For Fun, Rent a Pontoon

A 40-plus-mile voyage takes boaters through Michigan’s longest connected chain of lakes, which stretches nearly across the state’s northern tip
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pontoon
Michigan ranks as a top state in the nation for pontoon ownership. You can try one out through rental programs on various inland waterway routes.
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock

Michigan is, indeed, a water wonderland. Heck, it’s even part of our nickname. So, it’s no wonder that we have some unique places to bolster that brag.

One of those places is something many of us have only caught a glimpse of from I-75 at Indian River in the northern Lower Peninsula, while traveling elsewhere. Peer over the bridge and, on the west side, you’ll see a shore lined with homes, a marina or two, and perhaps boats meandering through the channel. On the other side, a large wetland stretches east, with a hint of more water beyond.

On your next trip north, look beyond those guardrails to discover a true Michigan treasure — one that, in fact, showcases nearly every reason people visit our Great Lakes State: the inland waterway.

Along its 40-or-so-mile length are five inland lakes, including two of the state’s largest, all flowing to one Great Lake: Lake Huron. Connecting them are three rivers and two sets of locks, waterside camping, local and state parks, resorts ranging from the cozy mom-and-pop variety to chain hotels, some of the region’s most inviting restaurants, great fishing, and loads of fun, whether you want to relax or party on for a few hours or a few days.

Pontoon Family
Thanks to lots of boat-friendly stops along the way, cruising in a pontoon is one of the best ways families and groups can enjoy a relaxing cruise on the inland waterway.
Photo courtesy of Dan Welihan

Michigan’s longest connected chain of lakes waterway stretches nearly across the tip of the state’s mitten. The route has been used for literally thousands of years, starting with the people of the First Nations, who hunted, fished, used it to travel between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to avoid storms, and lived along it. Now it’s used by vacationers, whether they’re in a boat, a car, or on a bike.

That, says Michael Ryan — co-owner of the Indian River Marina, located in the town of the same name, which straddles the waterway — is the lure and allure of this jewel. Ryan’s marina is one of several that rent pontoon boats — probably the easiest way to tour the route if you don’t have your own.

“The allure is, frankly, the variety of boating that’s available along the waterway,” Ryan says. “That’s the best part. You have Burt and Mullett lakes, and sand bars where you can drop anchor. You have undeveloped wetlands and nature preserves, and restaurants along the way, so even on the windiest of days you can get into the river and enjoy.” 

Echoing him is Tom Eustice, retired Cheboygan city manager, a trustee of the Cheboygan Community Foundation, and an inland waterway booster, who adds that besides the water route, Cheboygan County has more land trails than any other county in Michigan.

A pontoon traverses the Cheboygan River Lock
A pontoon traverses the Cheboygan River Lock.
Photo courtesy of Cheboygan Area Visitors Bureau

“I would say it’s the peacefulness,” Eustice adds. “We don’t promote the waterway as much as we should. It’s a well-kept secret, and some like it that way.” Judging from how quickly reservations fill for his 12 pontoons and those at the other marinas, the most popular way to make the trip isn’t as secret as it once was, Ryan confirms.

I’ll list some highlights here, divided by section. You can do the entire trip in maybe five hours, but many people stretch it into one or two days, staying at waterside inns or campgrounds. Docking or beaching your boat at most of the locations I mention is easy. The channel and its two locks are maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers and the river channels are dredged to 5 feet. The locks can handle boats up to 65 feet, but the waterway is best for craft 25 feet and under.

Crooked Lake to Burt Lake

The official waterway stretches between 2,300-acre Crooked Lake on the west to Cheboygan, ending at Lake Huron. Round Lake, close to Lake Michigan at Petoskey State Park, is also on the waterway, but the connector creek to Crooked Lake is floatable only with a canoe during high water.

West of Alanson is the westernmost lock, which will lower you about a foot to continue. You’ll pass several wildlife refuges and preserves to reach Alanson’s swing bridge, the world’s shortest of its type. The 5.6-mile-long meandering Crooked River enters Burt Lake’s northwest end at Maple Bay. Bring your fishing gear because Maple Bay is smallmouth bass territory. The rest of Burt Lake holds walleye, northern pike, brown trout, and sturgeon.

pontoon
For those who don’t own a pontoon boat, renting one is a great option and lets you spend unique time on the water.
Photo courtesy of Cheboygan Area Visitors Bureau

Stay at resorts along the way, such as the Crooked River Lodge, or bring your camping gear if that’s what you prefer. 

