The arrival of Southeast Michigan's peak fall colors transforms the beautiful Huron River into a can't-miss autumnal destination. Here are the six best routes for paddling, experiencing, and capturing the river's vibrant colors.
Let’s start with the obvious: there’s no wrong way to enjoy the Detroit region’s fall colors.
While even just a short walk around your neighborhood will produce Pinterest-worthy foliage content, we at Expedition Detroit like to get a little more intrepid with our autumnal adventures. Trail runs and mountain biking sessions are obvious choices, but now that the temperatures are dropping and winter is almost ready for its grand entrance, we’re opting to explore via paddle while we still can.
With that decision locked in, the logical follow-up question is where to drop in at. As we all know, there are seemingly endless water destinations to explore in our corner of the Great Lakes. If you really wanted to, you could honestly just grab an inflatable kayak or paddle board, pick a direction, and start walking a few miles before hitting a suitable body of water.
For Expedition Detroit’s inaugural fall paddling, however, we’re going to exert a little more intentionality than that. We’re paddling the Huron River National Water Trail - the 104-mile river trail that defines the heart of the Detroit region’s most beautiful parks, forests, and trail towns.
Even more specifically, we will be paddling down the following 6 routes for viewing the best of Southeast Michigan’s famous colors.
1. Proud Lake State Recreation Area to Milford Central Park
Distance: 5.1 miles
Launch: North Launch - Proud Lake State Recreation Area
Dock: Milford Central Park
I must admit that as an adopted son of Milford, I have paddled this route probably a hundred times. Take that admission as you will, but my argument is that my repeated drop-ins are a testament to just how fantastic this northern segment of the Huron truly is - especially when it is set ablaze by Michigan’s fall foliage.
The route begins at a DNR-maintained boat launch just east of Proud Lake State Recreation Area. Follow the westward current into the larger body of the park’s namesake, Proud Lake. Continue to follow the river’s northwest segments (otherwise you’ll find yourself in one of many dead-end segments, surrounded by equally confused geese) until reaching the only portage of this route: the idyllic Moss Lake Dam. Past the dam, you’ll float amidst a sea of golden and red leaves for 1.3 miles in one of Proud Lake’s best areas for solitude. Wildlife sightings are abundant here, especially white tail deer, great egrets, swans, waterfowl, turkeys, and muskrats.
After passing a popular beach launch just east of Wixom Road, you will keep paddling through another relatively isolated segment that gradually approaches civilization. Natural wetlands give way to privately-owned shorelines, and a series of bridges signal that you are indeed leaving the wilderness and paddling into the heart of the Village of Milford. Remaining highlights along this route include the historic Oak Grove Cemetery and passing through Milford’s historic Stone Arch Bridge. The route reaches its final destination at Milford Central Park immediately after crossing under the Main Street Bridge.
Bonus Tip: Between the Stone Arch and Main Street Bridges, you may have noticed a few kayaks pulled off onto a concrete dock along a south shore hill. We strongly advise that you follow suit and have a pint or two with our friends at River’s Edge Brewery, aptly named for its direct link to the Huron River. Known by locals simply as “The Brewery,” we at Expedition Detroit are not only big fans of their beer, but also the active stewardship and conservation advocacy that The Brewery has engaged in towards protecting the Huron. Cheers to you, River’s Edge!
2. Hubbell Dam to Upper Kent Lake (Kensington Metropark)
Distance: 3.8 miles
Launch: Milford Dam Portage
Dock: Martindale Drive Shore Fishing Dock
While this is the shortest route detailed in this article, this segment of the Huron River is easily one of the least visited and most beautiful. Conveniently hiding in plain sight between the extremely popular Hubbell Pond and Kent Lake bodies of the Huron, this route starts at the base of the roaring Hubbell Dam. The force from the dam will propel you down the initial twists and turns of this route, which include passing under the very scenic Camp Dearborn Trail Bridge and no-so-scenic General Motors Road Bridge.
Once you pass these bridges, you will enter unceremoniously into the most northern and sparsely visited portion of Kensington Metropark. You and your company will most likely be the only paddlers on this segment, so be sure to relish the tranquility in your virtually undisturbed natural surroundings. Signs of human existence will return briefly as you pass under Group Camp Road, where equestrians will likely be riding alongside or wading into the river. This is also the location of the first canoe campground along the Huron River National Water Trail, so you could dock to pitch a tent here if you planned ahead and made reservations.
The final 2.4 miles of this tranquil segment guide you closer and closer towards Kent Lake, the most predominant body of water within the Huron River. You will notice that the Huron gradually broadens as you approach Kent Lake, which could make for difficult paddling on windier days. Keep your eyes peeled for Kensington’s famous birds as well - sandhill cranes, great egrets, and herons draw bird watchers near and far to the park’s shorelines, although the best views are undoubtedly from the river. The route ends south of the Buno Road Bridge before the Huron becomes fully engulfed by Kent Lake.
Bonus Tip: If feasible, we strongly recommend adding a segment or two of the Huron River to this recommended route. As referenced earlier, Hubbell Pond is a fantastic area to explore from the Milford Central Park launching point, including the Pettibone Creek tributary that runs through the heart of the park. On the other end of the route, you could spend a full day just exploring the shoreline and islands of Kent Lake - not to mention the voluminous recreational activities found within Kensington Metropark.
