Beaver Island Water Trail

Beaver Island is an amazing sea kayak destination. With the addition of the new Beaver Island Water Trail, it just gets better! It’s rather special to me since it is where I had my first sea kayak lessons. Being a remote island in Northern Lake Michigan, the water is clear (and cold), the scenery pristine, and the night skies are phenomenal.

About Beaver Island

Beaver Island is approximately 55 square miles in size. It is a rich, biodiverse island with a varied landscape filled with pine and hemlock forests as well as hardwoods. Swamps and bogs are scattered about along with inland lakes. And like many of the neighboring islands and the mainland, it is home to the Great Lakes dunes.

Unlike Mackinaw Island, you won’t have crowds to deal with. Because of its distance from the mainland, fewer people visit the island. Beaver Island has around 500 year-round residents. On a busy holiday like the Fourth of July, the total population is typically less than 1,200.

A word of caution

Beaver Island is the largest of fourteen islands (sixteen if you include North Manitou and South Manitou) that make up the Beaver Island Archipelago. While the other islands are in fact great kayak destinations, safely reaching them is best accomplished by experienced kayakers.

The Beaver Island Water Trail is intended for experienced paddlers with open water experience and have skills capable of handling rough water. Lake Michigan is unpredictable, and paddlers should be prepared for all conditions. This trip will also mean rustic backcountry camping.  Most portions of the island are heavily forested, especially the south-western portion, so hiking out in case of an emergency could be a challenge.

Recent high-water levels have created new hazards including submerged trees, boulders and rocks, and other hazards.

If you are a novice paddler and want a Beaver Island experience, please consider a guided tour with Happy Paddle.

Kayaking the Beaver Island Water Trail

The Beaver Island Water Trail is 42 miles in length and has 18 designated safe landing points. Rustic camping is available at most of the landing sites. Generally most paddlers would take three or four days to do the entire trail.

Before you begin your kayak trip, register your float plan with the Beaver Island Community Center so they will know your itinerary. If for some reason you don’t check back in on time, they will be able to alert the authorities to help locate you. The community center is located directly across the street from the ferry dock. They also are raising funds to purchase EPIRB tracking devices that they intend to rent to paddlers.

If you haven’t already purchased a Beaver Island Water Trail map, you can by a copy at the community center.

You might also want to stop by Happy Paddle, the local kayak outfitter and guide, for the most up to date report on conditions and advice. Happy Paddle also offers guided trips along the water trail as well to some of the surrounding islands.

You can launch from the marina next to the ferry dock and set off on your trip. If you haven’t stopped by Happy Paddle, you can paddle over to their location, just a few hundred yards away, at Jewell Gillespie Park.

Things to see along the way

  • Antique cars and trucks sunken in Paradise Bay. Depending on who tells the story, they were either sunk intentionally to create an artificial reef, or they were placed on the ice and bets were placed on when the last one would sink when spring arrived.
  • Whisky Point Life Saving Station and Lighthouse.
  • Martin’s Bluff on the east shore offers the highest vantage point to view the Michigan mainland.
  • Beaver Island Head Light. This old lighthouse is easily accessible from the water. It is frequently open for self-guided tours.
  • At the south end of the island, the shipwreck of the Bessie Smith lies in Little Iron Ore Bay. The schooner ran aground November 1, 1873.
  • Parabolic sand dunes are visible along the western shore south of McFadden’s Point. This area is also a nesting area for Piping Plovers.
  • At Bonner’s Landing you can take a hike inland down Sloptown Road and visit Protar’s Home and his tomb. Feodor Protar was a Russian immigrant who lived simply and helped other island residents with his self-taught healing practices.
  • Donegal Bay is a popular beach that has fantastic views of High island and sunsets here are amazing. Pitcher’s Thistle is common here too.

Beaver Island Wildlife

As your paddle, you will likely see wildlife including Bald eagles, osprey, otters, racoons, coyote, fox, and plenty of fish. In the summer of 2019, we spotted a pelican near Whisky Point.

Beaver Island include seven endangered or threatened species including:

  • Michigan Monkey-Flower (Mimulus Michiganensis)
  • Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium Pitcheri)
  • Houghton’s Goldenrod (Solidago Houghtonii)
  • Dwarf Lake Iris (Iris Lacustris)
  • Piping Plover (Charadrius Melodus)
  • Northern Long-Eared Bat (Myotis Septentrionalis)
  • Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly (Somatochlora Hineana)

Camping on Beaver Island

Depending on when you are ready to depart on your trip (your ferry schedule will influence this) you will need to assess where you plan to make camp for your first night. If paddling clockwise, the Bill Wagner Campground is approximately 7 ½ miles away from your start at Paradise Bay. The campground offers tent sites that are close to the water, fire rings, pit toilets, and a water pump.  $10.00 per night per campsite. No reservations, sites are available on a first come basis.

The only other organized campground on the island is the St. James Township Campground located on the northern side, just one mile from town by land, and five miles by water. Situated on a high bluff, accessing the campsites from the water is challenging. With recent high lake levels, finding a secure place for your boat and safely unloading makes this campsite a logistical challenge.

When camping along the way on DNR land follow all Michigan DNR rules for dispersed camping. Also practice “Leave No Trace” guidelines to minimize impact.

There are no bears on Beaver Island, but you will want to take care in storing your food while camping. Racoons, fox, squirrels, and infamous chipmunks are all threats to your food if not stored properly. I recommend hanging food in a bear bag. I’ve had good luck using an Ursack. It’s not Grizzly proof but it can’t be chewed through by rodents and other varmints.

Special Gear Considerations

Camping gear that you will want to have with you (besides your usual gear).

  • Insect repellent – Mosquitos and biting flies can be bad.
  • Water filter
  • Tent stakes suitable for sand. Ikea bags filled with sand or rocks work very well instead of traditional stakes. Plus they are multipurpose.
  • A bear bag to store your food. Chipmunks and rodents are your concern as they will chew through drybags as well as nylon stuff sacks. Suspend your bear bag. If you use a Kevlar type like an Ursack, hanging isn’t necessary, but it should be tied securely so larger animals, like coyotes or foxes, can’t drag it away.
  • Warm camp clothes. Overnight temperatures can get into the upper 40’s and mid 50’s quiet often even in July and August. A three-season sleeping bag should suffice.
  • Gas stove for cooking. Don’t count on having a campfire.
  • Extra food for one full day in case weather prevents you from completing your trip as scheduled.


Additional kayak gear that you should consider bringing.

  • Adequate warm clothing. Lake Michigan doesn’t warm up until Mid-July. Be sure to have paddle clothing sufficient for 50-degree water temperatures. This is especially true after storms as colder water will well up. Water temperatures in late July through August tend to average around 65 degrees.
  • Tow belt.
  • Spare paddle.
  • Painter lines to secure your boat while on shore. Tie your boat up at night. You don’t want to wake up in the morning and discover that high winds took your boat away.
  • VHF radio. For weather updates or emergencies.
  • Shouldn’t have to remind anyone but…a PFD.

How to get to Beaver Island

Located thirty miles from Charlevoix, Michigan, it is accessible only by boat or airplane. Ferry and air service are available from Charlevoix.

Beaver Island Boat Company offers two ferries that run daily during the summer peak season. Check their website for fares and schedules.

Unless you are planning to rent kayaks from Happy Paddle, you will need to take the ferry to accommodate your kayaks.

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