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Kayaking in Detroit: The Motor City’s Best Paddle Spots

Creative Commons "Detroit Skyline (HDR)" by Bryan Debus is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
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If you’re from the Motor City, you know the drill — it’s “Detroit vs. Everybody.” Long left for dead as an afterthought of America’s industrial revolution, today’s Detroit is writing a different story. In the past five years, Detroit has gone from “bust town” to “boom town,” with dozens of new developments, an influx of young residents and, as Jim Harbaugh would say, a robust regional pride powered by an “enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”

With so much happening in Motown, one of the best ways to experience the “city by the straits” is — you guess it — by water. Kayaking Detroit isn’t just a possibility these days; it’s actually one of the best ways to see the city’s rebirth.

For those looking to paddle in America’s comeback city, there are plenty of opportunities for kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding and other watersports both in the downtown district and in Detroit’s surrounding suburbs.

The Best Places for Kayaking in Detroit

Full disclosure: American Paddler was born in Michigan, so we’ve got a bit of a friendly bias here. Nevertheless, here are our top five picks for the best places to kayak in Detroit and southeast Michigan.


Kayaking the Detroit River and Belle Isle

As a critical port city connecting the Great Lakes, Detroit is smack in the heart of one of America’s longest interconnected waterways. While the Detroit River — which divides Detroit and its Canadian neighbor, Windsor — is still one of the most active shipping channels in the country, in recent years paddlers of all kinds have rediscovered the city’s recreational roots.

Belle Isle, a state-run island park near downtown at the mouth of the river, offers the best location in the city to launch a kayak, SUP or canoe. Dotted with lagoons, channels and direct river access, paddlers can choose from a variety of routes and activities on and around Belle Isle. With great views of the Detroit and Windsor skylines, the island offers plenty to do when you’re done kayaking: grab a blanket for a picnic, take in the island’s aquarium or explore one of the many hiking and biking trails.

While it is possible to paddle closer to downtown’s revamped Riverwalk, just be aware that during the summer months, ocean-going freighters and boats do frequent the often-choppy waterways, so stay close to shore. And remember, it is an international waterway, so keep to the U.S. side.

Best for:

Great skyline views of Detroit and Windsor and an afternoon “island” getaway

Tours and rentals: Check out RKC Adventures on Belle Isle, or Detroit River Sports and Detroit Outpost on the American side of the river for kayak, SUP and watersports rentals

Public access: Belle Isle is a state park, so you’ll need to buy a recreation passport (available on the island). Once on the island, though, you can launch a kayak either from the Belle Isle Beach on the north side or on the inland channel near the Flynn Pavilion on the south side.


Downriver

The lower Detroit River, known in the community as simply “Downriver,” offers a unique experience of its own for kayaking in Detroit. Paddlers can launch from Wyandotte’s Bishop Park and kayak 10 miles downstream into Lake Erie along a beautiful waterway. Unlike the Detroit River near the city, you don’t have to worry about drifting to Canada on this segment, which runs between the mainland and Grosse Ile, another Michigan island community.

Part of the Detroit Heritage River Water Trail, paddlers along this section will pass several historic industrial communities and picturesque mansions, as well as parks and nature conservancies. The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, through which kayakers will pass, is the only such international conservation area in North America, home to several rare species of birds, fish and reptiles.

If you do this trip, park one car in Wyandotte and another at the Lake Erie Metropark, as kayaking upstream is rather difficult, and the currents can be strong.

Best for:

A diverse, yet moderately challenging kayak adventure

Tours and rentals: If you’re renting, visit Riverside Kayak Connection at Elizabeth Park in nearby Trenton

Public access: If you’re bringing your own kayak, launch from Bishop Park in Wyandotte (the park also has a unique hydraulic kayak launch point for those with disabilities) or BASF Waterfront Park.


Huron River Water Trail

For some of the best river kayaking in southeast Michigan, try the Huron River, a diverse, 104-mile water trail winding through several communities and parks southwest of Detroit. A hidden gem with many trips to choose from, kayakers will find everything from calm waters to moderate rapids along this scenic route.

Along the upper portion of the river, paddlers can flow through charming, small towns such as Milford and Dexter, regional metroparks with spots for picnics and recreation, and beautiful, protected natural habitats where you might be lucky enough to spot a bald eagle. Further downstream, you’ll kayak under bridges and through quaint industrial communities as you make your way to Lake Erie.

