South Manitou Island


My adventure partner and I have been trying out progressively more challenging camping/hiking trips over the years, working our way up to spending several days on Isle Royale, and we decided that we needed a test run. Last summer, we took a day trip to South Manitou Island (part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore) and spend an afternoon hiking to a cove on the east coast of the island, eating sandwiches and swimming in the remarkably clear, beautiful water. We decided that this year, we’d make a longer trip out of it, and backpack in all of our gear, and hike the circumference of the island.

According to the map, hiking around South Manitou Island is a 10-mile trip.

South Manitou Island Map

We decided to divide the trip into parts: on the first day, we would hike from the Ranger Station to Popple Campground on the north side of the island, on the second day, we would trek from Popple to the Weather Station Campground, and on the third day, we would drop off our stuff on the dock, and do any other wandering around that we wanted to do while waiting for the ferry to take us back to the mainland. Sounds simple enough.

At this point, we’re fairly experienced day hikers, but we would typically drive to a campground, set up camp, and take whatever gear, snacks and water in day packs when we headed out on the trails. This time would be different, because we would have to carry everything we’d need for the trip in our backpacks and we’d have to carry those backpacks with us everywhere we went.

Backpack aside: I don’t get any kickbacks for mentioning this, but I have the REI Trail 40 pack which I’ve used for everything from a day pack to a flight carry on bag, and I also used it for this trip. I definitely pushed it past the weight limit on this trip, but overall, this is a great backpack with so many pockets, straps and carabiner loops for storage and easy access. 5 out of 5 stars, would recommend.

After hiking the first leg of our trip to Popple on the trail and being bombarded with mosquitoes, we came out to the cove where we’d eaten sandwiches and swum last summer. It was beautiful! Mosquito free! The breeze from the lake was great! We decided at this point to abandon the trail and hike the beach the rest of the way to camp. This added distance to the trip, but we decided it would be worth it to avoid the bugs.


This leg of the trip was pretty great — no bugs, beautiful views, refreshing breeze, beautiful flowers growing along the shore, etc. The northeast point of the island is off-limits because it’s a gull rookery, so after a brief break at the edge of the roped-off section, we cut inland, then back out to the beach on the north side. We ran out of beach eventually, and had to hike in the lake for maybe a half mile. The cold water on my aching feet was refreshing at first, but the novelty wore off fairly quickly, and trudging through knee-deep water with all my possessions on my back grew irritating after awhile. For at least part of this time, I muttered under my breath Let’s go off the trail, he said. It’ll be nice to hike along the beach, he said. It’ll be fun, he said.

We eventually ran into beach again, and went back to hiking along the shore. Since we were out on the lake and not on the inland trail, we weren’t sure when we’d make it to our campground. We judged the map based on the tried-and-true “I think that point that juts out there is probably this spot here,” and felt comforted by the fact that occasionally we’d run into other human footprints still going the same direction. Somewhere around that “shouldn’t we have run into it by now?” point in the hike, we came upon a sandy bluff that had footprints going up it. My adventure partner climbed to the top and had a look around while I waited on the beach. He came back and confirmed that the campground was at the top, so, up we went. There is no sign to indicate that this is the way to Popple Campground — but it would be great if there was one! It looks like this:

Popple Campground

So, if you’re ever hiking around the island that way, good luck differentiating that from any other sandy bluff.

We picked a campsite, set up shop, and after awhile of sitting in the tent to avoid the mosquitoes, we got our stove, water bottles, and some freeze-dried meals, and headed back down to the beach to boil water and cook dinner.

We stayed on the beach for the rest of the evening, watching the sunset over the lake. It was an incredible show. I took a lot of photos, and here’s one:


Before it was completely dark, we climbed back up to the campground and went to bed. We knew we had a long day of hiking ahead, but we had no idea how long it would really be.

In the morning, we packed up camp and went back to the beach to boil water and cook breakfast. I had a freeze-dried chicken fajita bowl, because I already had chili mac the night before.

