With 1,700 miles of continuous coastline on three Great Lakes, plus 4,300 inland lakes and countless cascading rivers and streams nestled in its thickly forested interior, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a paddler’s paradise. Whether you enjoy kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding, quiet bays or dancing waves, the U.P. delights with an astonishing variety of paddling experiences.
This ruggedly beautiful region is home to off-the-beaten-track canoe routes and exhilarating whitewater rivers, picture-perfect waterfalls and some of the world’s finest sweetwater sea kayaking on the freshwater seas of Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Whatever your appetite, you’ll find amenities and outfitters to support overnight trips or any kind of day trip you can imagine.
From spectacular sea caves and century-old shipwrecks to wildlife-filled wilderness islands, here are nine incredible paddling experiences to have on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
1 Visit waterfalls
Tumbling through shady valleys and spilling over sandstone cliffs, there are hundreds of waterfalls to choose from on the Upper Peninsula. Spring is the best time to view these majestic torrents of falling water; plan your paddling trip for early May to see the falls at peak flows. Many falls are also beautiful all summer long, when kayakers and paddleboarders can beat the heat by paddling right under the cool, cascading waters.
In a region roaring with waterfalls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is an absolute must for paddlers. Its crown jewels are 140-foot Bridalveil Falls and Spray Falls, a 70-foot-high column of white, misting water that drops right into Lake Superior.
- See Pictured Rocks Waterfalls on a guided kayak day trip with Paddling Michigan, Pictured Rocks Kayaking or Northern Waters Adventures.
- Visit Tahquamenon Falls State Park, a 48,000-acre wilderness area home to majestic Upper Tahquamenon Falls, Michigan’s largest waterfall at 200 feet wide and 40 feet high. Canoe and kayak day trips on the Tahquamenon River descend from the picturesque Lower Falls to the river mouth at Lake Superior. Rentals and shuttles are available from The Woods Canoe & Kayak Rental.
2 Paddle over shipwrecks
Hundreds of miles of treacherous coastal cliffs and centuries of maritime history mean Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has the highest concentration of shipwrecks of any waters from coast to coast. From commercial fishing boats to passenger steamships, and logging tugs to giant ore freighters, these wrecks are protected by a network of state preserves and the clear, cold waters of the Great Lakes, drawing divers, paddlers and even glass-bottom boat tours.
- Grand Island National Recreation Area lies offshore from Munising, with two wonderfully intact, 19th-century wooden shipwrecks resting just beneath the surface. Lake Superior’s crystal clarity provides paddlers with up to 45 feet of underwater visibility, and the above-water scenery is just as spectacular with colorful sandstone cliffs, historic lighthouses and bald eagles soaring overhead. Stay and play with Paddling Michigan’s Grand Island Vacation Package.
- Drummond Island is at the center of a limestone archipelago whose many shoals and narrow passages have made it a notorious shipwreck coast. Paddling the aquamarine waters of Lake Huron, you can view century-old steamers and tugs just five to 15 feet beneath your hull. Pick up a shipwreck map from the Drummond Island Tourism Association, or join a guided kayak day trip with Woods & Waters.
- Don’t miss a visit to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, where world-class exhibits tell the story of the haunting world of Lake Superior shipwrecks.
3 Kayak through sea caves
Sea caves are natural tunnels, arches and caverns that most often form in soft, easily eroded rocks like sandstone and limestone. Crashing waves wash away the rock grain by grain and water that seeps into cracks in the winter freezes and expands, prying larger pieces free from the surrounding cliffs.
For fantastic sea cave paddling, few places can rival the sandstone shoreline of Lake Michigan on the Upper Peninsula, with hot spots like the Pictured Rocks and Grand Island luring visitors from around the world.
- Join a Guided Kayak Tour with Paddling Michigan, Pictured Rocks Kayaking or Northern Waters Adventures for a full- or half-day of unforgettable sea cave exploration, including paddle-in caverns and skyscraping, paddle-through arches at the iconic Pictured Rocks.
- Try Kayak-and-Snorkel or SUP-and-Snorkel at Mackinac Island with Great Turtle Kayak Tours. This guided day trip combines a paddling tour to view Arch Rock, perched high above Lake Huron, with snorkeling the Rock Maze, an underwater limestone cave formation.
- Visit the Keweenaw Peninsula to paddle past some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, dating back 1.1 billion years. Sea caves and stacks, 600-foot bedrock cliffs, a remote waterfall and rugged isolation await on a guided day trip kayaking in Upper Peninsula Michigan with Copper Harbor’s Keweenaw Adventure Company.
4 Paddle beside rainbow-colored cliffs
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore takes its name from a colorful, 15-mile stretch of mineral-stained sandstone cliffs that tower 50 to 200 feet above Lake Superior. Natural erosion has sculpted the cliffs into an astounding array of caves, arches, turrets, flowerpots and other unlikely formations that are best viewed from water level.
