The Chain of Lakes Water Trail is a hidden gem, with an upper and lower chain divided by the picturesque Bellaire dam. While the lower chain boasts renowned lakes like Torch Lake and Elk Lake, the upper chain offers a quieter, off-the-beaten-path experience that’s well worth exploring. In this guide, we’ll unveil some enticing routes along the upper chain that are perfect for kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddle boarding, and even fishing enthusiasts. The best part? These routes are flexible, so you can customize your adventure, whether you prefer a short, leisurely trip or a more extensive journey.

St. Clair Lake / Six-Mile Lake Natural Area

Distance: 4.7 miles

Duration: 2 hours

Skill Level: Intermediate

Route: Six Mile Lake DNR Access to River Park

Embark on a scenic voyage through the narrow waters of Six Mile Lake and St. Clair Lake, featuring over a mile of protected shoreline leading to the charming Village of Ellsworth. Along the way, you may encounter rare wildlife such as otters, herons, and more. This approximately two-hour paddle is easily adaptable for an out-and-back journey if you lack a second car for shuttle service. Note that, during high water, a portage is required at the culvert connecting St. Clair Lake and Ellsworth Lake.

kayaker on Six Mile lake

Ellsworth and Wilson Lakes

Distance: 3.4 miles

Duration: 1 3/4 hours

Skill Level: Beginner

Route: River Park to Wilson DNR Access

Launch your adventure from the picturesque sandy beach at River Park in Ellsworth. Begin your journey on the small, narrow Ellsworth Lake, which typically offers a protected environment even in windy conditions. Continue through the serene waters of Wilson Lake, a perfect choice for beginners. This route takes less than two hours, making it ideal for a relaxing outing. Moreover, it’s easy to turn this into an out-and-back paddle, giving you the freedom to choose your desired distance based on conditions and your preferences. If you don’t have your gear, don’t worry; you can rent equipment from the super convenient Breezeway Paddle Sports Kiosk at River Park.

kayaks on a the sandy beach at River Park in Ellsworth, MI

Sandy beach at Ellsworth River Park

Kayakers on Wilson Lake in the upper chain on the Chain of Lakes Water Trail

Wilson Lake on a calm summer day

Benway and Hanley Lakes

Distance: 4.0 miles

Duration: 2 hours

Skill Level: Beginner

Route: Wilson DNR Access to Thurston Park

Navigate through the slender lakes of Benway and Hanley Lakes, concluding your journey in the charming Village of Central Lake. Central Lake is a great spot to end a journey as it offers a sandy beach to exit onto, restrooms, picnic tables, and much more. You can easily stroll into town to grab a bite to eat or check out the local shops.

Intermediate Lake

Distance: 8.5 miles (Eastern Shore) or 9 miles (Western Shore)

Duration: 3 1/2 hours (Eastern Shore) or 3 3/4 hours (Western Shore)

Skill Level: Intermediate

Route: Thurston Park to Richardi Park

If you’re up for a challenge, this route is perfect for you as you travel between the communities of Central Lake and Bellaire. Depending on the wind, you might need to adjust your direction, or which shore you paddle along, so it’s wise to check the weather beforehand. Thurston Park and Richardi Park provide all the essentials to kickstart or conclude your journey, including restrooms, drinking water, picnic spots, parking, and more. Both towns are walkable from the access sites and offer plenty of food and entertainment options. Intermediate Lake presents two route options: an 8.5-mile stretch along the eastern shore or a 9-mile course along the western shore.

If the wind permits, starting your adventure from the Village of Central Lake and navigating through Intermediate Lake is an excellent choice. Once you’ve crossed the lake, a serene and picturesque paddle awaits you along the Intermediate River before arriving at the Village of Bellaire.

Kayakers on Intermediate Lake in the Upper Chain of the Chain of Lakes Water Trail

Community Paddle on Intermediate Lake

Intermediate River

Distance: 3.0 miles

Duration: 1 1/2 hours (round-trip)

Skill Level: Beginner

Route: Richardi Park out and back along Intermediate River

Enjoy a relaxing upstream paddle on Intermediate River, covering 1.5 shallow miles to Intermediate Lake and back. There’s minimal current when heading upstream, making it a beginner-friendly choice. A large portion of the shoreline is owned by the airport, which means that there are no houses, giving it the feel of a natural area. You are sure to see plenty of wildlife and enjoy the tranquility of being in nature. Boat traffic is also minimal.  If you need rentals, Paddles and Pedals is just up the road on the main street in Bellaire and they can provide you with the equipment you need for a relaxing journey.

The Upper Chain is truly magical, and we hope you find time to explore many of these routes or piece them together to make a day long or weekend long adventure. We have created several different tools for paddlers to help them on our journey. We have a 30-page waterproof Chain of Lakes Paddler’s Guide that provides information to help paddlers plan a safe and worthwhile trip. Topics include safety, stewardship, maps, suggested routes based on experience level, lakeside community information, resources to find dining and overnight accommodations, and outfitters and liveries. We have also created a free digital map on Avenza Maps that you can download to your phone. This allows you to GPS locate yourself and you can measure distances between access sites, find your coordinates, plot geotagged photos on a map and more. Last but not least, we have charted all our routes on Michigan Water Trail’s website and you can plan your route using their online mapping tool.

Kayakers on the Intermediate river on the upper chain of the Chain of Lakes Water Trail

Intermediate River

Frequently Asked Questions:

  • Is there a shuttle service available for one-way paddling trips?

Some outfitters/liveries provide shuttle services for rentals, but currently, we’re not aware of a dedicated shuttle service in the area. However, you can easily turn any of the routes on the Chain of Lakes into round-trip paddles since it’s a flatwater system.

  • Can I camp along the Chain of Lakes Water Trail?

While there are campsites for overnight stays, camping at access sites isn’t permitted, and organizing a canoe or kayak camping trip might be challenging. The water trail is more suited for day trips. For lodging options, including waterside campsites in Ellsworth and Central Lake, check our website

  • Is the water trail suitable for beginners or families with young children?

Absolutely! We have created a section on our website with routes based on paddling skill level – any of the beginner routes are great for families. You can find that information here:

  • What safety measures or tips should paddlers keep in mind while on the water trail?

Paddling safety is EXTREMELY important to us at Paddle Antrim. We suggest following the safety tips below as well as taking a paddling class which we offer throughout the paddling season. We also ask that you always CLEAN, DRAIN, and DRY your paddle craft before entering the Chain of Lakes to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.

  1. Wear your life jacket at all times.
  2. Carry essential items such as a signaling device (like a whistle) on your life jacket, communication tools (VHF radio, cell phone, Personal Locator Beacon), first aid/safety gear, spare clothing, and snacks and water.
  3. Understand your capabilities and be ready for unforeseen circumstances. If uncomfortable, return to shore.
  4. Account for changing weather conditions; watch the horizon and changing wind speeds/directions. If the weather worsens, leave the water immediately.
  5. Dress appropriately for immersion, considering water temperature. Below 70⁰F is cold; wearing a wetsuit or drysuit helps retain warmth. Avoid wearing cotton.
  6. Wear bright colors for visibility and carry a light if paddling early morning or late evening.
  7. Inform a friend about your paddling plans, including location, schedule, and what action to take if you fail to check in.
  8. Offer assistance within your capabilities to individuals in distress or injured or help them get further aid
  • Is there information available about nearby attractions, restaurants, or points of interest along the trail?

The water trail consists of four lovely towns and we encourage you to explore them all! Ellsworth, Central Lake, Bellaire and Elk Rapids all have lovely shops and restaurants. You can learn more about each at