Hiking and Camping Michigan’s South Manitou Island

The ferry dock on South Manitou Island
The ferry dock on South Manitou Island

"We’re stranded on the island! There’s no way back to the mainland,” I lamented.

“That’s true,” my husband replied. “At least for the next three and half hours when the ferry returns,” he laughed.

South Manitou Island, located in Lake Michigan west of Leland, is the perfect place to unplug, return to nature, and GET OUTDOORS for just a day of hiking or an overnight camping trip.


Hiking inland on South Manitou Island
Hiking inland on South Manitou Island

Start your day on the island by checking in at the Visitor’s Center and Museum. It provides perspective on South Manitou Island’s history.

Burton’s Wharf was the original village on South Manitou Island. William Beck originally settled South Manitou Island in the mid-1830s to provide cordwood to the Great Lake’s steamships. Hike north from the present-day dock, where the ferry lands, for about a half mile to the original village. The village, built around Burton’s Wharf, included a post office, grocery store, blacksmith shop, house, barn, and a wooden railroad. The Tamarack wood railroad that stretched from Burton’s Wharf inland hauled wood for the steamships.

Next, decide on your hike, several options are available. Hiking the perimeter of the island is a ten-mile loop. From the Visitor’s Center, walk to the lighthouse. It has about 117 steps in a spiral staircase with landings about every 20. From the top, you’ll see views of the Manitou Passage, and Sleeping Bear Point on the mainland. Both sights are scenic. The 100-foot lighthouse tower provided a safer journey to ships navigating the dangerous Manitou Passage from 1871 to 1958.

South Manitou Island Lighthouse
South Manitou Island Lighthouse

From the lighthouse, it is about a three-mile hike to the Francisco Morazan, the above water shipwreck. The ship ran aground in November 1960. Nearby the Giant Cedars, also known as the Valley of the Giants, are the world’s most massive cedar trees. Some of these Cedars are over 500 years old. From the 400-foot perched dune, you’ll see a 360-degree view of Lake Michigan.

The one-room schoolhouse on South Manitou Island
The one-room schoolhouse on South Manitou Island

After logging ended, the South Manitou Island Village grew as several families farmed the land. Heading inland, you can also explore their one-room schoolhouse, cemetery, and the restored Beck farmstead. At the farmstead, you can see the split white cedar foundation of a barn filled with farm equipment found on the island.

Don’t miss Florence Lake, the 78-acre inland lake. It is just a half a mile hike from the southern edge of the island.

If you’re not up to that much hiking, Manitou Island Transit offers two wagon tours. Kubota tractors rather than horses pull the wagons that have plenty of padded seating. One tour covers the Cedars and shipwreck; the other includes the farm and schoolhouse. There’s not enough time on the day trip to take both wagon tours in one day, as each is between two and two and a half hours. On a day trip, you only have about three and a half hours on the island.

You must take your lunch and snacks as there are no restaurants or stores on the island. One local favorite is the cheese sandwiches at the Village Cheese Shanty in Fishtown. Grab some before boarding the boat to the island.

Searching for Petoskey stones along the shore
Searching for Petoskey stones along the shore

As you wait for the ferry’s return, search for Petoskey stones along the shoreline.


The picnic area offers restrooms and drinking water. If you are camping, all campgrounds require that you bring water filtration equipment, as there is no purified drinking water available at the campsites.

Three rustic campgrounds are available on South Manitou Island, each with different benefits. You will be roughing it on South Manitou Island so take everything you need.

The Bay Campground is only a short walk to the beach, and it’s the campground closest to the dock. It has three group sites and 25 individual sites.

The Weather Station Campground is on the south side of the island, about a mile and a quarter hike on a wooded trail past the lighthouse. It has three group sites and 27 individual sites. The campsites have privacy from one another and overlook Lake Michigan on the bluffs. This campground has open firepits.

The Popple Campground is about three and a half miles from the ranger station on the north end of the island. It’s more remote and offers more solitude than the other campgrounds. It also has beautiful views of North Manitou Island and is easily accessible to the beach. No fires are permitted in this campground.

If you’re staying for more than the day, check in with the Park Ranger to find out the return time for the ferry. The Park Service recommends that you have enough supplies for two days longer than what you are planning to stay. Inclement weather can impact the ferry’s ability to make the return trip to pick you up.

Beware, poison ivy is plentiful. Be sure you know what it looks like, to avoid it.

Getting There

Manitou Island Transit leaves from Leland (Fishtown) at 10:00 a.m. for the 14-mile ride to the island. It arrives on South Manitou Island at 11:30 a.m. Generally, the ferry returns around 4:00 p.m. to pick up those there for the day. The ferry sells refreshments if you’re starving from all the hiking.

Pro Tips

· Arrive 45 minutes before departure to walk from the parking lot and check in for the trip. To sit on the top deck, arrive early.

· Buy a park pass at the Fishtown dock. Entrance to the island requires a park pass.

· Take what you need with you, as no restaurants, hotels, or stores exist on the island.

· Take repellent with DEET for black flies and mosquitoes and wear long sleeves and pants.

· Charge your phones, near to the dock. There is no electricity at the campgrounds.

· Leave your dogs on the mainland. No dogs are allowed on the island.

Packing for a Day Trip

It’s important to note; there is no place to buy food or other necessities on the island. Be sure to pack or wear the following items:

· Lunch and snacks

· Treatment for Poison Ivy

· Insect repellent with DEET

· Sunscreen

· Sunglasses

· Hat

· Walking shoes

· Water bottle

· Jacket, the crossing can be breezy, and you will want long sleeves at times due to the insects.

Packing for Camping

Here’s a link to the camping packing list suggested by the National Park Service.

Plan Your Hiking

Here is a link to a map of South Manitou Island’s attractions, so that you can plan your hikes.

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