake with a shoreline that is almost exactly like it was 100 years ago. And the colors of its water can be brilliant turquoise, bluish-green, much like Torch Lake, Glen Lake or Key West.

Cedar Lake North of Traverse City

Photo by Jon R. Constant

Location: The extreme southeast corner of Leelanau County, just two miles north and west of Traverse City.
Access: Boat launch at the lake’s south end, accessed off Cherry Bend Road (CR-633).
Highlights: This 252-acre lake has 3.9 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth of 46 feet. The main inlet is in the middle of the lake, on the western shore, and is labeled on maps as Cedar Creek—but it’s called Hines Creek by longtime locals.
Cedar Lake in Northern Michigan Sunset

Photo by Jon R. Constant

Paddle Crystal River, Especially in Fall

The Crystal River is one of our favorite paddling destinations. You start in a very wild, almost eerie stretch of the river with huge trees—some hanging precariously over the river—then move to a more open, yet still undeveloped stretch that becomes a more developed area before ending in Glen Arbor itself. It might as well be called “The Crooked River,” as it flows 6.4 miles back and forth, to cover only 1.4 miles as the crow flies. This river is a great alternative paddle when the winds are blowing, as it is well protected. It’s our recommendation that you paddle the Crystal during non-peak times (not July or August)—unless you like crowds.

Photo by Jon R. Constant

Location: North of Big Glen Lake and Fisher Lake, and south of Sleeping Bear Bay and Glen Arbor.
Access: National Lakeshore’s Fisher Road access, just north of Fisher Lake, near the intersection of Dunn’s Farm Road (CR-675) and Fisher Road. A park pass is required to park here. It took us about two hours to paddle the five miles from put-in to take out. The other option is to use a small, sandy landing near Bay Street in Glen Arbor.
Highlights: In the fall, the Crystal can be full of runs of salmon and trout—and the numbers can be amazing. Several of the salmon we observed must have been close to 20 pounds, and a few of them actually “torpedoed” my kayak. I managed to survive.
Boat launch at Crystal River

Photo by Jon R. Constant

Photo(s) by Jon R. Constant