Backpack Among White Sand Beaches on Michigan's North Manitou Island
Film photography, a trip report, and Dos & Don'ts for enjoying one of the Midwest's best-kept outdoor secrets within Sleeping Bear Dunes
When you mention backpacking in Michigan, outside of Michigan, you’ll likely receive a confused look. Within Michigan, you’ll hear of two popular trails: the Manistee River Trail, and the Lakeshore Trail. The former runs a modest 8.8 miles along its namesake river in Northwestern Michigan right about here holds up left hand, points to second knuckle on pinky finger. The latter lies way up north in the Upper Peninsula and extends nearly 42 miles, the length of Picture Rocks National Lakeshore.
Both are incredible and worth a trip. But both are very popular and can get quite crowded, too. There’s another noteworthy backpacking trip that most Michiganders miss out on—North Manitou Island, Michigan’s hidden gem.
Located 12 miles off the coast of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (a stunning 71,199-acre natural protected area in Leelanau Country along Lake Michigan), North Manitou Island boasts 15,000 acres of uninhabited wilderness surrounded by stunning views of Pure Michigan on all sides. A trip to the island offers you solitude, picture-perfect views of white sand beaches and crystal clear water that make you feel like you are in the Caribbean. Plus plenty of other hidden treasures that wait for those willing to venture off trail.
You may not get the salty breeze that accompanies coastal trails of the Pacific or Atlantic. Nor will you find mountain top vistas like in the Rockies. But you will see a side of Michigan that is only possible once you leave the mainland behind, a side that most folks never bother to come and see. And it's all within reach of Michigan's major cities.
And since most other hikers congregate on one easy-to-access beach, finding your own private stretch of sand and turquoise water is easy enough to do. While requiring a fair bit of effort to reach, North Manitou Island offers some of the best coastal camping in Michigan—maybe even some of best in the country to be honest (coming from a guy who has lived in both California and Hawaii).
Read on for the full rundown of how to get to North Manitou Island, where to camp, and when to make it all happen.
"You will see a side of Michigan only possible once you leave the mainland behind—a side that most folks never bother to come and see."
A Small Island with a Long History
North Manitou Island has a long history.
North Manitou Island has a long history. According to the Legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes that comes from the Ojibwe (Chippewa), a bear named Mishe Mokwa set out to swim across Lake Michigan, from Wisconsin to Michigan, with her two cubs, in an effort to escape a raging forest fire.
While the mother bear made it to the sandy shores of Michigan, the two cubs drowned before reaching land. The great spirit then covered the two cubs with sand, forming the two Manitou islands we know today. The mother bear, saddened by the loss of her cubs, lies and continually waits for her cubs on the shore, which is why the area is called Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Despite it's small size (~22 square miles), some of Michigan’s earliest archeological sites are found on North Manitou Island. Archaeologists believe that Native Americans only inhabited the island temporarily since access to resources was scarce, yet later on in the 1800s European immigrants arrived and began to occupy the land. Logging was big business, and numerous villages dotted the island as a result.
Today, most of the buildings from former settlements have been removed, with a few historic relics and ruins remaining. Many of these, such as the small cemetery, can be found simply by following an unmarked side trail. It’s all worth seeking out, for the curious hiker.
The main trails around the island consist of the old, unpaved roads used by long gone settlers. The section on the northwest side, known as the old grade, was once an old logging railroad. While the people are long gone from the island, the animals they brought over can still be found here.
While not native to the island, whitetail deer were introduced around 1925 and have thrived ever since. You’ll probably have one stroll through your campsite at night. Enjoy their company, though avoid feeding them or other local wildlife (though of course, LNT).
In the spring and summer, bald eagles are commonly seen. And as the Manitou Islands are used as a stopover for migrating birds, a variety of warblers and other songbirds, woodcock, and snipe are often easily spotted. Waterfowl seen along the shore include mergansers, scaup, goldeneyes, Canada geese, and loons.
