Unlock Northern Michigan’s Sweetest Treasure: The Chain of Lakes Water Trail, Perfect for Families

Chain of Lakes Water Trail Paddle Antrim

Beyond the Sandbar: Family-Friendly Paddling Adventures on the Chain of Lakes

Calling adventure-seeking families! Are you ready to dip your paddles into some of Northern Michigan’s most scenic waterways?

Antrim County, just minutes away from Traverse City, isn’t just home to the famous Torch Lake sandbar, it’s a wonderland for water-loving families.

And no worries if you’re new to kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding, Northern Michigan, or both! Paddle Antrim is your BFF; getting your family the info you need to easily get out on the water.

In this guide, we unveil five top-notch water trail spots made for a day filled with paddles and good times.

Michigan Chain of Lakes Map

These routes are part of the Chain of Lakes Water Trail – the only state-designated water trail in Northern Michigan.

(A water trail is like a hiking trail – but cooler – because you get to paddle!)

Hang til the end for the scoop on family-friendly paddle events, safe paddling tips, and nifty freebies like maps and newsletter sign-ups.

Ready? Grab your life jackets, and let’s get paddling!

Elk Rapids - Elk River Water Trail
Elk Rapids – Elk River Water Trail

About the Chain of Lakes Water Trail

  • Covers a large area with over 100 miles to explore
  • Made up of 12 lakes (including Torch Lake) and their connecting rivers
  • Features 84 water access sites with signs
  • Is the only state-designated water trail in Northern Michigan
  • Has an entire website dedicated to planning water trail outings, with links to maps, lodging, outfitters, suggested routes and more.
  • Is hosted by Paddle Antrim (a nonprofit organization) that also holds paddling events and classes on the water trail all season long.

These five easy paddling trip ideas will get your family out on the water in no time!

Paddle-Antrim-Festival

Water Trail #1: Bellaire – Intermediate River

Water Trail #1_ Bellaire - Intermediate River

Distance: 3.0 miles

Time: 1.5 hrs to paddle

Level: Beginner

Look for: Herons, ducks, swans

Start: Richardi Park


Right in the heart of the little town of Bellaire, this Beginner-level paddle to Intermediate Lake offers an inviting stretch perfect for families.

Starting at Richardi Park, the 3-mile round trip promises gentle currents and minimal boat traffic, making it a safe choice for those new to paddling or with little ones in tow.

What’s Cool for Kids

There’s a swimming beach near the launch site, and a playground at Richardi Park—perfect for a post-paddle chill out. With plenty of green space, it’s a great spot for a family picnic too.

Nearby Amenities

Need a kayak? Paddles and Pedals in downtown Bellaire will hook you up.

After your water adventure, stroll through downtown Bellaire for great local flavors—grab some grub at Short’s beer gardens, stand in line at an ice cream shop, and tuck in at a cozy coffee spot. The movie theater here is cool, too.

Paddle Celebration!

June 1: Mark your calendar for the 10 Year Anniversary Paddle Celebration! It’s a community paddle along the Intermediate River, followed by a fun gathering at Short’s Beer Garden.

August 15: Grab your paddleboard, kayak or paddle craft of choice and join Paddle Antrim for an amazing evening paddle on the Intermediate River as a lead up to Bellaire’s Rubber Ducky Festival & Race.

Water Trail #2: Elk Rapids – Elk River

Water Trail #2_  Elk Rapids - Elk River

Distance: 3.0 miles

Time: 1.5 hrs to paddle

Level: Beginner

Look for: Submerged stumps & Albatross shipwreck

Start: ROTARY Park


Launch your family’s day out at Elk Rapids Rotary Park and paddle along the Elk River.

This 3-mile round trip is a treasure trove for young explorers with sights like submerged stumps and the Albatross shipwreck.

What’s Cool for Kids

The area around the launch has plenty of room to play and picnic facilities. Plus, from June to September, don’t miss the Farmers Market at the park—perfect for grabbing fresh, yummy snacks on Friday mornings, 8 AM – noon.

Nearby Amenities

Rentals are easy to find at Bayfront Beach and Bike.

Hungry paddlers have a big selection of family-friendly eateries in downtown Elk Rapids, just a short walk from the water. The beach in downtown Elk Rapids is another great destination for anyone visiting the area with kids.

Special Harbor Days Paddle

Join the Harbor Days Community Paddle on August 1st at Rotary Park for a splendid hour of community paddling on Elk River and Lake.

