Sleeping Bear Trip Report: Backpacking South Manitou Island


The morning we departed for our backpacking trip to South Manitou Island in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore proved to be a bit of a scramble.

Due to the gale warning issued for Friday morning, the ferry was unable to run until the following day, so our only option was to take the boat ride over on Saturday morning and hike as much of the island as we could before setting up camp, then hiking back to the dock the following morning.

Not wanting to cancel our trip completely, we decided to camp on the mainland on Friday and then visit the island.  It was in the 40s when we awoke in my tent on Saturday morning, and none of us felt like getting a move on until we had coffee first.  It was also our first time breaking camp together as a group, so each of us were operating on different timelines and things felt a bit hectic until Megan’s car was all packed up and we were on our way.

Leland, MI

We arrived in the small fishing village of Leland, Michigan (a town that gives off major JAWS vibes, by the way) just in time to use the bathrooms, spend a few minutes walking around, and get our stuff situated before boarding the ferry for our ride over to the island.

The ferry ride over to the island was chilly and crowded with passengers.  Because of the weather advisories the day before, any of the campers who still wanted to visit the island were required to ride the Saturday morning ferry over with the day hikers, then board the boat the following day to head back.  Since everyone’s trip had been shortened by one day, the campers who had originally planned to backpack North Manitou Island now only had the option to visit the south island.

South Manitou Island Ranger Station

Upon our arrival we were welcomed to the island by a park ranger who gave us a quick rundown of the different campsites, points of interest, plants and animals to watch out for, and what our action plan should be in case of an emergency.  After the orientation and then receiving our backcountry camping permits from the ranger, each of the overnight campers raced to one the three designated campgrounds on the island in hopes of claiming a good site.

Our revised plan was to hike directly to the Weather Station campground, set up camp, then set out to explore as much of the island as possible beginning with the trail along the southern end.  I was really interested in exploring the cemeteries and ghost town on the island, but since the shipwreck, dunes, and cedar forest were the main reasons we had originally opted for the south island over the north, we decided to see those things first and then hike over to the other side of the island if we still had time afterward.

South Manitou Island Lighthouse

One of the first points of interest that we came to was the South Manitou Island Lighthouse, which overlooked the turquoise waters of Lake Michigan on the east side of the island.

The hike down the beach was very rocky, and at some sections, the shoreline was almost nonexistent.  Fortunately I had worn my waterproof hiking boots and brought my trekking poles along, so keeping my balance wasn’t a problem.  The alternative to hiking along the rocky shore was to trudge our way through the loose sand and scratchy weeds that lined the beach a few meters further in.  I opted for the rocks for most of the hike in.

South Manitou Island Backpacking

By the time we reached the campground, many of the other campers had already gotten there and staked their claim on the sites closest to the water.  After surveying the campground, we decided to take Site #11, which was still close to the water and also next to the fire pit.  (Fires are forbidden in most areas on the island, but the Weather Station Campground has a community fire pit for campers to share.)

After getting our tent set up and eating a quick lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, and beef jerky, we set out to explore the south end of the island.

After making our way through a shaded forest we came to our first point of interest on the island, a steep bluff on the edge of the woods overlooking the wreck of the Francisco Morazan.

According to the National Park Service, the freighter encountered heavy wind, fog, and snow and ran aground just off the coast of South Manitou Island in November 1960 while attempting to make one last trip before winter.

Wreck of the Francisco Morazan

We spent some time overlooking the shipwreck and enjoying the views of Lake Michigan while sipping on some water, having a snack, and chatting with a couple other campers who had made their way to the shipwreck around the same time we did.

Eventually it was time to move on to our next destination, the old growth cedar forest.

Still having JAWS on the brain, I sang a (probably horribly out of key) rendition of “Show Me the Way to Go Home” as we made our way through the tall, knotted trees of the cedar forest, taking extra care not to trip over a loose board.

Cedars on South Manitou Island

We continued on to a dirt trail until reaching a fallen tree.  I checked our map to make sure this wasn’t a “this isn’t the way” signal, but we appeared to be on the correct path.  After a little more hiking, we came to a bigger log, then an even bigger one, and finally an enormous one that the trail (thankfully) skirted.

Erin's Photo

Eventually the trail led us to a steep hill covered in loose sand and–you guessed it–another log.  Megan and Erin kept a quick pace during this section of the hike, which I didn’t like very much because I like to take my time when I’m navigating around obstacles or traversing steep hills, but I kept up anyway.  I like to run, bike, row, and dog walk outside pretty often, and I like to think that I have a very good internal sense of pace, but it’s good to challenge yourself every now and then.

