Secret coves. Warm beaches. Forgotten homesteads. Lush forests. Let us take you closer to the authentic beauty of North Manitou Island.
It’s hard to believe North Manitou Islands’s lush wilderness and untouched beaches exist so close to home. A deserted island is just what we need to coax gratitude from a busy life.
Off the coast of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, North Manitou Island juts up from the cerulean depths of Lake Michigan carrying an air of mystique that flirts with our imaginations. What was once a hub of activity for loggers, farmers and homesteaders now carries the weight of mystery many of us ponder as we squint across the lake at that little sliver of land.
Manitou Island Transit, departing from the wooden dock in Leland’s Fishtown, only runs one 2.5-hour ferry ride to the island per day. So unless you arrive on a private boat, a visit to North Manitou requires an overnight stay. Perhaps this is why the island carries so much mystery—it’s simply easier to wonder about the island than carve out time to explore it.
The year 2017 saw 4,048 people take the ferry to visit North Manitou Island—a small number compared to the roughly 1,143,857 annual visitors to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It was time to add a few more wandering souls to that number.
Featured in the September 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
At 15,000 acres and with more than 20 miles of shoreline, North Manitou has plenty to offer for those willing to make the journey across the Manitou Passage. The Lake Michigan floor here is littered with wrecked boats, most from the 19th and early 20th centuries, that did not make it through the dangerous and fickle stretch of water. Once you step off the ferry, you don’t have to look far to wonder about the history of the island. The distinct remnants of lumber operations, farms and vacation homes still stand in various states of decay. Thanks to the National Park Service and other nonprofits, some of these buildings wear fresh coats of paint and are well maintained. Others have surrendered to time and weather.
Like most remote slices of land, North Manitou Island was first exploited for its untapped resources. Over time, the economy evolved from fur trapping to lumber milling. The islands’ hardwoods fueled the glowing furnaces of steamships on their journey up and down Lake Michigan. Agriculture and farms, specifically fruit orchards, sprang up to replace the clear-cut lands and sawmills.
Land ownership spun in and out of various hands but what remained was the enduring spirit to carve out a life on this remote island. In 1860, there were 56 households. The island wasn’t just something people visited. They called it home, grew food for their families and embraced a sense of isolation with a purpose that most of us avoid at all costs.
Long before this island was settled by Euro-Americans, the Native Americans would paddle their birchbark canoes across the passage. With all the resources they needed on the mainland, we rely on oral tradition and clues left behind to know the purpose of these trips. Some say they used the island as a resort and/or for spiritual worship. Something inspired them to make the dangerous passage, and we were about to understand why. For the first time, I board a ferry with my wife to replace wonder and guessing with facts.
We’ve come to disconnect. To prove to ourselves that if we don’t post about it on social media, it still tastes and looks just as good. What we found was an embrace from a desolate island that encouraged a rhythm to life we all need more of. Time here, under these stars, means piling up sand under your sleeping bag for a pillow and many other small, gentle reminders of the fortunate lives we live; for the food in our pantries and healthy bodies. The island demands more from our increasingly comfortable lives.
Transportation is via your own two feet (or arms). We choose inflatable paddleboards instead of backpacks and boots. The boards are stable enough to support our weight and the provisions for our visit. They also reward us with the unique perspective into the clear water that surrounds the island.
The island is bold enough to nudge us back to the wild ways our moms would scold us for (in small doses … don’t worry, Mom). A place where you can eat with your hands, wipe your mouth with a shirt sleeve, wash your dishes in the lake with a handful of sand and go to bed naked while eating chocolate. To be free again—barefoot, sunburned and wild, a little stinky too.
Once we set up camp a few hundred yards from the lake, we strike out, me with a paddleboard wrapped up like a wet sandy burrito carried on my back. Our goal is to seek out the inland lake for a little bass fishing.
The few trails that thread their way around the island see very little foot traffic. Brambles and poison ivy grow on the fringe, ready and willing to grab ankles. Old homesteads still dot the island and we can’t help but wonder what people must have gone through to create a life for themselves on this island.
My wife and I romanticize about that possibility—to wake up on this quiet chunk of the Mitten every morning, growing food from its soil and enjoying the fragrance winnowing through this island life.
We trounce down footpaths, pass graveyards and old stands of apple trees that feed the local deer. The mosquitos seem happy to have some visitors and we can only pause to take a few sips from our water bottles before they acquire their target. Once at the lake, a gentle breeze pushes us around on the inflated board as we make long, lazy casts with a fly rod to impatient smallmouth.
The next day we hike to Dimmicks Point, a long sandbar that knifes its way into the Manitou Passage on the southern end of the island. Here, the lake bottom drops from 34 feet to 200 feet in two-tenths of a mile. This is a testament to the lake bottom’s topography and why there are so many wrecks in the passage.
With a ferry on the way to pick us up, this is our last destination. We munch on snacks as we gaze out at spots on the mainland where we usually stare at the island. We admire this new perspective as our eyes scan the distant shoreline for familiar landmarks: Whaleback, Clay Cliffs and Pyramid Point.
However, it didn’t take long for Leelanau County to look strange and begin to coax the same feelings that brought us to this island in the first place. A fresh perspective on something you know so well is a healthy reminder to stop taking it for granted. Even if you need to take a boat and sleep on the ground to gain it. None of this should make it seem out of reach for anyone able to buy a ferry ticket and carry 30 pounds on their back.
Perhaps you, too, will find that one must embrace isolation on an island that is hard to get to and requires a reliance on our own wits—where you can let your imagination wander while your soul inhales the wildness it needs.
Getaway to North Manitou Island
A truly isolated place, camping on North Manitou offers visitors an authentic escape. You don’t need a reason to come to the island; a trip to the island is the reason.
CAMPING // North Manitou’s 15,000 acres of wilderness offers the most solitary camping experience in Northern Michigan. The island is operated by the National Park Service as a protected wilderness area, meaning that visitors must exercise the utmost respect for the island’s pristine ecosystem—even used toilet paper must be carried off the island if possible. There are only eight designated campsites on the island, which are near the island’s dock and the ranger station in the village. However, camps can be set up almost anywhere on the island—at least 300 feet from water, buildings and other camps. The island’s only water spigot and outhouse are also located near the ranger station. Wood fires are permitted only in the two fire rings at the village’s campsite. With such limited resources available on the island, campers must rely on their own skill and intuition and a sense of exploration. Visit the National Park Service website for more information.
TRANSIT // Leland Harbor is headquarters for Manitou Island Transit, the ferry service to the Manitou Islands—a service that has been operated by generations of the Grosvenor family since 1917. In the summer, the ferry does a morning drop and evening pickup to South Manitou Island. Ferry service to North Manitou, however, is just once a day, so visiting the island means camping overnight.
CAMPING PERMIT // National Park Service camping permits and passes must be purchased at the Leland dock before arriving on North Manitou Island. Manitou Island Transit makes every effort to sail on schedule, however, Lake Michigan, especially in fall, can change quickly. Delays due to wind and weather issues are real, so campers should always pack extra food in the event that the ferry is unable to run.
ONCE UPON A TIME // Curious about those ghost homesteads and life on the island before it became part of our National Park System? Stitch together North Manitou’s riveting real-life backstory and get a feel for the island in its full vivacity by exploring the wealth of archives—photographs, newspaper clippings, genealogies and oral histories—at manitouislandsarchives.org.