Paddling trips ranging from two hours to a full day are available, with popular launch points including Miners Beach and Sand Point.
- Paddle the Pictured Rocks Cliffs on a guided kayak day trip with Paddling Michigan, Pictured Rocks Kayaking or Northern Waters Adventures.
- Grand Island shares the same geology as Pictured Rocks, with wave-cut sandstone cliffs reaching heights of 300 feet above the restless lake. Sea caves, arches and gorgeous beaches also abound.
5 Descend whitewater rivers
From gentle swifts suitable for family floats to the exhilarating class IV rapids and falls of Piers Gorge on the Menominee River, the Upper Peninsula is home to whitewater thrills for every skill level. Whether you are an expert whitewater paddler or just starting out, let these experienced outfitters guide you to the best rivers in the region.
- Paddle the Ontonagon River, a designated National Wild & Scenic River that flows through the backcountry of the Ottawa National Forest. Outstanding scenery includes exposed sandstone cliffs and waterfalls, with sections of river ranging from calm floats to challenging rapids. Contact Sylvania Outfitters for canoe and kayak rentals as well as trip suggestions on the Middle Branch.
- Raft or Kayak the Menominee River, one of the highest flowing rivers in the Midwest with rapids and hydraulics similar to western rivers. Careening through class III to IV rapids and past 200-foot cliffs, a descent of the Menominee culminates with a 10-foot waterfall in the legendary Piers Gorge. For those who prefer a more gentle river descent, the lower section offers miles of broad, free-flowing paddling through the wild and undeveloped Menominee River State Recreation Area. True North Outpost offers guided whitewater rafting and kayaking trips ranging from two hours to an overnight mini-expedition with island camping.
6 Canoe peaceful wilderness lakes
Canoe trips in Upper Peninsula Michigan aren’t limited to rivers and open coastlines. Canoe trippers will also find thousands of sparkling lakes scattered like jewels throughout the Upper Peninsula’s vast tracts of designated wilderness, state and national forest. Whether you are looking to escape for a few hours or a few days of canoeing in Upper Michigan, these pristine lakes get top marks for untouched beauty and solitude.
- Explore the Sylvania Wilderness and surrounding Ottawa National Forest with equipment rentals and canoe trip planning assistance from Sylvania Outfitters. With four decades of experience, they’ll help you discover everything this beautiful area of interconnected wilderness lakes and portages has to offer.
- Pretty Lake Quiet Area offers a chain of six small, crystal-clear lakes connected by short portage trails. Each lake has its own character and holds different species of fish, and all are designated for non-motorized use only. A rustic state forest campground and backcountry campsites allow canoe campers to linger longer. The Woods Canoe & Kayak Rental offers rentals and delivery service for canoeing in Michigan Upper Peninsula.
- Lake of the Clouds is one of Michigan’s most iconic lakes, nestled in the 60,000-acre Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Surrounded by towering bluffs and lush groves of the Midwest’s largest remaining old-growth forest, the lake is an unforgettable paddle for the adventurous. To get here, it’s best to bring your own lightweight watercraft—the lake is only accessible via a ¾-mile hike.
7 Float through a wildlife refuge
Thousands of miles of streams and rivers bisect the verdant forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, making this rugged and lightly populated landscape a haven for wildlife. A relaxing family float trip down one of these beautiful and tranquil rivers offers one of the most fulfilling ways to encounter moose, deer, river otters, beaver, turtles, swans, sandhill cranes, great blue herons and bald eagles, along with a host of other inhabitants. Anglers will also be rewarded with outstanding walleye, trout, perch and bass fishing, as well as spring steelhead and fall runs of Chinook salmon.
- Float the Manistique River through the Seney National Wildlife Refuge for an incredible 11-mile journey immersed in the sounds and sights of deep nature. Stay riverside at Northland Outfitters or Big Cedar Campground; both offer camping and self-guided canoe and kayak trips, including equipment rental and shuttles.
- Paddle the AuTrain River as it twists and turns for 10 miles through the Hiawatha National Forest from AuTrain Lake to Lake Superior. Once a logging run to Lake Superior, today the AuTrain is a quiet, relaxing outing with wildlife-filled sloughs tucked in its many meanders. AuTrain River Canoe and Kayak provides rentals and shuttle service.
- Journey Down the Two-Hearted River to Lake Superior; the sandy shorelines of this slow-moving river and surrounding forest reserve are home to a diversity of wildlife. End your trip with fantastic fishing and rockhounding at the Mouth of the Two Hearted River State Forest Campground. The Woods Canoe & Kayak Rental offers rentals and delivery service.