Burt Lake and Indian River

Within sight of the entrance to the 4-mile-long Indian River is Burt Lake State Park’s campground and large sandy beach. The Indian River name is a nod to the local Ojibway who lived along it, fished it, and even fought other tribes to maintain control of the river. Wind past homes, marinas, and waterfront restaurants such as the Pinehurst Inn, then twist through the wetland into Mullett Lake.

Overnight, you can stay at the state park or Maple Bay State Forest campground, or select one of the resorts on 10-mile-long Burt Lake, the state’s fourth largest inland lake.

Mullett Lake to the Cheboygan River

Enter Mullett Lake, the state’s fifth largest, where more walleye, bass, and sturgeon swim, and where you can overnight at Aloha State Park or one of the many lakefront cottages. On the lake’s east end, a huge sand bar is a favorite summer weekend gathering spot, especially when live music flows from a small floating stage there on Saturdays.

Inland Waterway - Straits Area Water Trails
A map of the waterway outlines the 40-plus-mile route and is available on the Indian River Chamber of Commerce website at irchamber.com.
Map courtesy of Indian River Chamber of Commerce

Just beyond the entrance to the 7-mile-long Cheboygan River is the Hack-Ma-Tack restaurant, celebrating 130 years in business. It’s one of this waterway’s — and Michigan’s — most iconic restaurants. According to current caretaker Robert Redding, it’s built on the site of a former Native American village. Redding and his wife, Julie, took over running the inn when his parents decided to retire.

Hack-Ma-Tack is a Native American word for tamarack trees, which the inn is constructed of, Redding says. Pull up and dine amongst an outdoorsy motif on locally caught whitefish and mouth-watering prime rib. The establishment is open May through mid-October.

You can also try other waterfront restaurants, such as the Breakers, with dockage on Mullett Lake. Spend the night at spots such as the Landings Resort or others on Mullett Lake.

Hack-Ma-Tack restaurant
The 130-year-old Hack-Ma-Tack restaurant is a favorite spot on the Cheboygan River, right at the mouth of beautiful Mullett Lake.
Photo courtesy of Hack-ma-tack

Cheboygan River to Cheboygan

The waterway is more developed here. You’ll glide past the mouth of the Black River (where you could take a side trip to explore, if you have more time), and pass through the Cheboygan Lock. Operating since the 1800s, the lock features a 16-foot drop, taming the rapids that once were here.

Dine at the riverside Pier 33, located at the M-33 bridge near downtown Cheboygan, or walk a block from the city’s pier to Main Street to enjoy the offerings at Nourish, which also features vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options on the menu and in its niche store in back. The Best Western River Terrace, on the water, is another good spot to overnight.

If you have your own boat, Eustice suggests heading past the Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw into Lake Huron to view the city’s efforts to dress it up before coming about to enjoy your trip in reverse.

If your craft is big enough, you also have the option to continue 15 miles north to Mackinaw City.

“This is a great boating area,” Eustice says. At Cheboygan, “you’re 15 miles from Mackinac Island, eight from Bois Blanc Island, it’s 21 miles to the Mackinac Bridge, and 60 miles to Canada’s North Channel. We don’t promote the waterway as much as we should.”

Maybe not, but it looks like the secret is out! 

Plan It!

Cheboygan Area Visitors Bureau
cheboygan.com/visitors-bureau

Indian River Chamber of Commerce
irchamber.com

Budget about $250-$550 daily for a pontoon rental. Avoid a wait list and reserve well in advance, as the pontoons book quickly and early, says the Indian River Marina’s Michael Ryan. The Crooked River portion is generally limited to boats up to 25 feet. As with any boating trip, keep an eye on the weather. Don’t want to float? You can drive most of the waterway along U.S. 27 and U.S. 31, where you can explore the area’s vast hiking and biking trail network. In August, watch the two-day 76th annual Top O’ Michigan Outboard Marathon race on the inland waterway.

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