» lake, beach, forest, dunes, shipwrecks, and a journey through history
South Manitou Island sits in Lake Michigan and is part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwestern Michigan. Besides the natural beauty of perched dunes, steep bluffs, forests, and prestine beaches, the Island has some other interesting aspects: numerous shipwrecks, a historically important lighthouse, and remnants of past inhabitants who farmed on the island.

North and South Manitou Islands form the Manitou Passage, a route many ships followed to shave 50 miles off their trip through the area and to escape storms over Lake Michigan. The bay on the east shore of South Manitou is the first natural harbor when sailing north out of Chicago and, historically, this bay was so popular in bad weather it was often referred to as the Forest of Masts. All of them did not escape the storms, however, there are over 150 known shipwrecks around the Manitou Passage.

Steamships also stopped at the island to refuel their boilers by chopping down trees from the forests. Only a few trees escaped the lumberjacks saws because they were either too hard to get to or too hard to chop down. These trees are now the largest Cedar trees in North America, and at over 500 years old, they pre-date when Columbus "discovered" America.

In the 1800s, farmers inhabited the island, taking advantage of the island's isolation from mainland pollens to grow specialized and prize-winning breeds of crops such as rye, beans, and peas. The old farm buildings, equipment, schoolhouse, and cemetary still remain today but the only inhabitants now are the park rangers.

It's a very slow ride over to the island, the boat only travels at about 11 mph, making the 17 mile trip take 1.5 hours in good weather. However, the long journey will probably just make you appreciate your time on the island more.

Once on the island, you only have 4.5 hours before the only ride off the island heads back to the mainland, assuming you aren't spending the night. So, we thought doing a 10 mile hike might be pushing it but we actually had an hour to spare at the end, giving us a chance to tour the lighthouse. The dunes were the highlight for me so I am glad we hiked all the way out there. Click here to view an aerial photo of the island showing where we hiked.

Left: Leland, where the ferry leaves from. Right: Tons of small fish swimming in the Leland canal. Every so often one of the fish would appear to go crazy, dancing erratically along the surface of the water, showing it's shiny silver sides (some sort of mating ritual?).

Left: Wake from the boat. Right: The North Manitou Shoal Lighthouse, marking the Manitou Passage.

Approaching Sandy Point on South Manitou Island where we would land and begin our hike through the forest, and over the dunes, to the other side of the island.

Left: Me hiking through the forest. Right: Looking up, the translucent green leaves were glowing in the sun, against a perfect blue sky (not really captured here). We came across 3 snakes in the forest but I did not manage to get a picture of them.

Some of the wildflowers along the trail. There were many more but they were hard to photograph because it was too bright in the sun and too dark in the shade. The flowers tended to be small but intricate.

Left: Florence Lake, the only lake on the island. Right: One of the Giant Cedars. These trees are among the tallest Cedars in the world but if you have been out west and seen forests of Sequoias, then these trees may not be that impressive (the largest has a diameter over 6 feet and is about 100 feet tall). We actually turned around after seeing a couple because we were paranoid about missing the boat home and the first ones didn't look too impressive but maybe there were bigger ones around the next corner (note: some people love these trees so don't let me discourage you from visiting them).

After hiking about 4 miles through forest, we climbed a hill and emerged on top of the perched dunes. This picture is looking back at the forest from the perched dunes with North Manitou Island in the background.

A glimpse of the brilliant blue waters of Lake Michigan could be seen over the dunes as we headed towards the western edge of the island. The high point of the island, known as the Island of Trees, is shown here. It reaches an elevation of 1,014 feet, about 434 feet above Lake Michigan.

Left: A large sand bowl above Lake Michigan. Right: Looking back at the dunes we crossed.

Hiking in the dunes. (Photo by Megan)

Finally, the top edge of the bluffs is visible below.

The bluffs, looking north. These bluffs rise over 300 feet above the waters of Lake Michigan.

Flowers on the edge of the bluffs.

This point is the northern end of the bluffs.

Me enjoying the view from the edge of the bluffs. (Photo by Megan)

Hiking down the bluffs.

I have heard conflicting opinions on hiking down the bluffs, some say you should not do it at all, some say you should hike slowly and diagonally to minimize erosion, and the NPS website says it is "dangerous". So, at the very least, do try to minimize your impact on this sensitive area. We hiked down in a spot that had obviously been used by others in the past so we at least avoided trampling vegetation. Once you get to the dunes, there is no obvious official trail or signs to offer you any guidance. If you intend to hike in this area you may want to ask a park ranger for the official rules.

Me down on the beach. (Photo by Megan)

Megan hiking down the bluffs.

The beach below the bluffs. We followed the beach along the southern shore of the island to get back to Sandy Point.

All along the shore below the bluffs there were big fish huddled in groups, seen above, through the ripples.

At the southwest point of the island we came across a Gull rookery, hundreds of Gulls sitting between the bluffs and Lake Michigan, leaving us no choice but to walk through them. This of course stirred them up, creating quite a sight.

A gull nest with eggs, built on a bed of shells.

The Francisco Morazan freighter is the most visible of the over 50 known shipwrecks around the island. It ran aground during a fierce snow storm in 1960. The captain, his pregnant wife, and the crew were all rescued by the Coast Guard. In 1903, the Walter L. Frost, a wooden steamer, ran aground in the exact same spot.

A closer look.

Megan hiking along the beach.


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies were congregating along the shore.

Views of and from the top of the lighthouse.

Looking towards the mainland (Pyramid Point), about 8 miles in the distance, from the lighthouse.

The bay on the east side of the island, where many ships sought refuge from storms.

Back in Leland, these bluffs are just north of the city.

South Manitou Island at sunset, as seen from the Sleeping Bear Dunes bluffs viewpoint.


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» all photo reports from lower michigan
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