If you tell your friends that you are PAYING a boat to take you to a remote, uninhabited island to go backpacking, they may think you’ve lost your marbles, or maybe that you’ve watched one too many episodes of Gilligan’s Island. You will certainly want to make this more than a three-hour tour, because this island is one of the most interesting places to backpack in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. The thought of being “stranded” in the middle of giant body of water may be unsettling to some; others may enjoy the opportunity to kick back and enjoy a beautiful location, their own stretch of private beach and the peace and solitude of being detached from the “main land”.
North Manitou Island is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. High rising sand dunes plummet into the turquoise, sparking waters of Lake Michigan. Sandy beaches encompass the island. The island itself has a vibrant history of farming, trade and logging, while some signs of its previous inhabitants still remain there to explore. Although this is a popular destination, especially in the summer months, you need not worry about bumping elbows with your fellow backpackers; North Manitou has over fifteen thousand acres of wilderness and 23 miles of marked (and even more unmarked) trails.
When is the perfect time to visit the island? I recommend you choose a warm, early fall weekend in mid-Sept, when you can enjoy the last of the hot summer days, warm lake water, the island without all the bugs/flies/ticks that plague it during the summer months and drastically reduced crowds.
Pick up the Manitou Island Transit ferry in Leland, Michigan (about 30 mins from Traverse City). The ferry runs on a reduced schedule in the off-season so be sure to check ahead. Booking ferry reservations ahead of time is highly recommended as this is still a popular spot to visit even during the spring and fall. I recommend making this a long weekend adventure (you may have no choice with the ferry schedule), because there really is so much on the island to explore and excellent campsites to be enjoyed.
The hiking is super easy. The main trails are level and well maintained with little to no elevation change. The forests on the island are lush and diverse. The heavy forest canopy holds in a lot of moisture, making it an extra fertile area for all kinds of mushrooms and plants to thrive. Deer and chipmunks flit about in the woods and toads hop on the trail (watch where you step!). You can follow the path of the coyote tracks along the beach and walk with the Monarch butterflies as they visit the beach flowers. The island is certainly alive and thriving.
My recommendation is that you split your nights between the West and East side of the island. This way you have an opportunity to experience a sunrise and a sunset (which are incredible by the way).
The west side of the island is quite popular with backpackers because it has amazing sunsets, plenty of campsites and some of the best swimming spots along the sandy beach. You can drop your pack here and set up camp and explore the northern and interior parts of the island with day packs. BUT, be sure to make it back to enjoy a Lake Michigan sunset.
For your second night, make your way to the east side of the island, closer to the dock. Here, you can have the opportunity to watch the sunrise and have a leisurely morning before you catch the boat back to the mainland. I recommend doing this to avoid having a long trek to the ferry dock the morning of your departure. Look for side trails leading to campsites close to the Cherry Orchard (about halfway between the cemetery and the dock).
Regardless of where you decide to hike or camp, there are no shortage of great sites so make the island your own. Both nights, our group had the beach and the view to ourselves. The water was warm and frequent dips in the lake were a lovely way to relax and unwind. Enjoy the crisp fall evenings to sit on the beach long after the sun goes down and watch one incredibly bright shining night sky. The quiet, slow pace of the island will rub off on you. You may find yourself wishing for a few more days to spend in peace on your (yes by now the island will feel like yours) island paradise.
As the weekend backpackers start to pour out of the woods from every direction to board the boat on Sunday, you will wonder where all of them were hiding the entire time, and if they found a site as magical as yours. Despite a day of foul weather during the weekend, the trip to North Manitou was a great success. I would come back here in a heartbeat to explore the hidden depths of the island and find another lakeside campsite retreat to call my own.
A few notes of caution:
There are, apparently, a healthy population of ticks on the island, especially during the summer months. I was lucky enough to evade them during my fall visit. Be sure to check yourself to prevent the risk of contracting Lyme.
Be on the lookout for poison ivy as it tends to hide out in the foliage along the sand dunes. Remember that poison ivy can be different colors during different times of the year.
Did you find a special place on North Manitou Island to call your own? What is your favorite part of the island? Share your thoughts !