UPDATE - The ferry to North Manitou is running again after being shut down due to COVID-19 in 2020.
Backpacking North Manitou Island
Located 8 miles offshore from Lake Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes, North Manitou Island is a great destination for those looking for a wilderness experience without actually being too distant from civilization. North Manitou Island is located about twelve miles offshore of Leland, Michigan. A few miles south is South Manitou Island. From Leland you take a ferry with the Manitou Transit Company to reach either North or South Manitou Islands. Ferries operate from mid May until October depending on weather and sea conditions. The Manitou Passage is notorious for quickly changing conditions and is the site of many shipwrecks.
Both islands were once inhabited and sustained thriving farms, served as refueling points for steam ships in the 1800’s, and supplied timber to the mainland. Now deserted, they are managed by the National Park Service and are part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Park permits are required for both access and camping. You can purchase permits in Leland at the National Park office near the ferry dock.
Except for the Village Campground and the Village area itself, North Manitou is designated as a Wilderness Area. Open fires are only permitted in designated fire rings in the Village Campground. Elsewhere you must use a camp stove.
Potable water is only available in the Village and at the Village Campground pumps. Treat all other water with appropriate methods to prevent you from acquiring disease or parasites. All trash must be packed off the island as well.
After having researched many Michigan backpacking destinations, I settled on a trip to North Manitou Island. I was looking for something different, off the beaten path, not another park the car, hike in and hike out experience. The notion that I had to take a boat to the island was intriguing. Having been a long time visitor to the Traverse City area and having camped in the Leelanau peninsula area several times before, I was vaguely aware of the Manitou Islands but not familiar with them in any real detail. I was looking forward to the trip and had time off work for the Fourth of July.
I drove up to Leland, got breakfast at the Early Bird (highly recommended!), picked up my tickets at the Manitou Transit Company dock, went to the National Park ticket “shack” (part of Leland’s Fishtown), and stowed my pack on the ferry. I also recommend grabbing a sandwich to go at the Village Cheese Shanty in the Fishtown complex. An hour or so later, about 30 other backpackers and myself were dropped off at the North Manitou dock.
The ferry is drop off and pick up only. They do not linger at the island any longer than necessary and only make the trip once per day. If you miss the boat, you are stuck for another 24 hours (weather permitting). You should pack an extra day’s worth of food in case the ferry does not run due to weather. The park rangers do have a food donation box for stranded backpackers but do not count on it.
Upon arrival, you will be required to attend an orientation by the park rangers to inform you of the park rules, warn you of hazards, collect your permits, and register your travel plans. It is a remote location with only a handful of rangers so safety is stressed, if you would become injured and need medical treatment, the ferry is your only way off the island.
My plan was to hike from the dock around the island in a counter-clockwise direction and camping the first night somewhere on the West side of the island somewhere near the Crescent dock, stay two nights and return to the dock on the third day and catch the ferry back to Leland.
After the orientation and obligatory safety warnings, I followed the trail through mixed scrub and grass Northward past the Village campground and past a sign alerting me that I was now entering the backcountry. Soon after, I entered the forest. It was a hot breezy day and the open grasslands were nice but inside the forest there was little breeze. Soon I had to stop and break out my DEET. Mosquitoes were THICK in the forest and without a generous coating of DEET; I would have been eaten alive. Nonetheless, the DEET only deterred the bastards. They swarmed me and their buzzing around my face was annoying; but at least they were not biting.
After several miles, I found myself hiking along the old railroad grade that had once been used for transporting timber. This is where I spotted a fox. It was running directly toward me. Far behind, it was a small group of hikers. The fox came within 30 yards of me before turning abruptly, off the trail, and disappearing into the dense forest. Besides gulls and Garter snakes, this was the first wildlife I had seen on the island.
A little while later, I emerged from the forest and the trail meandered about rolling hillsides covered in grasses with trees scattered about. A little while later, I came upon the remnants of the Crescent Docks. Wading in Lake Michigan was refreshing as the temperature was in the upper eighties and very humid.
I did not find a site to my liking to camp. My shelter was a Hennessey hammock and the trees were a bit to sparse so I continued down the trail. Soon the trail entered the forest again and after about a mile, I discovered a small side trail that led to a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Here I found a great view and an ideal place to hang my hammock. The bluff offered a steady breeze off the lake that drove away the mosquitoes.
Getting water required scrambling down the 50-foot bluff to access the beach. The water however had a coating of algae. I found a rocky spit that offered easy access to cleaner water and used my MSR MiniWorks to filter enough water for dinner. I have found this filter to be bombproof reliable over the years and despite a small weight penalty compared to some newer designs. I would rather carry a few more ounces of reliability than gamble on lighter options.
Campsite overlooking Lake Michigan[/caption]After setting up my camp and stringing the hammock, I tested my new Esbit stove. Since I was only concerned with boiling water for my Mountain House dinner, a more elaborate stove was not necessary. It did light easily and it boiled the water (20 ounces) in a reasonable time. I did have to use part of another fuel cube so I would plan for about 1 ½ cubes per dinner.
The Esbit fuel has a fishy odor – do bears thinks so too? The Manitou Islands have no bears on them unlike most of Northern Michigan. However, you should still bear bag your food as “mini bears” also known as chipmunks are quite profuse and will chew through your backpack if you carelessly leave food in them. I use an Ursack bear bag. It is great for Black bears as they cannot chew or tear the bag open. You still must suspend the bag or at least tie it firmly to something so bears do not abscond with it. I always place anything that might attract bears or other animals inside the Ursack. This includes all eating utensils and even fishy Esbit fuel cubes. Needless to say, I had no issues with chipmunks or anything else stealing my food.
