The Manitou Passage is one of the most storied stretches of our Great Lakes. Dive into its curious history, eerie shipwrecks and epic freshwater adventures.

During summer evenings on the Manitou Passage, unless the cloud cover is too low, the setting sun sprinkles cosmic hues across the iridescent Lake Michigan waters between Sleeping Bear Point and the Manitou Islands. The nightly event usually draws a small audience to the public boat launch in Glen Arbor, the town on Sleeping Bear Bay that faces the Manitou Passage. The onlookers quietly ooh, aah and occasionally clap as the sun’s final arc flattens into the horizon. A Key West, Mallory Square-style sunset-circus it most definitely is not. But then again, that would hardly befit this channel that holds its beautiful and dramatic secrets in relative obscurity.

For Great Lakes sailors past and present, however, the enchantment and mercurial might of the Manitou Passage was and is no mystery. Approximately 16 miles long and from 7 to 12 miles wide, the channel separates the Leelanau Peninsula from North and South Manitou Islands. The imposing points and bluffs lining the passage resemble giant beasts—courtesy of the glaciers that shaped this area eons ago. With their long low profiles and forest-covered spines, the Manitou Islands seem reptilian. Floating past Pyramid Point’s sandy bluff, you could imagine you’re in the shadow of the haunches of a giant lion.

Native Americans saw the shapes of bear in these landforms—a dune perched atop Sleeping Bear Point was a mama bear; her cubs the Manitou islands. As the legend goes, the cubs drowned as they were fleeing a forest fire in Wisconsin. Their mama—the Sleeping Bear for which the surrounding dunes are named—awaits the time when the Great Manitou will bring them back to life.

The lake bottom mirrors the topography of the land that rises above it and is marked by sharp depth changes from 100 feet to twice that and more. A cliff dives from 34 to 200 feet off Dimmick’s Point on North Manitou Island’s south end. To the north, between the island and the village of Leland, there is an entire underwater island. This rumpled, angular contour is largely responsible for the passage’s eye-popping shades of blues and greens. A sunny day brings a watery tapestry of Caribbean green, indigo, cerulean, turquoise, teal and every other blue imaginable.

It’s sightseeing at its most stunning. To find yourself on either Sleeping Bear or Pyramid points while the sails of the Chicago to Mackinac Yacht Race dot the blue—as they have since 1898 every year but five—is to feel like you’ve scored front row seats to one of the world’s greatest events. Even cooler? To be aboard one of those boats.

Traverse City-based Quantum Sails’ owner, Ed Reynolds, remembers a return trip after winning the Chicago to Mac some years back. Several of the crew had won the renowned Whitbread Round the World Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race) just prior to sailing the Chicago to Mac. As the bluffs and bays of the passage breezed by, one of the racers turned to Reynolds, who recalled him saying: “Three months ago I just finished sailing around the world, and this spot right here is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. I just had no idea something like this existed.”

That was on an 85-degree day with a stiff though steady wind from the south. But the passage can turn steely-gray and ugly in a storm when its waters bounce and kick off the landforms and crazy-quilt lake bottom in a kinetic and sometimes deathly fury. For sailors needing to get up and down Lake Michigan as quickly as possible, there is often no choice but to take this, the quickest route. Cargo bound for European ports and beyond has moved through the passage since the first load of furs came through in a birch bark canoe sometime in the 15th century. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 has made ocean-going freighters a regular sight. Watercraft, including freighters, take refuge in Sleeping Bear Bay and the Manitou Islands’ natural harbors—if they make it there.

The Lake Michigan floor is littered with wrecked boats, most from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The propeller steamer Westmoreland sank in an 1854 snowstorm, only a few miles from the safety of South Manitou Island. Seventeen people drowned and, legend has it, a winter’s pay was lost for the entire garrison stationed at Fort Mackinac. Those gold pieces would be worth millions today.

The only wreck visible from above Lake Michigan, the Francisco Morazan is an easy adventure for paddlers and scuba divers. As with any wreck, however, use caution. Several years after it wrecked in 1960, the Morazan claimed the life of a young man who was exploring it.