3. Kent Lake Dam to Island Lake Kayak Launch (Island Lake State Recreation Area)
Distance: 5.4 miles
Launch: Kent Lake Dam Portage
Dock: Island Lake Placeway Kayak Launch
This route should be titled the “Island Lake Grand Tour” - your vessel will take you on a scenic voyage through the heart of the park, starting at the foot of the powerful Kent Lake Dam and finishing in the southwest sector of one of the Detroit region’s hallmark state recreation areas. There is only one disclaimer about this route: the initial miles of the route are located uncomfortably close to the Island Lake Shooting Range. Seriously, the park could be mistaken for a Civil War reenactment during the weeks preceding firearm opening day of whitetail deer season (November 15th). So, if anyone in your crew has sensitivity to gunshot noises - including pets - you may want to launch a bit farther downstream.
For those willing to brave the noise intrusion, however, this upper segment of the route is one of the most exciting and beautiful of the entire park. The powerful current from Kent Lake Dam forces you to stay alert as you navigate through boulders, logs, and submerged concrete barriers. Surprisingly, the wildlife viewing is also phenomenal - the egrets, cranes, turkeys, hawks, and deer must have grown accustomed to the constant barrage of gunfire, because they’re as plentiful as any other segment that I’ve ever paddled down. I’d suggest packing binoculars for this segment (and maybe earplugs).
South of the Kensington Road Bridge, the twists and turns of the Huron will guide you along a journey through Island Lake’s ever-changing topography. Like an honest parent, I would never admit that I have a favorite destination in the Detroit region, but secretly, Island Lake may take the prize. The lakefront scenery of the northeastern portion of the park seamlessly fades into wetlands, wooded hills, thick boreal forest, and eventually prairie-esque grasslands along its southwestern edge. There are multiple areas to temporarily dock as you complete your journey too, including a sheltered bay used as a canoe access point 1.8 miles from Kent Lake Dam, Riverbend Picnic Shelter, and another canoe campground just 1.4 miles upstream from your docking point.
Bonus Tip: Assuming that you utilized a pickup truck or similar large-capacity vehicle to transport your vessel, we also suggest bringing a mountain bike along for multi-sport adventures. Island Lake’s famous Blue and Yellow MTB Trails encircle and cross the Huron at several points within the park, with the canoe access point referenced earlier serving as a great base camp for launching successive paddling and biking expeditions. Just to demonstrate that we practice what we preach, my buddy and I tested the hypothesis that Island Lake is best explored on kayak and bike just last week. Our expectations were blown away. Stay tuned for a highlight reel.
4. Hudson Mills Metropark to Dexter-Huron Metropark
Distance: 6.0 miles
Launch: Milford Dam Portage
Dock: Martindale Drive Shore Fishing Dock
What do you get when you combine two metroparks with one of the region’s premiere trail towns? A fully-immersive “Pure Michigan” experience, featuring an uninterrupted highlight reel of one of the most beautiful paddling routes in the entire state. When the launching point for the route kicks off at the base of the Hudson Mills rapids, you already know that you’re in for a good time before you even push off from the shoreline of Hudson Mills Metropark and into the Huron.
The majority of this route - 4 miles - comprises of one the most direct and fast-flowing sections of the Huron, entirely encapsulated by Hudson Mills Metropark on the river’s western bank. Wildlife sightings are bountiful here, but the most fun aspect of this segment of the river will be navigating around several logs, rocks, and other obstacles that you will approach at a steady pace. Don’t worry, these are all easily-navigable - hence the “fun” rather than “caution” descriptor.
As you approach Downtown Dexter, you will notice that the bluffs around you rise to noticeable heights (which also showcase some of the most enviable house locations in the entire Detroit region). Mill Creek provides paddlers with an opportunity to voyage into the heart of Dexter and navigate through the Mill Creek Rapids. We have included this “detour” as part of this route since it truly entails a can’t-miss excursion from the main body of the Huron River. There are convenient docking locations at Mill Creek Park as well for continued land exploration.
Back in the water and reunited with the Huron, the final 1.5 miles of this route returns you to nature as you quickly enter Dexter-Huron Metropark. Feel free to take your time rafting along this flowing yet mellow section of the river - the rapids are behind you, nature surrounds you, and you have every reason to tune the world out for a bit until your final docking destination appears on the eastern bank.
Bonus Tip: Did we mention Dexter, one of our favorite trail towns in Michigan? We recommend using Dexter as your base camp for exploring this route not only via river, but by foot or bike. There is a walk/bike path that runs parallel to the Huron River and directly connects to both of the launching and docking locations mentioned above. If you plan correctly (and have two vehicles strategically placed), you can easily bike and kayak this route consecutively, including stops in Downtown Dexter for coffee at Joe and Rosie Coffee and Tea, lunch at the Dexter Riverview Cafe, and post-trail brews at The Beer Grotto.
