Planning Our Trip to South Manitou Island


Growing up, the Traverse City area was a favorite vacation destination for my family.  My mom loves the beach and shopping, and my dad likes fishing, antiquing, and the woods, and this area of Michigan isn’t lacking in any of these areas.

On some of these weekend getaways, we would take a day trip over to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore area to spend time at the beach, hike the dunes, and explore some of the tiny shops in the towns surrounding them.  From the shore, my brother and I would spot two islands, ask our dad questions about them, and walk along the coast wondering what it would be like to explore them.

This summer I decided to plan an adventure to one of the islands this year with my friends Erin and Megan.  All three of us have had hiking and backpacking on the brain for sometime now, and we figured organizing a “girls trip” would offer us a chance to explore a new place, have some intentional time to hang out, and allow us to take a break from the stress of the workweek.

As an added bonus, all of us are “planners”.  We like to be organized.  We like to make lists, have an agenda, prepare, and generally just feel like we know what we’re doing.  We had no problem researching trip details, planning a route, booking transportation and accommodations, and even planning meetups to go over details and shop for camp food.

After leafing through the pages of my guidebook filled with backpacking trips in Michigan and gushing to Megan and Erin the details of the various hikes we could do, we finally agreed to spend three days backpacking South Manitou Island.  Sadly, dogs are not allowed on the island, so Patronus, Bruce, Finn, and Sawyer all had to stay home for a little “dad time”.

The Plan

Since North and South Manitou Islands are accessible only via boat, we would need to be ready at the dock at 9:00 A.M. in order to make the ferry.  Since the drive from home takes a couple of hours, we decided to drive up after work the night before and stay in a cheap hotel close to the docks, mainly because those are the kind that have waffle makers and coffee and allow you to load up on free breakfast food.

After taking the ferry over from the mainland, our plan was to head north on the island to explore the ghost town, historic cemeteries, and the remains of farms uninhabited for decades.  After our 3.5 mile hike, we would set up camp at Popple Campground on the north end of the island, and hopefully eat ramen noodles on the beach.

Day two of our trip would see us awakening to hot coffee and a breakfast scramble, breaking camp, then hiking along Lake Michigan on the island’s west shoreline.  Upon nearing the bottom of the island, we would drop our packs to climb the dunes to enjoy a 360˚ view of the island.  Then, we would make our way through a forest of giant cedars, followed by a shoreline view of the wreck of the Francisco Morazan.  After observing the shipwreck, we would complete our 7 mile hike for the day, making our way to Weather Station Campground to set up camp, enjoy dinner, and relax by a fire.

We would awaken on day three of our expedition to enjoy coffee and oatmeal on the shoreline, then hike the 1.3 miles back to the dock to take the ferry back to Leland.  From there, we would drive to the small town of Bellaire, MI to enjoy a celebratory post hike dinner (and beer, of course!) at Short’s Brewery.

Just in case the weather didn’t want to cooperate and the ferry was unable to run that weekend, I also planned us a backup hike that would allow us to backcountry camp and explore some of the forests and beaches on the mainland.


Of course, no matter how well-organized your efforts may be, some things in life rarely go as planned.  A gale warning was issued for Friday morning making the waters of Lake Michigan too dangerous for the ferry to run.  Unfortunately, we would not be able to arrive at the island on Friday, as we had originally planned, however the transit company did give us the option to ride over with the day hikers on Saturday morning.  Still wanting to have two days to enjoy the island, we agreed to take the ride over on Saturday and car camp at a rustic campground near the dunes on Friday.

If you’re interested, you can read the rest of my trip report to South Manitou Island by clicking on the links below. 


Backpacking South Manitou Island

Distance:  12 Miles

Time:  3 Days

Difficulty:  Easy to Moderate

Features:  Ghost Towns, Dunes, Beaches, Shipwrecks, Old Growth Cedars, Remnant Farms

Map:  National Park Service

Dog Friendly:  No



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