Safeguarded by the Huron River Watershed Council, the trail is also a great place for fly fishing, sightseeing and paddling lessons.

Best for:

Longer, leisurely kayak trips along a scenic inland waterway, as well as great spots for fishing and some light rapids

Tours and rentals: Again, depending on where you go, you’ll find a lot of options here. In Ann Arbor, check out the Argo Livery or Gallup Canoe Livery for a variety of paddling programs and rentals. In Milford, visit Heavner Canoe and Kayak Rental. Closer to Lake Erie, there’s Motor City Canoe Rental in Flat Rock.

Public access: Depending on how long you want to paddle, there are multiple access points along the Huron River. For instance, you could start from the Lower Huron Metropark in Belleville, which has launches all along the river. Or you could do the Flat Rock to Lake Erie segment, which starts from the Flat Rock Boat Launch. Check Michigan Water Trails for an interactive map.


Clinton River Water Trail

In Detroit’s northern suburbs, there’s the Clinton River Water Trail, which, like its counterpart above, features 75 miles of diverse paddling for just about any adventure. Starting in Waterford and winding through Orchard Lake, Pontiac, Rochester Hills and Clinton Township, the Clinton River eventually spills out into northern Lake St. Clair near Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Check it out here.


Lake St. Clair Coastal Water Trail

Though not technically one of the five Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair might as well be. This 440-square-mile inland lake shares a coast with Canada and offers the same fishing, boating, kayaking and paddling experiences as the mighty Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario. Along the U.S. coast runs the Lake St. Clair Coastal Water Trail, 63 miles of beautiful paddle-ready shoreline.

Officially developed in 2011 with the help of communities along the coast and funded by a Michigan Sea Grant, the coastal trail begins in Grosse Pointe and continues along Lake St. Clair’s western and northern coastlines, ending near Harsens Island at the Canadian border. At the southernmost point, kayakers can gawk at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House and other spectacular waterfront mansions. Continuing up the coast, paddlers will find inviting lakefront communities, wetland marshes, hidden coves, stunning beaches and protected wildlife sanctuaries.

Though 63 miles is a long way to paddle, check out the official map for an idea of the amenities and fun spots along the way.

Best for:

Open-water coastal kayaking and fishing, a variety of wildlife and exploring new places

Tours and rentals: The Great Lakes Surf Shop in St. Clair Shores offers kayak and SUP rentals as well as lessons. Farther north, there’s Simple Adventures Watersports, with locations at Lake St. Clair Metropark and in New Baltimore, Mt. Clemens and on Harsens Island.

Public access: Again, pick a location. Near the Ford House, there’s the Chapaton Park boat launch. Further up the coast, launch from the Metro Beach Metropark in Harrison Township, or Decker’s Landing near the marshes of Anchor Bay.


Stony Creek Metropark

If huge lakes, international rivers or kayaking expeditions aren’t your thing, maybe you’re just looking for a relaxing afternoon on a peaceful lake. If that’s your jam, Stony Creek Metropark has you covered. With a sizeable inland lake and loads of dry-land recreation — including picnicking, swimming, disc and regular golf, rollerblading and cycling — here’s a park with “relaxing afternoon” written all over it.

About 45 minutes north of Detroit in Shelby Township, paddlers will find Stoney Creek Lake a tranquil place to kayak and enjoy the scenery — especially during the gorgeous fall color change. Waterfowl, fish, turtles and deer can be seen throughout the park.

On-site kayak, canoe, paddleboard and rowboat rentals are available, and for those worried about boat traffic, don’t be: Stoney Creek has a 10 mph speed limit, which means pesky speedboats won’t be bothering you.

Best for:

Casual paddlers, families and recreational kayakers looking for calm waters

Tours and rentals: Paddlers can rent kayaks, canoes, paddlboats, rowboats and dragon boats by the hour from the park’s rental facility at the Mt. Vernon picnic area near Baypoint Beach on the north side of the lake.

Public access: Though there’s a $10 fee to enter the park (with a car), paddlers will find both parking and boat access at Eastwood Beach on the southeast side of the lake

If you have any other suggestions of places to go kayaking in Detroit and throughout southeast Michigan, let us know!

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