5. Barton Nature Area to Gallup Park
Distance: 5.6 miles
Launch: Barton Nature Area Boat Launch
Dock: Gallup Park Canoe and Kayak Launch
As a Spartan alum, it slightly pains me to admit this, but credit is owed where credit is due: Ann Arbor is spectacularly beautiful in the fall, especially along the Huron River.
Launching just below the Barton Dam, this route will showcase the best of Ann Arbor’s parks, hills, and picturesque cityscape. The initial highlight reel includes Bird Hills Nature Area, Bandemer Park, and Argo Nature Area - yes, which includes the Argo Cascades, a popular rapids section of the Huron that is better suited for kayaks rather than canoes or paddle boards.
Below the rapids, you will find yourself in the heart of Ann Arbor. If you ever thought about venturing into amateur photography, well, this next segment will be as good of an opportunity as they come for testing your skills. The explosion of colors fostered by Riverside Park, Fuller Park, and - of course - the University of Michigan’s Nichols Arboretum will quickly fill up your camera’s memory card as you capture one potential postcard after another. Furstenburg Nature Area is the final natural landmark before reaching your final destination among the islands at Gallup Park. Your exit point is on the north shore of the river just past Huron Parkway.
Bonus Tip: Especially if you’re paddling on a bluebird, clear-sky day, our general bonus tip is simply to take your time along this route and thoroughly enjoy the natural beauty surrounding you. There are plentiful picnic spots along the route that are easily accessible from the river. We recommend packing in a book if you’re alone or a frisbee if with friends, as well as an Eno hammock for a midday snooze or relaxed river-watching from the shoreline.
6. French Landing Park to East Bend Picnic Area (Lower Huron Metropark)
Distance: 5.6 miles
Launch: French Landing Park
Dock: East Bend Picnic Area (Lower Huron Metropark)
Remember the first route on this list - the northernmost route that I have paddled several times? Well, this last recommended route forms the opposite end of the spectrum. Not only is it the southernmost route in this article, but it is the route that I am the least familiar with. As in I have never paddled it. Rest assured, however; that will change very, very soon.
This final route launches from French Landing Park on the easternmost point of Belleville Lake. After a quick portage around the 1925 French Landing Dam, you’ll paddle under the French Landing Bridge Trail and immediately into Lower Huron Metropark. Despite navigating through the heart of Detroit’s southwestern suburbs, the metropark’s wooded shoreline will provide you with natural insulation from the bustling outer world. As you paddle under a canopy of fall colors, you will pass by several of Lower Huron’s landmarks, including fishing docks, idyllic pedestrian bridges, and campgrounds. You will reach your final destination - and final docking point of your fall colors grand tour of the Huron River - at the East Bend Picnic Area.
Bonus Tip: Lower Huron Metropark hosts the Huron River National Water Trail’s fourth and final canoe campground (also the only canoe campground downstream of Ann Arbor). Especially given the lack of alternative campgrounds with immediate access to the river, we advise using Lower Huron Metropark as your basecamp for exploring the rest of the lower Huron over the course of a weekend. Assuming that you have the time and interest in doing so, you could ideally launch from Ypsilanti’s Spring Street Launch and paddle the entirety of Belleville Lake before reaching the campground for an overnight stay. Then, for our most ambitious of paddlers, it’s only a brisk 23.9 miles to the finish line where the Huron River meets Lake Erie. Put differently, Lower Huron Metropark is often the start of the final lap of the entire Huron River National Water Trail - if you feel the spirit of adventure nudging you to keep paddling (and your itinerary supports said continued paddling), we recommend allowing the current to keep you moving downstream.
Please remember that these recommended routes are described as one-way, downstream paddling routes. If you plan to paddle these routes as described in this article, then you should plan ahead for transportation at the docking point. I typically address this logistical detail by either leaving my paddling companion’s vehicle at one endpoint while mine is parked at the other, or arranging for a pick-up at the docking location (I have endless gratitude for my wife’s countless pick-up services).
If you are unable to arrange for a pick-up and looking for a phenomenal workout, you can also launch from one of the listed docking points, paddle upstream towards the corresponding launching point, and then return back downstream to your vehicle. I’ve emphasized paddling upstream since far too many new paddlers have royally screwed themselves by paddling downstream first. This mistake can easily lead to going farther than anticipated, underestimating the strength of the current, and then getting caught in a nightmare scenario where you lack the capacity to paddle back upstream. If you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, do NOT continue fighting a losing battle against the current until you’re completely fatigued. Paddle to the shoreline, securely dock your vessel, and rest both your muscles and mind until you can calmly assess the situation. Remember, we all know someone with a pick-up truck that can bail us out of a tough situation.
Let’s end on a happier note, shall we? The Detroit region is unbelievably beautiful this time of year - so beautiful that determining how to maximize a fall colors experience can often pose an intimidating task. These six routes are intended to provide a cheat sheet for exploring the Huron River’s best routes under a vibrant canopy of red, orange, and yellow.
Grab your paddle - we can’t wait to see you out there.
This article references content further elaborated upon within the guide book Paddling Michigan, Hillstrom and Hillstrom (2001). We highly recommend this book for planning your adventures, exploring Michigan’s waterways from your armchair, or starting coffee table conversations.