After we ate, we started out on the day’s hike. The first leg was pretty great — only a minimal amount of working around fallen trees in the water, and mostly a pleasant beach hike.


We stopped for a break at the northwest point of the island. It was so amazing — in the way the word used to mean, before everything from socks to this one sandwich to lip gloss became amazing — to be on this incredibly beautiful beach, looking out at the clear turquoise water, and not have another human around except for us.


It was after rounding the northwest edge of the island that the hike grew more challenging. For one thing, the wind picked up, and while we weren’t dealing with gale forces or anything like that, every little bit counts in the balancing act between fun exertion and exhausting why-am-I-doing-this. At least when you’re me. Your mileage may vary.

The shore was also rocky, and just slightly at an incline, which isn’t bad for a short distance, but after a couple of miles, walking at an angle with the ground shifting underfoot with each step gets pretty old.

We decided to stop once we rounded the first bluff up ahead. This one.


Though hiking on stones got annoying after awhile, when we reached our spot for taking a break, the beach had turned back to mostly sand, and was pretty pleasant.


We weren’t sure when the last person had passed through there before us, but it looked like it had been awhile.


At that point, the wind was picking up, and the we noticed the lake getting choppier, but since we weren’t in boats, we didn’t concern ourselves, and we carried on. After eating some jerky and some almond butter (snack of champions!) we strapped our packs back on, and headed south.

Not too much longer after this, the wreck of the Francisco Morazan came into view. I’m not sure if I saw it or smelled it first. You know, fifty years of getting covered in bird shit and baking in the sun means that it is… pungent.


By the time the Morazan came into view, the beach had turned to loose stones again. I remember thinking to myself that it would really suck if I had to walk all the way around the island on such an unstable trail. And it was right around then that we rounded the last of the perched dunes, and nature was like, “Hold my beer.”

I don’t have any photos of this part of the hike, because I was more focused on not dying, but at this point of the hike, we pretty much ran out of shoreline. The beach was mostly washed out, and there were fallen trees jutting out into the water, and we had to climb around them. The rotting trees turned the water murky. When we hiked through the lake for awhile the day before, the water was crystal clear, so it was easy to see where I was putting my feet. Here, not so much. I would feel along for my next footstep on the slippery rocks, but I couldn’t see into the water at all. Stepping out into the lake meant taking my chances against rip currents, but it was either that or… I don’t know, exactly. When you’re at a spot where you can’t feasibly go back, you just have to keep trudging ahead.

Climbing around a single tree in the water took several exhausting minutes of clinging to whatever branches I could get a hold of, and feeling with my feet and sometimes my hiking poles. There was no point in looking down for a path, because there wasn’t one. I would take a step on faith, get hit by a wave, wait, take another step, and repeat, until I made it around. After making it around 10-12 trees, I sat down on the next one and cried because I was so tired and my legs felt like lead. I also turned and took a photo of what we’d just walked through, and it doesn’t do it justice, but I zoomed in and cropped it so it’s both not clearer at all and a little clearer that it wasn’t a pleasant afternoon beach hike.


I circled one of the trees we had to climb around.

So that was gross, anyway. 0 out of 5 stars, would not recommend.


After I told myself to stop being a crying little bitch, we got up and started working around the next tree. I’d almost made it, when a wave hit me directly in the back of the knees, and my legs buckled. I went straight down, knees on rocks (pleasant! feels good!) and then, I guess because my pack was so heavy and I was entirely out of energy, I went straight back. For what felt like several moments, but couldn’t possibly have been, I understood exactly what June bugs feel like when they wind up on their backs with their legs scrambling in the air, desperately trying to turn themselves over. My adventure partner fished me out of the lake. I watched one of my t-shirts float out into the water toward the shipwreck. I had folded and shoved it under my backpack strap to ease the strap cutting into my skin. “There goes my shirt,” I said. “Bye, shirt.”

