Camping on South Manitou Island – An Amazing Island Experience


South Manitou island is located in Lake Michigan about seven miles from Leland, Michigan and is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

It was once inhabited and home to farming and logging and was an essential re-fueling stop during the steamship era on the Great Lakes.

During the 1970’s it became part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and the few remaining residents left the island in the coming years.

Camping on South Manitou Island offers a unique experience that few mainland locations can rival. For one, it feels much more isolated than most places that are so easily accessible. The ferry to the island, the views of the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the mainland and the sense of remoteness all make South Manitou Island special.

South Manitou Island Campgrounds

Camping on South Manitou Island is permitted only with designated campsites. You must purchase your permit before boarding the ferry. Permits are available at the dock in Leland. Individual campsites are limited to 4 persons and 2 tents. Group sites are available by reservation only.

Bay Campground is the closest of three campgrounds to the ferry dock. Bay has individual campsites as well as group sites. Bay has the easiest access to water. Situated on a small bay, this campground is the best for swimming as the other campgrounds are less sheltered from Lake Michigan.

Weather Station Campground, on the east shore offers a view of the mainland and the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Weather Station also has group campsites.

Located on the northern shore, Popple Campground is also the most remote. There are many old and exceptionally large Lilac bushes that bloom in late May and early June. These attract Monarch butterflies. If conditions are good, you can see hundreds, if not thousands of Monarchs in a day.  A few campsites are nestled among the Lilacs.

Important Things About Camping on South Manitou Island

There are no stores or services on the island so you will need to bring all of your own food. Since the ferry service may be interrupted by weather, it is advisable to bring an extra day worth of food in case you are forced to stay an extra day.

There are outhouses located at each campground and also in the Village near the ferry dock. While toilet paper is supplied, you will want to bring your own supply to be safe. You will need to bring your own soap or hand sanitizer as no water is available for washing.

While there are water pumps located in the Village, and at the Bay and Weather station campgrounds, it is best to bring a water filter or purifier. There is no water pump at the Popple campground.

Also note washing hands or dishes at the water pumps is prohibited as this can pollute the water supply and spread disease.

Campfires are only permitted in provide fire rings. Cutting of trees is prohibited and you should only use dead and down wood. Do not bring firewood to the island as this presents the risk of bringing outside pests to the island.

Biting insects (mosquitos and stable flies) are the worst from typically just after Memorial day through mid-August. Be sure to bring your choice of insect repellent and be sure to check for ticks especially if you go off trail. I recommend treating your clothing with Permethrin before visiting the island.

South Manitou Island is home to a wide variety of wildlife. Fox, coyote, beaver, opossum, raccoon, chipmunks, garter and hognose snake are common. Bald eagles, Red tailed hawks, cormorants, and Trumpeter swans are common sights as well. You won’t find skunks, bears, or wolves, or deer on the island.

There are no bears on South Manitou Island but should take precautions to protect your food from chipmunks and other small animals. It is best to hang your food as you would in bear country. Chipmunks are notorious for chewing through backpacks and eating food left unattended.

Best Time For Camping on South Manitou Island

Backpacker at the South Manitou Island Ferry Docks

The island is open for camping from Mid-May until Early September. Holiday weekends are the busiest times. You will want to plan ahead if you plan to visit during a holiday. Monday through Thursdays are best for smaller crowds.

Northern Michigan weather changes quickly, especially on the Manitou Islands. Be prepared for swings in temperatures. May is usually cool and sometimes rainy. Although unusual, I have experienced temperatures in the mid-nineties at the end of May. Mid-August brings cooler temperatures and by mid-September overnight temperature can dip into the upper thirties. Don’t forget to bring raingear. Rain can be expected in any season. You’ll also want sunscreen and a broad brimmed hat is always a good idea.

June through Mid-August is bug season. Ticks should be considered ever present as they are active from early spring until winter.

What About North Manitou Island?

Camping on North Manitou Island is a different experience. It is a designated wilderness area and isn’t as beginner friendly as South Manitou. It does offer dispersed camping and only has one designated campground. For full details check out Backpacking North Manitou Island and Things to do on North Manitou Island.

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