The Lake Michigan Water Trail: One of Wisconsin's Best-Kept Secrets

Wisconsin is home to several famous American pathways. There's the Ice Age Trail, for example, one of just 11 National Scenic Trails. And the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, considered the nation's first rail-to-trail. Yet one of Wisconsin's most impressive treks – the Lake Michigan Water Trail – is relatively unknown.

Created in 2011, the Lake Michigan Water Trail unspools some 1,600 miles around the Great Lake's entire shoreline, portions of which are in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. The "trail" consists of a series of amenities to assist paddlers and those using other nonmotorized watercraft (e.g., small sailboats) in their journey: think public boat ramps and carry-in sites, parking and picnic areas, restrooms, campsites, a mapping application and more.

Man in a yellow kayak at the Apostle Islands in Bayfield

When the 1,600-mile trail is fully completed in all four states, there will be restrooms roughly every five miles and campsites every 10. It will also become the world's longest continuous-loop water trail. Or, as some backers boast, the path will become the water-based equivalent of America's beloved Appalachian Trail.

Wisconsin is home to 525 miles of the Lake Michigan Water Trail, running from the state's southeastern border with Illinois, around the Door County peninsula and up to the state's northeastern border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula. All 525 miles here are completed, featuring the requisite campsites, restrooms and access points. Even better, the route showcases a wide variety of treasures.

Paddlers can spy innumerable natural riches from their watercraft, such as sand dunes, marshes, rocky promontories and sedge meadows. Also visible: manmade gems, such as historic lighthouses, and several ancient shipwrecks (conditions permitting). Two highlights along the route are glimpses of the Niagara Escarpment, an ancient, rocky foundation that runs from New York to Wisconsin, and Two Creeks Buried Forest, a +10,000-year-old pine forest preserved by glacial activity.

Since Lake Michigan is immense – it's the fifth-largest lake in the world – plus cold and unpredictable, trail users need to use appropriate watercraft for their voyages (e.g., sturdy sea kayaks) and dress for potential immersion in the water. But with proper precautions, great adventures can be had. Here are some suggested excursions.

Rock Island

Rock Island sits off the tip of the Door peninsula, past Washington Island. The entire 900-acre island is a state park. For a pleasant daylong excursion, paddle east from Washington Island's Jackson Harbor, then around the island. Break up this roughly eight-mile trip by exploring the state park, which features hiking trails and free guided tours of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse. You can also check out several massive stone buildings, including a boat house and Viking Hall, which were constructed by a millionaire investor who once owned Rock Island.

Downtown Milwaukee

View of Downtown Milwaukee from Lake Michigan

If you prefer a more urban experience, paddle or sail from Milwaukee's South Shore Marina to Bradford Beach. This five-mile trip offers prime views of the downtown Milwaukee lakefront. Possible stops along the way include Lakeshore State Park, which features a pebble beach and selfie stand, and the lagoons near Discovery World, a science museum. When you reach Bradford Beach, change into your swimsuit and take a dip in the lake.


Experienced paddlers looking for a more challenging option can travel from Port Washington to Kohler-Andrae State Park, a 21-mile trip. On Day 1, head north nine miles from Port Washington's South Beach to your stopping point: Harrington Beach State Park in Ozaukee County. The kayak campsite, just south of the point, is marked by a blue post. During your downtime, explore the park's seven miles of hiking trails and one mile of shoreline. Day 2 entails a 12-mile paddle to Sheboygan's Kohler-Andrae State Park, where you'll find impressive sand dunes, a pine forest, nature center and several miles of hiking trails.

Discover more paddling aventures in Wisconsin with these five weekend canoe trips!

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