When you are looking to escape the peninsula, an island is the next best thing. For Memorial Day weekend, I was looking to go backpacking for my first time as well as try out some gear. South Manitou Island is located off the coast of the Leelanau Peninsula and is part of the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. Visitors are made up of either day trippers, campers, or backpackers. Once the day trippers go home, it's a relatively relaxed environment.
Checking in at Leland, they handle all the park permits as well as give you directions for parking lots for their free shuttle. Once you board the ship, gear is stored in the rear and the ship leaves port promptly at their departure times. Make sure you reserve in advance and cement your camping plans. During Memorial Day, the boat was filled to capacity and no one would have been allowed to leave on a different departure.
Upon reaching the island, everyone funnels through the boat house where they can check the campsite availability with the rangers, have a mandatory orientation, and get water for their trek. We found that we often stopped by the boathouse to refill water and use the modern restrooms. The boathouse is also available all the time in case of inclement weather. If you look at the map of the island, you may see asterisks where water is located. When we visited those locations like the school house, the water had the plumbing coming out the ground but was missing a spigot. We found missing spigots in several spots around the island. Plan to take water filtration if you are staying in other areas of the island.
Two-tracks running north work as great main roads. We stayed in Bay Campground for our only night. To get there, we mistakenly missed our path and went past the old school house. We ended up getting to our camp from the north side. Some of the meadows were gorgeous as the front drop for the dunes. It was an enjoyable walk on the north side. When you hike to Bay Campground from the north side, the trails snake through the forest and between a few burial sites. The canopy had little protection from a downpour. Even through the torrent, we took a moment to look at the tombstones. I could only imagine the effort for a funeral party to carry a person through those trails while carrying a headstone. The location is quiet, solitary, but yet eerily beautiful with the small wildflowers growing around their grave. It was a somber moment.
Through the downpour, we took the first campsite we found, pitched our tent, and got out of the rain to recoup. When the rain finally subsided, we booked it to the lighthouse. We were pleasantly surprised that a day trip group was going through the lighthouse at that very moment. The horizon was unrecognizable as the storm blurred the line between clouds and water. The well-maintained stairs led to remarkable views of the island. Don't let anyone persuade you from seeing it. It was definitely worth the stop.
From there, we hiked out to the shipwreck and had our lunch. If we had more time, we would have visited the cedars and the dunes but I wanted to return back to camp to rest my achy feet. The lake on the way is much larger than i expected. Many people brought rods and reels with them on the boat but I didn't spot any on the lake.
We stopped by the boathouse again and filled up again on our liquids. We returned to camp, set up my hammock, and gathered some water and food to take to the communal fire pit. A young couple were finishing up their dinner and drying their gear near the fire. We had a nice time exchanging stories and information around the small fire until it got dark. We were debriefed on their trip. we found out that they were circling the island and had to climb the dunes to get around an obstacle. Some of the dunes are laden with poison ivy so care must be taken.
We said our goodbyes, returned to camp, and started eating some snacks in the tent when lightning flashed and thunder rolled. The pit pat of rain started hitting the tent. I ran over to my hammock and settled in for the night before all the rain fell. The Bear Butt rain fly kept me dry. I slept like a baby as the rain quieted me to sleep. I awoke the next morning to sunshine. I knew I should have tied my hiking shoes on my hammock line as there were USDA Grade A slugs crawling all over. We walked to the empty beach site across from us and enjoyed some coffee and breakfast. The still waters were not indicative of the tempestuous waters lurking later in the afternoon. Upon finishing breakfast, we did not notice the storm clouds that had gathered behind us. I scrambled to get my hammock gear in the tent to pack away while the storm rolled through. After an hour or two, the storm moved and we were ready to roll. We hiked back to the dock under clear skies and waited for the boat. All of the rangers on the island stood on the dock and waved goodbye. They were a good group of people. After the ferry left, we sat up on the open top deck. The three to five foot swells made me feel like I was on the professional bull riding circuit for an hour and a half.
The island is limited on mammals and reptiles. If someone says there are bears, you should start to question any of their advice. Next to a few random coyotes, the Manitou Tiger is the apex predator. We kept our trash and food about 6 feet off the ground and we often heard those little "land piranhas" prowling in the brush behind us. One almost jumped in my back pocket. I was a little skittish when a garter snake would decide to dart into the underbrush next to my feet when I walked past. When I talked to the rangers, they told me there were no Michigan rattlers on the island, only Hognose and garter snakes. Seas of pure-white trillium plants were scatted on the sides of the trail. Pitcher plants followed the trails. There seems to be a large amount of poison ivy on the island as well. The most dangerous things on the island are mosquitoes and ticks. However, I feel that it is over-hyped. I was paranoid and careful about ticks but never spotted a single one. Our campfire guests had spotted one near the handle on a backpack but that was the only one. We saw clouds of mosquitoes on the beach but didn't come home with any bites. It was like Jurassic Park, if you got to the inland, you deal with velociraptors and ticks or deal with T-Rex and mosquitoes on the beach.
The island is great for all experience levels or solo trips but it has gives and takes. There are three campgrounds. The Popple Campground is on the north side of the island. If you want to be among like-minded backpackers, it has a smaller amount of sites and thus more private. However, no fires are allowed. Bay Campground is more accessible to the town, has seasoned hikers and campers, and just feels a little more personal. However, there are only two routes to get to the sites and you have to travel around to get to activities on the island. The weather station campground seems to be popular with groups. There were a group of about 20 that hauled coolers and boxes to the site. It is centrally located but I think it is more of a party campground.
If you are looking for a great short-term trip, visit South Manitou. It is perfect if you want to camp for the weekend along aquamarine water or lay some track around the island as a veteran hiker.