8 Visit historic lighthouses
Fans of maritime history can experience many of the Great Lakes’ most scenic lighthouses while kayaking Upper Michigan. Dating back to the mid-1800s, these rugged outposts were constructed to support the burgeoning iron and copper trade as well as growing passenger travel and commercial fishing on lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan. Frequent fog and fall storms meant these beacons of light were often the difference between reaching safe harbor and shipwrecking in the treacherous waters.
Tour a lighthouse and step into the life of a lightkeeper at one of the U.P.’s fascinating maritime museums, then experience the sight of an iconic red-and-white tower from the seat of your kayak.
- Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor on the Keweenaw Peninsula are two of the oldest and most picturesque lighthouses on Lake Superior. See both on an exciting guided kayak day trip with Keweenaw Adventure Company.
- Enjoy Tranquil Paddling on the Keweenaw Waterway, which cuts 25 miles across the Keweenaw Peninsula and is marked at both ends by historic lighthouses. Consisting of river, lake and canal, the waterway is prized for its excellent fishing and camping, as well as the scenic backdrop of its twin lights. Kayak and SUP rentals and delivery are available in Houghton at Portage Paddle Sports.
- Round Island Lighthouse and Mackinac Island Lighthouse have guided ships through the less-than-half-mile-wide Straits of Mackinac for over a century. View these celebrated landmarks—and experience the historic charm of Mackinac Island—on a guided kayak or paddleboard trip with Great Turtle Kayak Tours.
- Peninsula Point Lighthouse perches on the tip of the Stonington Peninsula at Lake Michigan’s Little Bay de Noc. Enjoy a paddle around this undeveloped area, and then head ashore to climb the 40-foot light tower and hunt for 500-million-year-old fossils on the rocky limestone shoreline. If you’re here in the fall, you can even witness thousands of monarch butterflies resting before migrating across Green Bay. Don’t miss a visit to the fully restored Sand Point Lighthouse and maritime museum in nearby Escanaba.
9 Circle wildlife-filled islands
Complete a paddle around one of the Upper Peninsula’s beautiful islands and you’ll be rewarded with some of the region’s finest wildlife viewing opportunities. Every season brings something special: the U.P.’s islands and peninsulas serve as natural flyways for thousands of migrating birds in spring and fall; in summer, resident songbirds fill the boreal forest with their melodies.
Remote islands—such as the incomparable Isle Royale—offer critical wilderness habitat for iconic species, including wolves and moose.
- Explore Les Cheneaux Islands, an archipelago of 36 islands with miles of Lake Huron shoreline and bird-filled nature preserves. Enjoy these sheltered waters on a day of guided Upper Peninsula Michigan kayaking with Woods & Waters in Hessel. They also offer an overnight kayak trip with camping among the cedars of Government Island, plus kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals for self-guided paddlers.
- Grand Island National Recreation Area lies just off Munising and the Pictured Rocks, sharing that coastline’s spectacular sandstone geology. Paddling around the island (30 miles) rewards experienced sea kayakers with fantastic cliffs, camping and pristine sandy beaches, as well as the chance to spot osprey, bald eagles, white-tailed deer and even black bears.
- Circle Drummond Island on the Drummond Island Heritage Water Trail, a 60-mile loop connecting quiet bays, stone-studded shorelines and dozens of untouched islets, including Harbor Island National Wildlife Refuge. Plan at least four days to paddle the entire trail, or join Woods & Waters for a guided kayak day trip exploring Potagannissing Bay.
- Visit Isle Royale To feel really out there, paddle around Isle Royale National Park. The park is composed of a 50-mile island surrounded by 450 barrier islands and was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. This is true wilderness, accessible only by ferry or seaplane, surrounded and shaped by the largest freshwater lake in the world. Navigate past lush forest and fjord-like bays by day, and listen for the bellow of moose and the howl of wolves after dark. Keweenaw Adventure Company offers kayak rentals and outfitting, located next to the ferry dock in Copper Harbor.
- Circumnavigate the Keweenaw Peninsula—also known as “Copper Island”—on a hundred-mile-plus journey along the Keweenaw Water Trail. With its remote coastline and small population, the Keweenaw rewards experienced, self-guided sea kayakers with abundant wildlife and rugged scenery. Get trip planning assistance, complete sea kayak outfitting, rentals and shuttles from the Keweenaw Adventure Company.
From the wilderness coastlines of the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale in the west, to the spectacular sandstone cliffs and limestone islands of the central and eastern regions, canoeing and kayaking in Upper Peninsula Michigan is truly unforgettable. Even better, the U.P.’s friendly outfitters make world-class kayaking and canoeing experiences accessible to any skill level so it’s easy to discover this outstanding destination for yourself.
Feature photo: Wandering Michigander