The sunset over Lake Michigan was stunning. I watched from the beach as I sipped Makers Mark and watched swans feeding in the shallows. It was spectacular as I was alone, no nearby campers. In fact, I had only seen five other campers since I left the village earlier in the day. Later I had spoke with a park ranger and he said that the Fourth of July weekend would be the most populous and they would have about 300 backpackers on the island. He said that the island was large enough to absorb them well and it was common not to see many other hikers during ones stay.
I love my Hennessey hammock. This is about the fifth time I have used it and it sleeps very comfortably. I used a North Face Cat’s Meow and was more than warm enough. Hammocks tend to sleep on the cool side so a warm bag does not hurt other than a bit of extra weight.
In the morning, I decided to head back to the Village campground rather than continue my planned route to circle the island. My feet were extremely sore and I was developing blisters. It seems that I have always had problems with my feet. Perhaps someday I will find the perfect sock and boot combination?
The mosquito seemed worse than yesterday. I lathered up in DEET and the mosquitoes once again hovered in front of me looking for a weak spot in my defenses.
After several miles, I found myself exiting the forest and coming into a grassy opening. I was very low on water so I decided to head to the beach perhaps 500 yards away. As I walked in the open sunny field, I was swarmed by black flies. Holy shit they bite like crazy! I retreated to the forest and was welcomed by the mosquitoes.
I decide that I would grab my filter and several water bottles, leave the pack behind, make a mad dash to the lake and get water. Well first off, I am NOT a runner. Secondly, my feet were killing me. Either way I figured that this would be a better idea than schlepping my pack and being a slow and easy target for the flies. I would be quicker and I could get in the water and avoid them the best I could.
I made my mad dash, a black cloud of evil in close pursuit. I hit the beach, tossed of my boots and socks, and splashed into the lake like a maniac. I had placed my filter and Nalgene bottles in a mesh bag and was able to filter three quarts, I am glad I left the backpack behind. The water was cool and very refreshing yet a few black flies were persistent and attacked me despite being offshore and in the water. I had to submerge to avoid them.
Reality set in, I was at a standoff and I had to exit the water and try my best to get my boots back on and run back to the forest while avoiding the biting flies. Well I made it back but unfortunately, I suffered several nasty bites on my ankles and neck.
From the forest to the Village is mostly a shaded trail that winds in and out of the forest. It seems that the flies do not like shade and the mosquitoes do not like sun. Great. After a bit, I found a tree alone in an opening that offered plenty of shade as well as plenty of breezes. The perfect compromise; a good breeze will keep both of the pests away. I ate lunch my lunch and contemplated my trip so far.
Gazing down the trail, I saw a woman walking toward me. She was dress all in white, like a romance novel cover. She looked like she was a heroine in some Victorian jungle odyssey. Was she Stanley searching for Dr. Livingstone? She did not look well equipped for backpacking. Someone at Banana Republic must have sold her the “gear”. She paused and asked how far she was from the split in the trail. She seemed rather crestfallen when I told her how far and about the flies and mosquitoes. It seems that she had just arrived on today’s boat and that the flies had already taken a liking to her. She trudged bravely onward.
I considered camping here. Unfortunately, it was too close to the trail and too close to water to be allowed by park rules. No second tree for my hammock either. I decided to hike to the Village campground and spend my last night there. I was not thrilled by the idea since I was not looking forward to an organized campground. I would prefer a wild and remote location to a potentially noisy site.
I made my way to the campground and was able to find a vacant site that had a good mix of breeze and shade. Shortly after setting up the hammock, my nemesis the flies returned. I retreated to the safety of my hammock and took a long nap. As the sun set the flies went away and there was enough of a breeze to keep the mosquitoes away. I cooked my evening meal and tended to my wounds. I hate black flies! The campground was quiet except for the cool whispers of the evening breeze and the distant explosions of Fourth of July fireworks in Leland. I was too tired to hike to the shore to watch them. The next morning I heard stories from other campers that had watched them, and how cool it had been.
In the morning, I broke camp and headed to the dock. Other campers were there and cooking breakfast. I wandered about the beach and waited for the ferry. A spotted the woman from yesterday wading in the water near the dock. Still in the same clothes, now soiled and no longer a bright white. I spoke with her and she related how she found a great campsite near the shore. I also noticed that she had many distinct bites from the flies. Somehow, I do not believe she will be returning the island. Perhaps not camping or backpacking again.
Soon the ferry arrived and we departed for Leland. I grabbed a cold beer and a sandwich at the Village Cheese Shanty (life is good!) and hiked the last mile to the parking lot where my car was.
This had been my first backpacking trip in several years. Despite a few problems (flies, mosquitoes, heat, blisters) overall it went well. I realized that I had carried too much gear and that I could pare things down and save a few pounds. I would recommend backpacking North Manitou Island to anyone looking for a backcountry experience that is not too demanding as the terrain is mostly flat, and the trails are smooth. Its location is reasonably close to Detroit or Chicago (5 hours by car) to make it highly accessible. The surrounding area is my personal favorite so I may be a bit biased, but it is a beautiful location. Just beware of the black flies (mid June to mid August).
- National Park Service North Manitou Island website
- North Manitou Island map
- Manitou Island Transit
- Village Cheese Shanty Grab a sandwich before or after visiting the islands. Beer and local wine too! Just a few steps away from the ferry dock.
- Leland Mercantile - Leland's local grocery
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