The Manitou Islands in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are perched off the coast of Leelanau County. With their miles of undeveloped shoreline, towering dunes and thick forests, the Manitou Islands in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are a siren call for a Northern Michigan vacation.

The Manitou Island Transit Co. ferries passengers to both islands from Leland with twice-a-day runs to South Manitou and once-a-day runs to North Manitou. Which means, of course, that if you’re looking to do an island in a day, purchase your ticket for South Manitou.

Under ideal conditions, the ferry ride from Leland to either North or South Manitou Island takes about 90 minutes; upper-deck or below-deck seating is available on the ferry, which can accommodate several dozen travelers. The ferries depart from Leland near Fishtown, a historic fishing district featuring dozens of 19th-century fishing shanties that now house small boutiques, galleries and shops. Day trips to South Manitou take about 7 hours total, so taking a packed lunch from Fishtown’s favorite sandwich shop, The Village Cheese Shanty, is an easy way to get a true taste of Fishtown while on the shores of a Manitou Island.

For more information about ferries and to make reservations (which is highly recommended) contact Manitou Transit at or call 231.256.9061.

South Manitou Island

There are no stores or restaurants on South Manitou Island so pack everything you’ll need. Food, water bottles, swimsuits, water shoes (the Lake Michigan bottom is rocky off the island), hiking shoes and warm clothes are musts. The standard summer day-trip operates as follows: the ferry departs from Leland at 10 a.m., arrives at the island at 11:15 a.m., the departure from the island begins at 4 p.m. and arrives back in Leland at 5:30 p.m.—just in time for an early supper at one of many Leland restaurants followed by some serious shopping in Leland. The day breaks down to 3 peaceful hours on the ferry, and about 4 hours exploring the island.

South Manitou has been a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore since the 1970s, but it was once a thriving island community with farms, a schoolhouse, a manned lighthouse and life-saving station. Jeep tours (sign-up is aboard the ferry) guide you past the remnants of this life gone by.

Another option? Head out on foot to the spectacular view of the Francisco Morazan shipwreck. Stop at the visitors center for trail maps, then get trekking the 2.5 miles to where the ruined freighter has loomed just offshore since it ran aground during a snowstorm in December of 1960. Hike another half mile and you’re in the Valley of the Giants, a grove of ancient white cedars – some more than 500 years old.

North Manitou Island

North Manitou Island embraces about 23 square miles of classic Northern Michigan terrain: 400-foot-high dunes on the northwest corner, flat beaches on the southeast corner, and in between, forests of can’t-get-your-arms-around-them hemlock, beech, maple and oak. One extra-special treat is the shimmery Lake Manitou – an easy wade loaded with huge and hungry smallmouth bass. More than 20 miles of gentle trail, plus 20 miles of beach.

Rustic camping only on this island, and a permit costs $5 per night, plus a fee for a National Park Pass. Water purification is needed if you camp outside the campground. You’ll want to bring a garden trowel to bury your scat. Before you go, check out this article, “Backcountry Camping On North Manitou Island.”

Get there via Manitou Island Transit’s ferry, 231.256.9061,

Find more information on camping on the Manitou Islands, check out MyNorth’s guide to camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

More Northern Michigan Camping

Cornerstone: Manitou Islands

Photo(s) by Angela Doster