Backpacking Michigan's
National Lakeshores

The lighthouse on the south shore of South Manitou Island. (Photo © Mark Whitney)

Bay campground

A campsite at Bay Campground on South Manitou Island. The beach is a short
walk away. (Photo © Mark Whitney)

Backcountry Campsites in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
*Water is available from pumps, and does not need to be micro-filtered or boiled.
Location Campground Group sites Water* Fire rings
South Manitou Island Bay Yes Yes Yes
Weather Station Yes Yes Yes
Popple No No No
North Manitou Island Village No Yes Yes
Benzie County White Pine No No Yes
Leelanau County Valley View No No Yes

South Manitou Island

South Manitou Island, located in Lake Michigan about 16 miles west of Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan's lower peninsula, provides an easy, scenic setting for a few days of backpacking or a whirlwind day hike.

The island is roughly three miles in diameter, with 10 miles of shoreline varying from tall sand dunes and rocky shores to tranquil white-sand beaches. The interior is a combination of rolling woodlands and remnants of 19th-century farms. The island's location between Chicago and the Straits of Mackinac, its natural harbor (the only one for more than 200 miles along that route) and its forests made it a popular way-station for wood-burning steamships. A handful of settlers farmed rye, beans and peas beginning in the 1840s. The farm ruins, a schoolhouse and a cemetery lend a ghost-town quality to the island's interior.

The United States Coast Guard built a life-saving station on the island in 1901; the site is now home to a ranger station, visitor center, a museum and other attractions. Visitors arrive and depart by boat at a pier near the visitor center.

During summer, temperatures in the region vary from highs in the upper 70s to the 90s, and lows from the 50s to the 70s, according to the National Park Service. Even in summer, campers should bring at least one set of warm clothes, as lake winds and storms can send temperatures down in a hurry, especially at night.

The island is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and administered by the National Park Service. Campers must obtain backcountry-use permits, and can do so at the park headquarters in Empire, or during the summer months at the Fishtown dock in Leland.

On the island, a park ranger meets each arriving boat, and backpackers are required to spend about a half-hour in an orientation session at the visitor center. Low-impact camping rules apply; campers must pack out their garbage and can dump it in trash cans near the visitor center. Fires are allowed only in a handful of communal fire rings and pets are not allowed at all.

Camping on South Manitou Island

There are three campgrounds on the island: Weather Station; Bay and Popple.

Weather Station, on the south shore about a mile west of the lighthouse, sits high atop a bluff overlooking the lake, the wreck of the freighter Francisco Morazan, and Sleeping Bear Dunes in the distance. The ship, which ran aground in 1960, attracts many snorkelers and divers, as well as a large colony of cormorants and many layers of guano. The campground contains 23 sites, three of which are for groups and require reservations. The best sites are nos. 10 and 14-17, which sit along the bluff. Several outhouses and fire rings are located throughout the campground, as are two pumps for water.

Bay campground lies only a mile or so north of the visitor center, and contains 25 well-spread campsites (three of which are for groups) with varying degrees of cover close to the beach on Crescent Bay. Several outhouses and fire rings are located throughout the campground. The closest water pump is at the visitor center. For those who don't want to lug their gear all over the island, Bay offers a great spot from which to day hike, and a flat, easy walk back and forth from the pier. As such, park rangers say Bay is typically more crowded than the other campgrounds.

Popple campground, on the north shore, is the most remote and the most rewarding. A roughly 3.5-mile hike from the ranger station through the island's interior, Popple has seven campsites and two outhouses at the edge of a hilly woodland adjacent to the beach. Privacy is easy to find with a little hiking along the shore. Fires are strictly prohibited at Popple, and no water pumps are available. Rather than carry water all the way from the visitor center or Weather Station campground; Popple backpackers can get water at a pump located about two miles south of the campground, near the old school house along the main tour and bike route.


South Manitou is a roughly 1.5-hour boat ride from Leland, provided by the Manitou Transit Company. Boats typically leave Leland by 10 a.m. and arrive at South Manitou around 11:30 a.m. Day visitors usually have about 4.5 hours, and can hike on their own or take guided tours in open-air vehicles available through Manitou Transit. Departure time is 4-4:30 p.m. Boat service begins about the third week of May and runs through the first week of October. Early and late in the season, boats run only two or three days a week; from mid-June until Labor Day they run every day.

Though reliable, the boat schedule can change radically on a given day due to bad weather or other problems. When leaving the island, be at the dock ready to go by 11:30 a.m., even though you'll likely wait until the regular departure around 4-4:30 p.m. If nothing else, the wait allows time for the beach or touring the lighthouse, old Coast Guard lifesaving station and other nearby remnants of life on the island a century or more ago.

For information on boat service and guided tours, contact:

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