The boiler of The Rising Sun still lies in the shallow waters beneath Pyramid Point, a reminder of the late-October storm in 1917 that wrecked the steamer. She was carrying men, woman and children from the House of David (a communal sect that prohibited sex, among other things) from their farm on a small island in the Beaver archipelago to sect-headquarters down the coast in Benton Harbor. A rescue from the Sleeping Bear Life Station in the tiny burg of Glen Haven was mounted. All souls were safely transported to shore through freezing waves and driving snow. Many years ago I interviewed an older woman who recalled the night that the children from The Rising Sun were brought to her family’s farmhouse at the foot of Pyramid Point and tucked into bed with her and her sister, where they recovered from hypothermia.

But the wreck that has become synonymous with the Manitou Passage is the Francisco Morazan. The great rusting hulk rises from the waters 300 feet off the southwestern tip of South Manitou. The Morazan, built in Germany in 1922 as the Arcadia, survived as German troop transport in World War II only to be taken down by a Lake Michigan storm in November of 1960. By then she was a cargo ship, bound for Europe from Chicago and flying under the Liberian flag. The Morazan was never claimed, so there she rests to this day, a receptacle of stories we will never know.

The North Manitou Shoal Light has guarded the shallow waters at the passage’s north end since 1935. Long known as The Crib, the lighthouse was manned by the US Coast Guard until 1980 when it was automated. In 2016, the federal government sold The Crib to the nonprofit North Manitou Light Keepers. The group plans to restore the lighthouse and open it to the public by the summer of 2021.

The South Manitou Lighthouse has welcomed ships to the safety of the only natural harbor between the island and Chicago since 1871. The light was decommissioned in 1958. However, a nonprofit group working with the National Park Service purchased a replica of the light’s original third-order Fresnel lens. Since the spring of 2009, the light, visible from the mainland, has shone again. Today, you can still climb the lighthouse tower. See the view from the top.

Manitou Passage Adventures

Go Island Hopping

Climb to the top of South Manitou lighthouse and take in a celestial view of Manitou Passage. Hike out to a grove of giant cedar trees. Browse a row of uninhabited 19th-century cottages (one possibly designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). Explore old farmsteads and hike to some of the most beautiful bluff views you will ever see in your life. You don’t really know the Manitou Passage until you’ve been to North and South Manitou islands, both of which are a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and accessible only by ferry service from Leland or by private boat.

From Leland, the crossing is 12 miles to North Manitou and 16 to South through mostly open water. Neither island has stores, restaurants or lodging—camping only, bring supplies. South Manitou can be a day trip. The ferry only goes to North Manitou once a day though—overnight stays only. An island trip is always an adventure, but it can get particularly rugged if the weather turns stormy and the seas kick up. Find the information you need to prepare for your visit, and book your ferry ride with Manitou Island Transit.

Paddle the Passage

There are days—depending on the way the light is refracting—that the Manitou Islands look an easy stone’s throw away across the Manitou Passage from the mainland and the waters seem smooth as an ice rink. Don’t be fooled. Outside of the protection of Sleeping Bear, the seas are almost always choppy. Only very experienced paddlers should set out in them. The safest way to paddle the passage is along Sleeping Bear Bay (rent kayaks and SUPs from Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak in Empire) or by transporting your kayak on the Manitou Island Transit ferry and paddling the shoreline of the Manitou Islands. Novice kayakers will want to head out on an organized, guided tour with the National Park Service-authorized guides at All About Water—the service also rents and delivers kayaks and SUPs.

Snorkel + Scuba Dive

Swim out from South Manitou Island to dive or snorkel the shallow water wrecks the Morazan, the wooden steamer Walter L. Frost or the steam barge the Three Brothers. These and a boatload of other shipwrecks—many much deeper—are protected in Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve. Scuba North in Traverse City offers guided trips to the preserve. Learn more about diving the Manitou Passage.

Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor of Traverse Magazine. // Erik Olsen shoots active lifestyle and commercial photography from Traverse City. 

This article is featured in the August 2018 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

Photo(s) by Erik Olsen