Much to my surprise, I married a camper. Not just a camper, but a backpacker. And so I found myself, four months into marriage, backpacking across South Manitou Island, one of the two Manitou Islands, with my new husband and two of our friends, in search of the perfect campsite.
What followed that Labor Day weekend were three amazing days spent entirely outside — outside of any buildings and definitely outside of my comfort zone. It was the first time I had gone camping, and we were all in. We were filtering our drinking water from Lake Michigan, cooking over a tiny gas burner, and sleeping on a quarter-inch thick sleeping pad. It was all new to me and I loved it!
South Manitou is one of two Manitou Islands, which are part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. You can hike, camp and explore on either island. Both are accessible only by boat or ferry. With miles of gorgeous beaches, towering dunes, old growth forests, shipwrecks and abandoned village homes, these islands are an incredible Michigan destination. I hope the following information helps you feel empowered to take on this adventure and know that you, too, can do Manitou.
South Manitou is the less rustic of the two Manitou Islands. This means there are pit toilets, water spigots, and extra ferry options that allow you to visit for a day trip. Here are just a few things you can see and do on the island.
- Learn about the history of the island’s residents at the museum in the village.
- Check out the view from the top of the lighthouse.
- If you’re not easily spooked, you can swim out to the Francisco Morazan shipwreck. The water was so warm when we visited, we did this!
- Wander through abandoned homesteads, farms, and a once-functioning village school.
- Hike through sand dunes, cedar forests, along the beach, and through the woods — there is every kind of terrain to be found.
North Manitou is almost entirely wilderness, with the kind of camping that goes along with that. Outside of the one village campsite, there are no bathrooms. You’ll filter your own water, and choose your own campsite here. In addition to the experience of primitive camping, here’s what North Manitou has to offer.
- Hike along miles of dunes.
- Visit the inland lakes on the island.
- Walk through the abandoned cottages, orchards and farms once inhabited by residents of the island.
- Enjoy the solitude and quiet of the island, far from civilization or even other campers.
Finally, make sure you check out the Manitou Island Transit website for details on ferry reservations for this upcoming season.
Get ready for your time at the Manitou Islands
My husband’s family took their kids to the Manitou Islands for years while he was growing up. It takes some special preparation and maybe an extra dose of bravery on your part, but it can be done!
Try reading up on the legend of how the Great Spirit Manitou created the islands. Get some tips on camping with kids from REI. Do a few practice hikes closer to home before you go.
Backpacking on South Manitou was scary to me, until I did it and absolutely loved it. If I can make it as my first attempt at camping, then I know you can do it, too.