On the hunt for a unique and lush day hike? Head to South Manitou Island, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, by catching the ferry from Leland’s Fishtown. Learn how to build your own hike and be sure not to miss the lighthouse, South Shore and more on one of Northern Michigan’s most famous islands.

Day hiking on South Manitou Island

Nestled just offshore from the Northern Michigan mainland are two outposts of unrivaled wilderness. The twin cubs of Sleeping Bear lore, North and South Manitou Islands, rest among the waves under the watchful gaze of the mother dune on the mainland. Their relative isolation and historical preservation make these two landmasses a distinctly invaluable glimpse into unperturbed Michigan history and ecology. Devoid of permanent human habitation and traced with hiking trails and natural splendor, these lonely retreats are meant to be explored.

Plan on a day trek and embark for South Manitou Island from Leland’s Fishtown. Purchase tickets and arrange logistics with Manitou Island Transit, which is also located in Fishtown. Be punctual (the ferry departs at 10 a.m.) and be rewarded with an upper deck seat aboard the rumbling Mishe-Mokwa. Bid adieu to the patrons of Fishtown as the vessel reverses and then churns beyond the break wall and points its bow toward open water. Hint: A cup of coffee from a thoughtfully stowed thermos will warm spirits and hands as you make the brisk voyage across the passage. Keep your eyes trained for the silhouettes of passing freighters, which can materialize out of the mist and pass silently as a wraith. With a few moments to spare—the 18-mile journey takes approximately 90 minutes—scrutinize the island map and formulate a hiking plan for your arrival.

Day hiking on South Manitou Island
Day hiking on South Manitou Island
Day hiking on South Manitou Island

There! The island looms large on the horizon and grows closer with each passing wave. The lighthouse keeps a vigilant watch as the ferry noses into the bay toward the dock. Disembark the Mishe-Mokwa and fill water bottles outside the ranger station. (The ferry departs for Leland at 4 p.m., so be prudent and mindful of your time, or you may be marooned!) With water bottles full and watches set, venture out toward the island’s interior.

While guided tours are available, the rudimentary maps and well-worn trails are sufficient to make your own hiking plans. Due to the time constraints of a day trip, I’d recommend the old-growth cedars and shipwreck, out and back. Totaling 6.9 miles round trip, this trek is manageable and features some of the most profound and curiously wild aspects of the south island.

Note: South Manitou is home to some impressive stands of poison ivy. Keep to the paths or beaches and be sure to learn how to identify the plant. 

Day hiking on South Manitou Island

First, skirt the trail along the south shore toward the lighthouse. Built in 1871, the 100-foot brick beacon still stands triumphantly above the surf. Continue west as you delve deeper into the island interior, and here the forest unfurls—ancient and unruly. The mist seeps through a towering canopy of beech and maple, and underfoot the trail is hedged in by snarls of blackberry brambles and thickets. Shrouded in watery haze, the verdant expanse is primordial. Burst into the open air of the south shore lookout and gaze at the rusted skeleton of the Francisco Morazan. Run aground in November of 1960, the semi-submerged wreck teems with gulls and cormorants and is a stark testament to the 50 or so shipwrecks that dot the depths about the Manitous.

Day hiking on South Manitou Island

Press on westward still and encounter the true elders of South Manitou Island. Huddled in a grove of marshy undergrowth are the colossal white pillars of the old-growth cedars. Massive in width and soaring height, some of these northern white cedars are estimated to be 400 years old or more.

It is here that the trail must be retraced. Head back from whence you came and make for the beach. Take a detour to enjoy your packed lunch at Florence Lake, or hightail it for a stroll along the bay. Change into your swim trunks and let the cold grip of Lake Michigan massage your aching muscles. Rest in the shifting sands and soak up the final warm hues of the day as you watch the horizon for the returning Mishe-Mokwa.

Andrew VanDrie writes from Traverse City. Contact him at [email protected]

Photo(s) by Andrew VanDrie

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