South Manitou Island


South Manitou Island

South Manitou Island of Leelanau County, Michigan

Hiking South Manitou IslandCanoe or Kayak South Manitou Island

Trail Distance:

22 miles long.

Trail Description:

The Best Nature Escape in the Midwest

Welcome to one of the most beautiful natural areas in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Come and enjoy 35 miles of Lake Michigan's eastern coastline, explore North and South Manitou Islands, and of course climb the dunes! Learn about the history of shipping, logging, and agriculture of the area by visiting former Life-Saving Service/Coast Guard Stations, and Port Oneida Historic District.

South Manitou Island is part of an island chain that extends north to the Straits of Mackinac. The island consists of a ridge of tilted layers of limestone, buried under a blanket of glacial debris. Glaciers carved out the Lake Michigan basin. When the basin filled with water, the peaks of the ridge remained exposed as islands. During post-glacial times, winds blowing on the high, sandy bluffs on the west side of the island moved sand inland, forming perched dunes. The dunes are a fragile environment. Please stay on existing paths and avoid stepping on plants.

Tucked away on the southwest corner of the island is a grove of virgin white cedar trees. One of the fallen trees showed 528 growth rings, dating its existence to before Columbus.

The 100 foot lighthouse tower, active from 1871 to 1958, marked the location of the only natural harbor between here and Chicago. Ships took refuge here during storms and steamers stopped at the island to refuel with wood for their boilers. The lighthouse is the most familiar landmark on the island and is clearly visible from the mainland. The keeper's quarters (building on the right) is connected by a covered passage. Be sure to get a tour when you are on the island and climb to the top for a spectacular view.

The Coast Guard Station

In 1901 the U.S. Life-Saving Service built a station on the island to assist ships in distress. The life-savers could row out in their surfboat or use a line-throwing gun and breeches buoy to rescue stranded sailors. A wreck from this era, the Three Brothers (1911), is located just off shore between the dock and the lighthouse. There is a sign describing the shipwreck along the trail to the lighthouse. In 1915 the U.S. Life-Saving Service became part of the U.S. Coast Guard.

After World War II, modern equipment ushered in a new era in life-saving. This was demonstrated on the cold, stormy night of November 29, 1960 when the Liberian freighter, Fransisco Morazan ran aground on the southwest shore of the island. Three Coast Guard cutters and a helicopter rescued the fifteen people on board. The battered wreck is still visible today. As a mark of the changing times, the station was permanently closed in 1958.

The Coast Guard Station now functions as the South Manitou Island Ranger Station and is not open to the public. It is a private residence and office.

The Manitou Passage State Underwater Preserve

This preserve was established in 1988 to conserve the historic and archeological value of over fifty known shipwreck sites, dating from 1835 to 1960. For more information about the preserve, contact a Park Ranger. These sites are protected by state and/or federal law.

The Farms

Farming developed slowly on the island, but by 1870 most islanders were self-sufficient farmers. Surplus crops were sold to passing ships and mainland markets. The isolation of the island provided an ideal environment for growing prize-winning rye, beans and peas. Today, there are no active farms on the island, but farm buildings, abandoned machinery, the old school and cemetery are reminders of the past.

Planning Your Island Visit

A trip to South Manitou Island takes a little planning. The ferry, operated by Manitou Island Transit (231-256-9061) leaves Leland, MI each morning in the summer and returns in the afternoon, so you will want to call ahead for reservations and be sure to pack a lunch. Auto tours of the farming area are also available, so you can see more of the island than you can by hiking. The tours use some of the original Dunemobiles that were used for dune rides in the 1940's through 1960's. More details are available on the Plan Your Trip page.

  • Fires - Fires are permitted in community fire rings only. Dead and down wood may be used. Cutting any standing vegetation, alive or dead, is prohibited. Fires are prohibited on the beaches.
  • Pets - Pets are not allowed on the island due to disturbance of visitors and wildlife.
  • Trash - Deposit all trash in receptacles located at the boathouse near the dock.
  • Water - Water is available at the Village, Bay Campground, Weather Station Campground, and at the School House. Water is not available at Popple Campground. Please do not use pump areas for bathing or dishwashing.
  • Hiking - For safety, hike with a companion and notify someone of your route and expected return time. Wear footgear that gives good support. Terrain varies from sandy beaches to gravel and boulder-surfaced slopes. Carry drinking water. Please stay on designated trails to avoid causing erosion and damage to plants. This is especially important in sensitive areas such as the old growth cedars, dunes and steep bluffs.

    CAUTION: Hiking on steep bluffs is dangerous

Map of South Manitou Island

Return to Leelanau County, MI Trails Page


Permission and information sources are from Contributers to this Web Site, the Department of Natural Resources, Michigan.gov, National Park Service, and the USDA Forest Service.

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