I backed myself up against the bluff, unbuckled my pack, and sat down. He took his pack off and sat beside me. At that point, the Morazan was right in front of us, and according to the map, we should’ve been hitting a trail soon to head inland. I faced the fact that I needed a break longer than a few minutes of frustrated crying. My adventure partner agreed to go ahead a bit and scout for the trail while I took a break. He worked his way around the next tree, and then stopped. I could see him over the branches. “Is that the trail?” He said nothing, just looked at me and smiled that smile he gets when he doesn’t want to tell me something. “Wait here,” he said. I nodded and sat there with the backpacks.

I watched him disappear, and looked out at the water, then watched as it washed over my legs. There wasn’t much beach. I thought about what we’d do if there wasn’t a trail, or if there was a trail and he left me on the narrow strip of rocky beach, or if something happened to him how would I know, and how long should I wait and and and. Around the time I started getting nervous, he reappeared. “Did you find the trail?”

“Yep. You’re going to need to take a break before you try it.”

“Well, I took a break while I was waiting for you.”

“You’re going to need a longer break.”

“If it’s going to suck now, it’s going to suck after a break. I just want to get away from this damn water.”

“Okay,” he said. He put his backpack on and I reached for mine. “Leave it,” he said.

Too tired to argue, which is a rarity for me, I left it sitting on the narrow strip of beach. “How bad is it?”

“You’ll see.”

We climbed around the tree in the water and looked up. A narrow path wound its way up a tall bluff. “Oh,” I said.

He told me to get angry and fight my way up it, which seemed like a reasonable plan of attack. Since the path was nearly vertical, I decided to go with a rock climbing approach, and use my hands to pull and my feet to push me up the bluff. He walked upright behind me, sticking the hiking poles under my feet when I would pause for breath. This is what it means for someone to have your back.

About halfway up, he said “I have something to tell you when we get to the top.”

I turned and looked at him. “What is it?”

“Just wait until we get to the top.”

The path was not only nearly vertical, it was wet clay. I clawed my way up. Near the top, the path twisted and I couldn’t see the end. I made my way to the top, with him right behind. He took off his pack and set it on the ground. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to a sign. It was the thing he wanted to tell me. I walked to it and looked (this is his photo).



Anyway, this is what it looks like from the top. You will note that you can’t see the trail, because it is straight down.


And then he went back and got my backpack and climbed the hazardous bluff again because he is a better person than I am.

After he made it back up the hazardous bluff, we started hiking toward the Weather Station campground. This leg of the day’s hike was fairly unadventurous, except by this point, wow, each mile felt exceptionally long. We picked a campsite, set up our tent, and all my stuff was wet, including my sleeping mat, sleeping bag, and clothes, so my dream of taking off my wet clothes and putting on something warm and dry was dashed. Thanks, Lake Michigan, for kicking me in the back of the knees.

And also for, you know, kicking my ass in general.

Anyway, we ate jerky and almond butter for dinner, since nobody wanted to climb down to the beach and get water to boil, and then tried sleeping. I almost never zip myself into my sleeping bag when I’m camping, preferring instead to use it like a blanket. That night, it was damp and cold, but I used it anyway because the wind was howling and I was in damp clothes, and I thought it would be better than nothing (not sure if I was wrong about that or not). I shivered all night, and slept little.

In the morning, we packed up camp and hiked to the Ranger Station. We cooked food and I basked in the sun, happy to feel dry for the first time in more than a day. We took a side trip to the lighthouse, which was super cool (man, is it windy up there!) and then we walked back to the dock.



While waiting for the ferry, I casually asked one of the park rangers if anyone ever hiked the perimeter of the island. He made a face, then said “Not usually, the beach is washed out on the west side, so it’s not good for hiking.”

In my head I thought “No kidding,” but I just nodded and said “Okay, thanks.” Not sure why I didn’t tell him about our Hell Hike the day before, but I also kind of didn’t want to narc on myself, although I’m not sure what kind of trouble I thought I would get into.

The ferry ride back to the mainland was also an adventure, because of course it was — 15′ waves in places, and a genuine fear of capsizing — we all sat together on the lower level and sang “Sweet Caroline” to keep our minds off the roiling water slamming into the boat. And then the water calmed down and the rest of the trip back to the mainland was uneventful.

The end!