What’s a water trail?

Water trails are showing up along waterways across the country, offering recreation to users and economic spark to communities.

A water trail is a designated route along a river, lake, canal or bay specifically designed for people using small boats – like kayaks, canoes, single sailboats or rowboats. These trails are sometimes called blueways because they are the aquatic equivalent to a hiking trail (or greenway). Water trails often have well-developed access and launch points, are near significant historical, environmental or cultural points of interest and often include nearby amenities such as restaurants, hotels and campgrounds.

Water trails are showing up along waterways across the country, providing residents and visitors with increased access to the water. Water trails enable recreation and ultimately increase the visibility of and knowledge about local bodies of water, while promoting stewardship and conservation within the community. Paddling is one of the fastest growing forms of recreation that can provide numerous benefits to local communities, residents and visitors, including:

  • Education:  Paddlers are able to learn first-hand about the river or lake and surrounding watershed while they paddle the water trail.
  • Recreation Tourism and Economics:  Water trails spark recreation and tourism in an area. In comparison to other recreational attractions, water trails have relatively low overhead, yet can provide immense economic returns.
  • Stewardship/Advocacy/Conservation:  Once a water trail is established in an area, it can lead to a new sense of enthusiasm from the surrounding community and paddlers, alike.

  • Health:  Communities with water trails provide places for people to engage in healthy physical activity. Water trails can provide local opportunities for enjoying rivers by paddling, swimming and fishing. 

In 2011, Michigan Sea Grant assisted coastal communities in Macomb and St. Clair Counties to complete the Lake St. Clair Coastal Water Trail brochure along a 45-mile stretch of Lake St. Clair. The motivation behind the water trail was to highlight all that the area has to offer while building up sustainable use of Michigan’s resources. “The trail provides a unique recreational opportunity to experience the water and shoreline from a new vantage point and also has the potential to positively impact shoreline communities by drawing diners, shoppers and sportsmen to the area,” said Kathy D. Vosburg, chair of the Macomb County Board of Commissioners. 

Michigan is rich in water trail opportunities with over 4000 miles of Great Lakes coastline and countless miles of rivers. There are currently eleven organized trails on the Great Lakes and connecting waters with numerous other interior river trails. Michigan water trails have much to offer residents and visitors – from urban adventures in southeast Michigan to remote locations around Isle Royale, there is a water trail to satisfy most everyone’s sense of adventure.

To learn more about Great Lakes coastal water trails, explore Michigan Sea Grant’s Great Lakes Coastal Water Trails fact sheet for trail descriptions and contacts.


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