Backpacking Michigan's
National Lakeshores

A stretch of the western shore of North Manitou Island.
(Photo © Steve Thorpe)


An abandoned farmhouse on the island. (Photo © Steve Thorpe)

North Manitou Island

With ghost-town remains scattered among its massive dunes, hardwood forests and long beaches, North Manitou Island evokes its namesake in odd ways.

Manitou (or manitos) were spirits in all living things, according to the traditions of Native American tribes around Lake Superior, such as Michigan's Chippewas.

At any one time, only a handful of hikers and another of park service rangers are spread across the island, which is nearly 8 miles long by 4 miles wide and has 20 miles of shoreline. The long stretches one can go without seeing other (or more than the same two or three) people have a way of making humans focus on other living things, spiritually or otherwise. If that doesn't get you feeling interconnected, the remains of late-1800s farms, houses and family cemeteries lend an otherworldly, even haunted feel to the scenery.

To take one of the island's most scenic, easiest hikes, follow the shoreline south from the ranger station. The flat beach walk will allow you to concentrate on taking in the vista of Sleeping Bear Dunes on the mainland.

The seemingly endless beach runs past the remains of an old dock, a cemetery and a former homestead to Dimmick's Point in the southeast corner of the island, but much of that area is off-limits to hikers during the spring nesting season of the endangered Piping Plover. To head any farther south, hikers must angle southwest over grassy dunes and blowouts to reach the southern beach and eventually Donner's Point, the island's southernmost spot. The soft sand will drag down the pace, and can cause slips and tumbles.

To the west and north, the shore is dominated by tall dunes. Don't hike very far north of the Crescent Dock ruins on the west shore, expecting to climb your way out. You'll be stuck doing a rugged forced march around the north shore or returning to Crescent Dock. The highest point on the northwest shore is 421 feet above Lake Michigan, according to the park service. Three huge potholes are clustered in the northwest corner, atop and behind the massive dunes. Even hiked to from the interior, it's all best viewed at a distance. Much of the footing is iffy to treacherous, and there are plenty of areas where casual hikers could get into trouble.

Hiking the island's interior resembles a walk through rolling hardwood forests almost anywhere in Michigan, except for the occasional trace of humans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Several designated trails loop through the interior, past old hunting camps, the ruins of a school and other traces of the island's one-time inhabitants. Some trails lead to the island's two lakes: Lake Manitou and Tamarack Lake. Some campers fish Lake Manitou for perch and panfish; belly boats or other small boats are needed.

Camping on North Manitou Island

Unlike South Manitou Island and Pictured Rocks, camping (with a back-country permit) is allowed all over North Manitou Island, with a few exceptions such as on trails. Fires, however, are only permitted in a campground known as The Village, about a mile north of the boat dock and ranger station. It has eight designated campsites, two fire rings and an outhouse. Firewood can be scavenged off the ground but not cut down. Water is available only at the ranger station. This makes base-camping at The Village and day-hiking around the island a popular choice for many visitors.

Outside the 27-acre area around the ranger station and campground, wilderness rules apply: boil or purify water, bury human waste, etc.

One popular back-country camping area lies due west of The Village across the island above the Crescent Dock ruins on the opposite shore. The sunsets over Lake Michigan alone are worth the trek.


The boat ride from Leland to North Manitou generally takes a bit more than an hour, and unlike the 4.5-hour layover for day hikes and tours on South Manitou, the North Manitou boat leaves immediately. When departing, campers should be up and packed early, and be to the dock well before 11 a.m. Boats run almost daily during the summer months, and only 2-3 times a week in early spring and after Labor Day. Rough weather can easily cancel a given day's boat, so be prepared to stay an extra day or so, if needed.

For information on hiking, backpacking, permits, regulations, attractions and other visitor information, contact:

For information on boat service, contact:

For more information about the Traverse City area, visit the The Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau online at

Comments? Suggestions? Email the author Mark Whitney

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