North and South Manitou Islands are part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which lies about 25 miles from Traverse City and approximately 15 miles from Glen Arbor. Northern Michigan’s South Manitou Island sits about 16 miles from the coast of Leland, Michigan, located in Leelanau County.
In the mid-1830s, William Beck established a village on South Manitou Island to supply cordwood to Great Lakes steamships, but today, it is uninhabited.
The original town on South Manitou Island was Burton’s Wharf. As times changed, the inhabitants moved away from the Lake Michigan island, and the population fell to zero. But hikers can still explore, take advantage of the island’s natural resources, view original buildings and ruins, visit a shipwreck, and enjoy kayaking around the island.
Here are nine things to know before you get on the boat to visit the beautiful South Manitou Island’s wilderness area.
1. The Legend Of North And South Manitou Islands
Native Americans tell two versions of how the “Great One” created the North and South Manitou Islands. In both versions, a mother bear and her two cubs left the shores of Wisconsin. In one story, they left because of a forest fire, while in another, they left to find a better food source. In both legends, the young cubs were too young to swim across Lake Michigan and reach land. Instead, they drowned and became North and South Manitou Islands, while the mother bear eventually became sleeping bear dunes. Many years ago, the dune on Michigan’s mainland appeared to be a giant sleeping bear.
2. You’ll Arrive By Ferry Service
Manitou Island Transit leaves from Leland, also known as Fishtown, at 10 a.m. for the 90-minute ferry ride to South Manitou Island. You’ll want to arrive about 45 minutes early to walk from the parking lot, get your ticket, and grab a seat on the top deck of the boat. You’ll be on the island by 11:30 a.m.
The entrance to South Manitou Island requires a national park pass since it is part of the national park system. The pass is per car, even though you aren’t taking your car to the island. You can buy the pass at the Fishtown dock when you purchase your ferry ticket.
Typically, the ferry returns to South Manitou Island at about 4 p.m. to take day trippers back to the mainland and collect those camping on the island.
3. Limited Amenities Are Available Near The Dock
You’ll find modern restrooms and a water pump as you exit the ferry on the dock. Unfortunately, the island doesn’t have showers, and the only potable water is in the village behind the boathouse.
You’ll also find electricity to charge your cell phones in this area. Note, there is no other electricity available. Cell service is spotty and best at the shoreline.
4. Start Exploring At The Visitor Center
The first thing we did was check in at the visitor center. Open sunrise to sunset, this is an excellent place to get oriented to the island. Situated where the general store once was, you’ll find artifacts and photos describing life on the island during its logging days. It gave us an overview of South Manitou Island’s history. We found that the visitor center was the perfect place to get any last-minute questions answered and finalize our plans for the day.
5. Be Prepared To Hike
Cars aren’t allowed on South Manitou Island, nor are bikes in some areas, so hiking is your best option. If you’re going for the day, you’ll want to plan your hikes, as you’ll only have about four and a half hours to explore the island. The island’s perimeter offers a 10-mile loop hike.
Editor’s note: If you enjoy places where cars aren’t allowed, check out:
You’ll have several options for hiking the island. When you arrive on the ferry, starting at the current dock, you can walk north about a half mile to Burton’s Wharf, the original village. The town included a blacksmith shop, post office, general store, a tamarack railroad, a house, and a barn.
From the visitor center, hike to the lighthouse. The 100-foot tower makes the lighthouse visible from the mainland. The lighthouse operated from 1871 until the U.S. Coast Guard closed it in the late 1950s. You can climb 117 steps up the spiral staircase, which has landings about every 20 steps. From the top, you’ll have stunning views of the Manitou Passage and the mainland’s Sleeping Bear Point. This was the only natural harbor from Chicago to South Manitou Island.
From the lighthouse, it’s approximately a 3-mile hike to the above-water shipwreck that ran aground in November 1960, the Francisco Morazan. Then stop by the Giant Cedars, also known as the Valley of the Giants. They’re the world’s largest cedar trees. Some are more than 500 years old. From the 400-foot perched dune, you’ll have a 360-degree view of Lake Michigan.
Finally, check out Florence Lake, the 78-acre inland lake with all of its natural resources, just a half-mile hike from the southern edge of South Manitou Island.