Water Trail #3: Grass River Natural Area – Bellaire

Water Trail #3_ Grass River Natural Area - Bellaire

Distance: 4.8 miles

Time: 2.5 hrs to paddle

Level: INTERMEDIATE

Look for: Otters, heron, red fox

Start: WILLOW DAY PARK


Starting at Willow Day Park, this 4.8-mile round trip to the Grass River Natural Area offers a more challenging paddle, perfect for families with older kids. 

The area is a wildlife haven, where you might spot otters, herons, and even red foxes! *It’s best to start this trip early in the day to avoid the busier boat traffic later on.

What’s Cool for Kids

The dock at Grass River Natural Area gives you access to a boardwalk with trails perfect for a mid-paddle hike and lunch break.

Nearby Amenities

For gear, check out the outfitters page on the Paddle Antrim website.

Willow Day Park is just a short drive from Bellaire, where a variety of dining options await.

Morning Birding Paddle

This leisurely guided paddle is for the birds! Join Grass River’s knowledgeable education director (and seasoned birder) as you identify birds and learn about the rich history of the area on this hour-long adventure. June 19, 8 AM, Willow Day Park.

Spillway Lodges – Stay Here!

Northern Michigan’s newest boutique resort, in the heart of Bellaire, is the perfect fusion between an Airbnb and private resort. Book your stay and let yourself in. Sweet amenities and rooms big enough for a family, you’re just steps away from Short’s Brewery in Bellaire. Spillway Lodges website.

Spillway Lodges, Bellaire Michigan
Spillway Lodges, Bellaire MI

Water Trail #4: Thurston Park – Central Lake

Water-Trail-4_-Thurston-Park-Central-Lake

Distance: 3.4 miles

Time: 1.75 hrs to paddle

Level: BEGINNER

Look for: Heron, otters, fish

Start: Thurston Park


With a sandy beach for launching and a route that takes you through serene lakes, Thurston Park is a gem for families. The 3.4-mile route through Hanley and Benway Lakes is calm and scenic—just right for beginners.

What’s Cool for Kids

Post-paddle, hit up the park’s playground and beach for swimming and sandcastle time.

Nearby Amenities

Thurston Park is walking distance from downtown Central Lake, where you can grab a bite or pop into the local shops to find fun mementos.

Central Lake Community Slow Paddle

Grab your paddleboard, kayak, or canoe and join Paddle Antrim for an amazing evening paddle out of Central Lake. This hour-long slow paddle will meet at Central Lake’s Thurston Park. One Hour. Free. June 27.

Water Trail #5: Ellsworth and Wilson Lakes – Ellsworth

Water Trail #5_ Ellsworth and Wilson Lakes - Ellsworth

Distance: 4 miles

Time: 2 hrs to paddle

Level: BEGINNER

Look for: Fish and turtles

Start: River Park


Start at River Park in Ellsworth for an easy-going 4-mile paddle between Ellsworth and Wilson Lakes. The protected waters make for a relaxing paddle, even on windier days.

What’s Cool for Kids

The park features a playground, picnic areas, and lots of space to run around. Plus, renting kayaks or paddleboards is a breeze with the on-site kiosk

Nearby Amenities

While dining options in Ellsworth are quaint, a short drive to East Jordan expands your choices significantly.

Kids Kayaking Classes

This 2-hour kids’ class is a great way to introduce kids ages 7-13 to the sport of kayaking. Designed with fun and water safety as primary goals, they teach students through a variety of games and exploration. $35. Ellsworth. Registration required. June 26 & 27, July 24, 27, 31

Safety & Stewardship:

Paddle With Care
Paddling is fun but it does come with responsibilities. We urge all families to:

  • Always wear life jackets.
  • Be mindful of the weather and water conditions.
  • Respect wildlife and the natural beauty by not leaving any trash behind.
  • Stick to designated paddling routes to minimize environmental impact.

Stay Plugged In!
Don’t miss out on any of the fun

Download a Map

Before you head out, grab a digital map from the Paddle Antrim website—it’s your guide to all the great water trail launch spots

Purchase a Physical Map

Want something you can hold? Beautifully detailed maps for sale—perfect for plotting your journey.

Sign Up for the Paddle Antrim Newsletter

Get the latest on upcoming events, and classes.

Dive In
Don’t just take our word for it—you need to see for yourself why Antrim County is a paddle paradise.

Check out their website for downloadable maps, purchase options for detailed maps, and sign up for their newsletter to stay in the loop on all things paddling – with or without kids.

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