South Manitou Island

On my northeast-bound trip to Lake Huron’s North Channel this year I got to make a stop at South Manitou Island. South Manitou makes a good stopping point for a bunch of reasons, especially since it’s a large enough anchorage that I feel comfortable arriving there after dark, if needed. The sandy bottom also has good holding. There’s plenty of hiking ashore to be had, too, which gives skipper and crew a break from being on the boat for a few days.  It’s also very close to the most direct route from southern Lake Michigan out to the Mackinac Straits… and Lake Huron, where I was ultimately going.

With a forecast of south winds around 20 knots, I weighed anchor from Portage Lake (another intermediate stop) and set sail for the 42 mile trip. Based on the forecast I figured I’d be dead downwind in decent size waves most of the time, so I set up the whisker pole for the jib and the preventer system for the main. Initial progress was good as I averaged over 7 knots for the first half while sailing wing on wing. When a pair gusty thunderstorms rolled over me I furled the jib to be conservative and not break anything.

The strong south winds increased after the storms moved through to around 25 or so. With a full main and most of the jib still out on the whisker pole on the opposite side, Priorities surged from 6 knots on the backside of the waves to over 10 knots on the front of the waves! The autopilot did a great job, and we made great time.

Low clouds enshrouded the top of the island as we approached, giving it a mystical look. The rusting hulk of a freighter that sank over 50 years ago was visible just off the beach, getting further pounded by the day’s south wind and waves. A jibe of the main just past South Manitou Light brought us west into South Manitou Harbor, and the water flattened and winds diminished as we sailed into the lee of Sandy Point.

Chart of South Manitou Harbor
The 14-22 foot shelf in the WNW corner of the habor is good for anchoring

At first glance of the chart, South Manitou Harbor appears way too deep for pleasure boats to anchor in, since most of it is 80-140 feet deep. However, there is a little shelf of 15-25 foot depths in the WNW corner that is actually big enough for over a dozen boats. I’ve anchored here probably 10 times, and holding has always been excellent in sand. Protection is good from most directions except east through southeast, and even then it’s only about 5 miles of fetch to the mainland. Depths of over 10 feet can be found deceptively close to shore, as well… probably within a boat length.



Sign of Chicago Road
The east end of Chicago Road (now a footpath) is on the beach by the anchorage

This anchorage is at the end of what is known on the island as Chicago Road. Now merely a hiking trail, it was once used to transport wood that ships would use to refuel here. It’s marked with a sign, visible from the anchorage. There was once a wharf here that is now ruins, so don’t anchor too close to the sign. The sign usually has hiking trail maps in it, as well.

The next morning revealed a very clear sky and warm weather. Seeking some exercise, I rowed ashore rather than attach the motor to the dinghy.


Once ashore, I walked a mile to the ranger station in the “Village” near Sandy Point. South Manitou Island is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, so it’s basically a park. Entrance fees are normally paid in Leland, but that was impractical for me coming from the south. A discussion with a ranger got me a mail-in form that I could pay the fee with later (and yeah, I actually plan on doing that!).

I then set out to hike the island, especially the dunes on the west shore.

Hiking a mud and gravel trail about three miles to the west leads to a smaller trail to an overlook of the wreck of the Francisco Morazan. The Morazan was a 246 foot freighter that sank in November of 1960. Much of the hulk is still above the water, and definitely visible from shore.

The wreck of the Morazan is visible from shore
The Francisco Morazan was a 246 foot freighter that sank in November of 1960

After a lunch break, I set out for my ultimate goal of the day: hiking to the top of the dunes. It’s a somewhat strenuous hike. After three miles slightly uphill to the shipwreck overlook, the trail becomes a steeper climb (in sand) to something like another 200 feet in elevation to the highest point on the island.  The view, and scenery, is pretty awesome, though, with the highest point of the island at something like 420 feet above Lake Michigan.


Climbing the back of the dunes just about treetop level, looking east


Looking east from near the top of the dunes. Note the hikers on the trail I had just been on.


Still looking east, South Manitou Harbor and Gull Point is just visible past the treetops, then North Manitou Island, then the mainland Leelanau Peninsula in the far distance.
The top of the dunes


Lots of unmarked trails run over various parts of the top of the dunes
The dune grasses left some interesting marks in the sand


I wonder how old these tree trunks are


A view from the edge of the dune, looking southwest. It’s a steep drop off of around 300+ feet to the water.


Returning the four miles or so to the “Village” area, I got a lighthouse tour from a volunteer ranger. The current lighthouse (the third here) was built in 1871 and decommissioned a while ago, and appears on the chart as “Abandoned,” but it’s in decent shape and worth the climb. The lamp was once whale oil, then kerosene, but now a simple small electric light bulb that probably isn’t over 100 watts. Combined with the magnifying power of the fresnel lens that is still in place, I’ve personally seen it over 15 miles away.

No longer in service as an aid to navigation, tours are available in the South Manitou Light


Off limits to the public, the old lighthouse home has some serious decay


A view of South Manitou Harbor. Several boats are barely visible on the far side of the harbor where it’s more practical to anchor.


A tiny electric lightbulb, when combined with the fresnel lens, is visible over 15 miles away


In all, I spent an entire day exploring South Manitou. My GPS-enabled FitBit recorded over 13 miles of hiking, over 30,000 steps, 281 active minutes of exercise, and quite a bit of elevation change (71 floors). I was tired, but the exercise felt good after being on a sailboat for a few days.

Visitors to the island can arrive via private boat, or via a twice daily ferry service from Leland, Michigan. Hiking all the way to the dunes is a lot to do in a day trip if using the ferry. The ferry is very weather dependent as well due to the island’s remote location. It didn’t run at all on the beautiful day that I was there, which seemed strange to everyone I talked to. There are plenty of rustic campsites on the island.

More information about South Manitou Island can be found on the National Park Service website.

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