You’ll find a map of South Manitou Island with the distances to its various sites on nps.gov, the National Park Service website.
6. Guided Wagon Tours Are Available
I have some mobility challenges, so backpacking was out of the question, but seeing the island wasn’t an issue. The Manitou Island Transit offers two different tractor-pulled wagon tours. The wagons have padded seats but are reminiscent of a hayride. The first tour includes the farm and schoolhouse, while the other covers the cedars and shipwreck. We stopped along the way to get out and explore a bit. The guide provided historical information as we toured.
You’ll need an additional day to take both wagon tours, as the tours are between 2 and 2.5 hours. The day trips only offer about 4.5 hours on the island. You’ll be on the island around 11:30 a.m., and the tours begin at noon.
You can register for a tour with the Manitou Island Transit boat crew members on your way to the island.
7. You Must Bring Food And Supplies With You
The island does not have hotels, restaurants, or stores. Therefore, you will not be able to buy food or any other essentials on the island. So, if you’re only staying for the day, plan your meals, snacks, and beverages. If camping overnight, campers will need to bring enough food to last their entire stay. Additionally, take an extra day or two worth of supplies with you. You never know what weather the Great Lakes will bring, even on a summer day trip, and you may spend longer than expected.
The boat sells refreshments to enjoy, but in my opinion, you will want to be sure that you have what you need before you get on the boat. If they are out of something, you won’t be able to get it once you are on the island. On the way back, we enjoyed having refreshments, as we were thirsty from all the hiking.
Also, pack a water bottle. They do have a hand pump in the village with potable water, but if you are hiking, you should have a water purification kit or carry an extra bottle of water that you pump at the village.
A small medical kit that treats bug bites and poison ivy is also essential. The island also has black flies, mosquitos, and ticks.
Even in warm weather, I wear long sleeves and long pants to avoid getting bitten. To avoid getting insect bites, bring insect repellent that contains DEET.
Be sure to bring comfortable hiking shoes, sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, and a jacket or sweater, as the temperatures on the water can be significantly cooler than on shore.
Pro Tip: Village Cheese Shanty
Consider getting some cheese sandwiches from the Village Cheese Shanty in Fishtown before you get on the boat. They make a nice picnic lunch. That said, don’t wait until the last minute, as you want to be sure you have something to eat for the day.
8. Camping Is The Only Overnight Accommodation
With so much to explore on South Manitou Island, you may want to make it more than a day trip if you enjoy camping. Since the island has no hotels, inns, or bed and breakfasts, camping is the only option for overnight accommodations. They have three camps: The Bay Campground, The Weather Station Campground, and the Popple Campground. A park ranger meets the ferry at the dock. You can complete the camper registration then, and the ranger will also assist in planning your visit.
The Bay Campground is a half-mile walk to the dock. It features 25 individual campsites and three group sites.
On the island’s south side, the Weather Station Campground is about a mile-and-a-quarter hike on a wooded trail past the lighthouse. It has three group sites and 27 individual sites. The campsites have privacy from one another and overlook Lake Michigan on the bluffs. This campground has open fire pits.
The Popple Campground is about 3.5 miles from the ranger station on the island’s north end. It’s more remote and offers more solitude than the other campgrounds. It also has beautiful views of North Manitou Island and is easily accessible to the beach. They don’t permit fires in this campground.
The island practices leave-no-trace camping. Therefore, you must pack out any waste materials. In addition, you must carry your gear to your campsite without wheeled assistance, including wagons or carts. Check out the National Park Service’s suggested camping packing list.
Pro Tip: Camping Reservations
The national park doesn’t make reservations for individual campsites. However, if you have more than eight people in your party, they take reservations for group sites. If you have less than that, you’ll receive a camping permit if you have boat reservations. They have never filled up the island campgrounds. You purchase camping permits when you check in for the boat.
Pro Tip: Protecting Your Food While Camping
While you won’t find bears on South Manitou Island, you should still place your food in metal containers or suspend it in bags from a tree, keeping the bag about 6 feet off the ground. Chipmunks and other animals love to make your next meal a snack. So don’t make it easy for them.
If you enjoy islands, explore some of these other quaint islands in Michigan and the United States: