One of the perks of living in Michigan is the beauty of the Great Lakes and the amazing backpacking trails that let you explore the lakes.
North Manitou Island is my favorite backpacking trail in Michigan and after going there for a second time I wanted to jot down everything I learned and share this place with as many people as possible.
In this guide I'll cover:
- A brief intro to the island and what makes it so unique
- How to get to Manitou Island
- The difference between North and South Manitou (big difference!)
- What the trails are like
- The best places to check out on North Manitou
- What makes North Manitou unique and worth visiting
- Things to watch out for and gear you need to bring
- Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
- Tons of pictures to show you what the island is like
And finally I'll cover some frequently asked questions and share some pictures of the island.
What Is North Manitou Island?
This might seem like a weird question but it's worth an explanation because North Manitou isn't like most other backpacking trips.
Instead of parking at a trail head and going for a 10-20 mile loop hike, you're actually traveling 7 miles off the coast of Michigan to a remote island.
But what makes this island unique from somewhere like Isle Royale is that North Manitou used to have 300 people that lived on it full time.
They had a school, a hotel, a saloon and even a brothel run by Fat Annie (seriously).
Don't believe me? Check out the trail map
Eventually the federal government took over Manitou Island and turned it into a national park. They left the vacation homes and ruins of the existing buildings so there's a ton of cool stuff to check out when you're on the island.
Here's a picture of an abandoned barn where I ate lunch on my second day on the island.
How to Get to North Manitou Island
Manitou island is 7 miles off the coast of Leland, MI. The only way to get to the island is to take a ferry that's operated by Manitou Island Transit.
Tickets are about $40 each and only cover round trip transportation to the island. You'll also need to pay fees for a camping permit. You'll pay these feeds when you check in for your ferry ride over to the island.
The ferry ride takes about an hour to get to North Manitou and is a direct route to the island. After they drop off the North Manitou backpackers, the boat continues to South Manitou to drop off the campers who are headed there.
Since the ferry is crossing Lake Michigan, it's at the mercy of Mother nature. If the weather is bad enough, the ferry simply won't run.
Because of this, you should bring 1 day of extra food just in case your return trip gets delayed.
The ranger that lives on the island has a collection of food people have left/donated but it's basically just packets of ramen noodles. So if you run out of food or get stuck on the island you might be able to get some free food by asking the ranger but I wouldn't count on this.
The ferry runs on a very tight schedule. They don't wait for anyone.
If you're late, you'll be left behind. So make sure you get to the ferry dock with plenty of time, especially on your way over to the island.
Leland is a really small town and it gets really busy when the weather is nice.
Your basic process for checking in to the boat will probably take about 30 minutes and goes like this:
- Spend 5 minutes finding a parking space
- 5 minutes to walk down to the Manitou Island Transit 'office' building
- 5 minutes to get checked in and pay for your permit
- 5 minutes to go back to your car and go to their specific parking location
- 10 minutes to get your gear unloaded and walk down to the dock
If you go earlier or later in the season when Leland isn't as busy you might only need 10-15 minutes for this but it's a good idea to count on 20-30 minutes so you don't risk getting left behind.
North Manitou vs South Manitou
There's a HUGE difference between the North and South Manitou islands.
If you want solitude and backpacking, go to North Manitou.
If you want to set up camp and spend most of your time on short day hikes or chilling at the beach, go to South Manitou.
Here's a quick rundown of the differences:
2 pit toilets in town
1 faucet available in town. Bring a filter for back country
Several wells available
Not allowed except at group site in town
Allowed at most campsites
Length of Trails
And here's a side by side comparison with the trail mileage enlarged to give you an idea of the difference in scale.
If you want to do more hiking, North Manitou is the way to go.
South Manitou Island w/ Mileage
North Manitou Island w/ Mileage
What Are the Trails Like?
One of the most important parts of backpacking is the trails. You need to make sure you've got the right gear and that you're hiking trails that match your skill level.
When I went to Colorado in 2017 I had a 53 pound backpack and did no training.
When I was climbing up 4,000 feet of elevation gain on the first day, I was not prepared at all. I want to make sure you avoid that :)
Luckily, Manitou island is fairly easy hiking.
The trails are mostly flat with some small inclines. The only risky parts are when you have to go up and down the and dunes to filter water.
Some campsites, especially on the North and West sides of the island are perched on top of ~50-100 foot tall dunes that you have to climb up and down to access water.
Here's a picture showing what these bluffs look like on the north side of the island.
It's hard to translate the scale to a picture but trust me, this is really steep and a little dangerous to get up and down.