When walking along the shoreline, you may be able to spot some Trillium, a native flower, along with violets, hepatica. The white pine is the state tree and is found alongside cedars in the dominant hardwood forest. Among the sandy areas, you’ll find large oaks and plenty of junipers.
And if you spend enough time on the beaches, you may even catch a glimpse of the piping plover, a tiny, endangered shorebird. The southeastern tip of the island is closed to the public, due to the piping plover nesting area found there.
Beavers and coyotes also live on the island, though you probably lay eyes on any.
How to Visit North Manitou Island
Within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore camping is only available at four locations—two established campgrounds on the mainland and wilderness camping on each of the two islands.
South Manitou Island is a bit more developed and much smaller than its sibling to the north. North Manitou is uninhabited and is primarily a wilderness area. Getting to either island requires a short ferry ride from the town of Leland, Michigan, which sits some three hours from Grand Rapids and a bit over four from Detroit. Arriving early allows you to claim a rooftop seat on the ferry. Arriving late means you might not have a seat and will need to stand out on the bow.
Once you set sail, the ferry first stops at the popular South Manitou Island before making its way to the undeveloped North Manitou. The total trip takes about 1.5 hours. Everyone arriving on North Manitou Island needs to stop at the ranger station for a brief safety lecture before you can head out into the woods, which takes about 15 minutes. From there, you’re on your own.
Want to discover the island’s hidden treasures? Stay for five extra minutes and ask the ranger what you should check out. The ranger we spoke with was happy to share his secrets with the few of us who asked.
Where to Hike & Camp on North Manitou Island
Hiking North Manitou Island isn’t difficult. The main loop consists of only 16 miles of relatively flat trails. However, you can find a total of 23 miles of established trails. Most of the main loop takes you through classic Michigan Northwoods, with occasional stints through beautiful, open meadows.
If you’d like to extend your hike—which you should—explore some of the unmaintained sections of trail, many of which remain well-trafficked and easy enough to follow.
Some, however, don’t look like trails at all. Be sure to bring a compass (or an app like OnX) if you plan to leave the main trail.
In the summertime, the weather on the island is hard to beat. While trails on the mainland suffer extremely high heat and humidity in July and August, temperatures on the island rarely rise above 65. And there’s almost always a breeze blowing through to dampen humidity levels.
In July 2021 we set out for three days and two nights of hiking North Manitou, heading south from the dock upon arrival. After stopping at a mind-boggling, secluded beach near the old cemetery, we hiked two miles further to the southwest end of the island and found a handful of campsites situated on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. While a few of the easy access sites were taken, we managed to snag an incredible spot near Johnson Place (noted on the official National Park Service map).
We spent the evening watching the sunset as a deer ate her dinner no more than 10 feet from us.
The next day, we packed up and hiked to the Northeast portion of the island, nearly completing the entire loop. We left the trail in search of the beach, and walked down the rocky, virtually untouched coastline until we found the perfect campsite for night number two (easier said than done, with all the rocks and trees covering the shore).
While my trail buddies slept in and enjoyed a lazy morning at camp on our third and final day, I awoke at dawn, hiked two miles inland to Lake Manitou at the center of the island, and caught tons of unpressured, 15-inch bass on a quiet, serene lake while the sun was rising.
If I were going to backpack the island again, I would consider this a worthy itinerary. However, setting up a single campsite, and taking a few day-hikes from there is also appealing. The Village Campground, located a short walk from the village, definitely isn’t a bad spot. It even has a toilet.
What to See on North Manitou Island
Even though it’s a small island, it’s hard to see everything in just a couple days—three or four nights may give ample time to see what most people miss.
Make sure to check out the southeast part of the island, near the cemetery. Open shrubland, easy-to-access beaches, and old log cabins coupled with hidden ruins make for a good day hike. And without direct trail access to this section of shoreline, it tends to be devoid of other hikers and absolutely pristine.