When we finally reached the top, we realized that we had arrived at the dunes and still had a ways to go in order to reach the lookout point.  We decided to stop for some water and a snack break.  I was already into my second bottle of water by this point, so I knew that I would be filtering more water once we got back to camp!

Once we had properly fueled up, Erin and I headed to the top of the dunes while Megan relaxed a bit longer.  The views from the lookout point were absolutely beautiful!

South Manitou Island Dunes

After taking a few minutes to goof around and also snap a few classic “this is me overlooking nature” photos, Megan joined us up on the dunes.

I’m not going to lie.  The sand dunes were probably the thing that I was the least excited about on all of South Manitou Island.  Hills are not my forte, and adding loose sand into the mix doesn’t make them any better.  That said, getting to the top felt rewarding, the views were spectacular, and I am so glad we did them!

After hanging out in the dunes for a while, we decided it was probably time to start heading back.  We decided to hike back along the wooded trail instead of attempting to take the shoreline.

We made good time on the hike back to camp.  By the time we got there, my feet were pretty tired and I think we were all ready for dinner.  We feasted on pasta packets, mashed potatoes, trail mix, tortillas, and a burrito bowl backpacker meal.

On this cool, crisp, first night of fall, we sat beneath a blanket of stars sipping hot apple cinnamon tea (spiked with Fireball), warming beside a crackling fire with a handful of other campers.  We met a girl around our age from Arizona who was solo camping, a guy who had hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, his girlfriend, and another couple from out of state who seemed to regularly go on all kinds of adventures.  Together we watched the distant lights of freighters making their way across Lake Michigan, telling funny stories, and regaling one another with tales of adventures past.

The temperature was in the low 50s that night, which meant perfect sleeping weather for camping.  When it was finally time for bed, all three of us slept like rocks.

We awoke in the morning to the tail end of a beautiful, golden sunrise over Lake Michigan.  We set up my JetBoil and prepared hot water for coffee and a dehydrated breakfast scramble backpacker meal before walking over to the edge of the bluff over looking the water to take in the views.

One of my least favorite parts of backpacking is that even when you really enjoy a particular place, you have to keep moving on.  The weather that morning was perfect with temperatures in the mid 60s, a slight breeze, and the heat of the warm, golden, early fall sun.  Although I was starting to miss Luke and Patronus, I was sad to be leaving such a paradise already.

Once our coffee had been drunk, the last of the eggs had been eaten, and most of our stuff had been packed, it was time to break camp before hiking the 1.3 miles back to the dock to catch the ferry.

We took the trail back instead of the shoreline this time, and kept a brisk pace in the interest of time.  We were almost back to the dock with over half an hour to spare, so we decided to check out the South Manitou Lighthouse again and spend some time taking in the views from that section of the shore.  Unfortunately the lighthouse was not open for tours that day, but it was a nice place to hang out for a bit.

From the lighthouse, the hike back to the dock was pretty quick.

Once we arrived at the dock, I took a few minutes to fill up my water bottle for the boat ride back to Leland, brush off my boots to help prevent invasive species, and check out the artifacts inside the boat house.

The weather was beautiful and sunny, so we sat on the upper deck for boat ride back to Leland and had a chance to check out the views of the dunes, the islands, and another, smaller lighthouse.

Once we arrived back in Leland, we decided to pick up a souvenir in the gift shop and then grab a cup of coffee before setting forth towards our next destination, Short’s Brewery in Bellaire.

River & Main in Leland, MI

We stopped at a small shop called River & Main, which sold drinks and candy and had a cute little patio out front.  I was really thirsty despite NOT hoarding my water while we were camping, so I decided to get a cherry Italian soda in lieu of another cup of coffee.  My drink was sooooo good!  It basically tasted like somebody  made pop out of maraschino cherries.

Most of the other tourists in Leland were dressed in nice outfits and parking their fancy cars, but we looked like total hiker trash.  Oddly, I did not mind this.  To me, carrying my pack around the city made me feel like my messy hair and dirty clothes were completely justified.

Dog Friendly Leland

We were extremely happy to notice that the city of Leland seemed to be quite dog friendly!  Although dogs were not allowed on the ferry or on either of the islands, several of the shops put out bowls for water for visiting pups and one of them even offered treats!

After spending the afternoon sipping our drinks and relaxing in Leland, it was time to head to our hotel so we could shower up and get ready for dinner at Short’s.



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



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