And here's a few pictures of the trails to give you an idea of how nice they are.
The main trails are kept in great shape by the rangers and normal foot traffic. Secondary trails aren't maintained but are pretty easy to spot.
Cool Things to See on North Manitou
I mentioned earlier that in the late 1800's this island was a thriving little village. All of the old buildings and cars are still on the island and they're pretty interesting.
Here's a map you can pick up for $6 before you take the ferry over to the island.
I'd highly recommend picking it up. It's a good map and very detailed.
Take a look at all of the historical buildings shown on the map to get an idea of what the island has to explore.
And here's what some of the buildings look like. You can't go inside any of them. They're locked up and there's a chance they could collapse so don't bother trying.
There's a pretty large "town" set up near the docks as well. Again you can't go inside any of the buildings but they're cool to look at.
What Makes North Manitou Unique and Worth Visiting?
Most backpacking trails are just that. Trails with some streams and lakes. There usually aren't any buildings or historical artifacts to check out which is the main thing that makes North Manitou unique.
Up until the time when the federal government took the island over and turned it into a National Park, North Manitou was a thriving little community with hundreds of people working and living on the island.
It's amazing to go backpacking on an island that has a cemetery, barns, schoolhouse and an abandoned brothel. There aren't many backpacking destinations with so many historical buildings to check out. If you're looking for a unique backpacking location in the Midwest, North Manitou is a must see.
What to Bring With You
North Manitou is like real back country camping so you'll need to be entirely self sufficient.
This means having a way to filter your own drinking water and also some type of backup filtering method like these dissolvable tablets.
The only pit toilets available are in town so when you're out in the woods you'll need to dig a hole and poop in the ground. You'll need a shovel to dig these holes. I personally use the Deuce of Spades which is nice and lightweight.
Since you're relying on a boat to get you off the island, there's a chance you can get stuck on the island for a day or more longer than you originally planned. This means you should bring at least 1 day's worth of extra food to plan for the worst case scenario. There's no extra food on the island so you'll be on your own.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there bears? Coyotes? Raccoons? Squirrels? Snakes? Deer?
On Manitou island, there are no bears, coyotes or raccoons. There used to be raccoons but they died out in 2002 due to a disease that went around the island.
There are plenty of snakes, squirrels, deer and chipmunks.
Make sure you have a way to hang your food up off the ground and away from trees so the critters don't get into your food.
The only snakes I saw on the island were garter snakes but there were a lot of them so watch your step on the trail!
Are there ticks on Manitou Island?
Yes! There are a lot of ticks on the island and you need to watch out for them.
I spent 3 days on the island with my wife in the summer of 2019 and she had 4 ticks we had to pull out of her legs while we were there. I had about 5 ticks on my clothes that I had to brush off.
Lyme disease is serious so watch out for the ticks and consider some permethrin to treat your clothes and kill ticks on contact.
How big is North Manitou Island?
North Manitou Island has an area of 22.3 square miles which is roughly 14,270 acres.
Who owns North Manitou Island?
The United States federal government took over North Manitou Island and it is run by the National Park Service today.
Can you buy or rent a house on North Manitou Island?
No, there are no houses available for rent or purchase on North or South Manitou Island.
Since the NPS took the islands over, there is no residential real estate on the islands.
If you want to stay on the island you can either camp in a tent or become a park ranger.
Are the bugs on the island bad? What bugs are there?
On the island there are a lot of mosquitos and black flies. The flies are especially bad around the shore on the North side of the island.
The West and South sides have fewer flies by the shore and less dense woods so fewer mosquitoes as well.
Which campsites are the best on North Manitou Island?
All of the campsites are awesome since they're mostly along the shoreline.
My personal favorite is on the North side of the island on top of the huge bluff. You can see the sunrise and sunset from the same spot. The only downside is there are only 2 campsites so it's not uncommon for someone to already be there.
My other favorite is on the Southeast side of the island right by the shoreline. You get great lake views and a nice breeze. It's some of the best swimming on Lake Michigan and there are never crowds.
Can you take a private boat to Manitou Island?
Yes, you can.
In fact, in 2020 the Manitou Island Transit company had to shut down their service to the island because the docks on the islands were moved by the NPS and they can't be reached by ferry.
Can you fish on Manitou Island?
Yes, you can.
You need a Michigan fishing license, you must use artificial lures, and you can only keep 1 fish per day and it must be over 18" in length.
If you're interested in checking out North Manitou Island for backpacking, this video gives a great overview of the island and what you need to know.
You can also check out the official NPS site here that will have up to date info.