Swimming in Lake Michigan on the southwest side, near Johnson Place, provides beautiful views of South Manitou Island. Most of the beachside campsites we saw were between Johnson Place and Frederickson Place, which are denoted by signs on the trail.
Heading North from Crescent Dock, you’ll hike along “The Old Grade,” which is the roadbed of the once-thriving Smith & Hull logging railroad. Hiking this northern stretch of trail will reveal ruins of early 1900s automobiles, near Stormer Camp. Nearby, you’ll also pass through a few fields that are home to hundreds of monarch butterflies in the summer (a little more inspiring than rusting old cars, I admit).
On the Northeast side of the island, the shoreline is rough—rocky beaches with lots of driftwood and downed trees. But to those willing to scramble along the shore, you can find some beautiful, secluded campsites. On our second evening, we found the perfect, spacious campsite just north of Vessel Point.
And supposedly, “The Potholes” are worth checking out, though hard to find in the far northwest corner of the island.
North Manitou Island Gear Recommendations
This lightweight shelter system is a minimalist’s dream. On warm nights use the net tent on its own to keep mosquitoes and spiders out and let the stars in. For location with cooler temps or wind, add the Gatewood Cape as a tarp (or wear it as a poncho).
The 16 miles loop around the island isn’t especially demanding. No need for hiking boots, unless you expect harsh weather.
3. Tenkara Rod Co Beartooth Rod $175
If you plan to visit the inland lake, you can catch a ton of bass while wet wading in knee-deep water. The water is clear and makes for extremely satisfying sight-casting. This ultra-collapsible fly rod is a must for backpacking.
4. Xero Z-Trail Sandals $79
If you want to swim in Lake Michigan, you’re probably going to have to walk on rocks for about 20 feet until you reach the sand. Trail sandals make this process a bit easier. While I prefer the flat footbed and minimalist design of the Xero Z-Trail sandals, Chacos work well for both of my companions.
5. Poler Camera Cooler $50
North Manitou Island is a forgiving place. The easy trails mean that you can carry some extra weight and not feel punished. I didn’t bring my Camera Cooler this time around, but I sure wish I had a few cold ones on the first night.
10 Dos & Don’ts for Camping on North Manitou Island
Do book your trip ahead. Ferry’s only run in the summer and can book up, especially on weekends.
Don’t plan on having a campfire. Open fires are prohibited to protect the small, fragile landscape. Bring a backpacking stove to cook with and enjoy views of the lake instead.
Do peek your head out of your tent at night. If you are lucky enough to have clear skies, the stars are insane since you are far from any light pollution. The only issue is that the sun doesn’t fully set until 10 PM in the summertime.
Don’t forget bug spray and a head net. Mosquitos can be found on the trail, particularly in the central and northern parts of the island near the lakes and ponds. Biting flies (affectionately referred to as “teeth with wings” by the park ranger) inhabit open, sunny areas that lack wind. This includes some of the beaches. Packing a long-sleeve shirt and pants may make downtime at camp more enjoyable.
Do explore off-trail. Some of the historical buildings, ruins, and secluded beaches don’t have an established trail leading to them. Some bushwacking is required.
Don’t bring a bear bag or a bear can. There aren’t any bears on the island. The biggest animals you’ll see are deer and coyotes (if you’re lucky). We were advised by the ranger that keeping your food in your tent is perfectly safe.
Do take a dip every chance you get. In July and August, the big lake finally warms up enough for a refreshing dip.
Don’t swim in the inland lake. As a spring-fed lake, it isn’t the healthiest water but sure is beautiful. It’s worth fishing, but if you want to swim, stick to the clean water on the coast.
Do indulge in beverages onboard the ferry. They claim to have the best Bloody Mary on Lake Michigan...
Don’t be discouraged by the number of people on the boat. Yes, it feels hectic, reminiscent of a theme park. But once you are on the island, everyone heads in different directions and solitude becomes the norm.