Did you know South Manitou Island has bears? Micro-bears, that is. "Chipmunks" to the layperson. When camping on the island, treat these furry creatures like real bears. Hide your food, hide your wife, hide your kids. They’re watching and they will invade. On a camping trip a couple weeks back one brave micro-bear even jumped from a tree at my head. Don’t let the chipmunks scare you; camping on South Manitou is amazing. Here’s a few highlights and recommendations for your trip to the island.
South Manitou Island
South Manitou Island sits offshore in Lake Michigan, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, named "Most Beautiful Place in America" by ABC News in 2011. The island was carved out by glaciers, and is part of an island chain that extends north to the Straits of Mackinac. South Manitou’s ecosystem is largely unspoiled and unique.
According to Chippewa legend, a mother bear and her two cubs attempted to swim across Lake Michigan to escape a forest fire in Wisconsin. The mother bear made it to Michigan but her two cubs drown. The Sleeping Bear dune on the mainland is the eternally waiting mother bear, and North and South Manitou Islands are the cubs.
Getting to the Island
Unless you have your own boat and are willing to brave the choppy harbor, South Manitou Transit is the only way on or off the island. The website says the ride is an hour and a half, but if you have to stop at North Manitou first to drop off rustic campers, count on at least three hours. Pack your bags tightly for the rough, wet ride. And bring cash, snacks and drinks are available for purchase, including beer and cocktails.
Setting Up Camp
Visit the National Park Service website for details about reservations. I recommend reserving a group site, even if you’re party is only four campers. Group sites have added space and a private fire ring (available only on group sites), which makes the larger spot well worth the extra cost. Some campsites are near running water and an outhouse, others are not; plan accordingly, and pack light. The closest campsites are a mile hike from the dock, some are as many as five miles. Most of all, enjoy the views of Sleeping Bear and the sound of waves crashing just outside your tent.
Island Highlight: Shipwrecks, Old Growth Cedars, Apples
The water is crystal clear, tropical. Even if it’s cold, do yourself a favor and dive in. On the south side of the island visit the shipwreck, Francisco Morazan, and about two miles inland take a hike through the old growth white cedar forest. The trees are over 500-years old, and are as big around as redwoods. While you’re hiking the middle of island visit a few abandoned farms of the island’s former inhabitants and enjoy some amazing apples from their old orchards — delicious.
Recommendations and Words of Caution
- Bring water shoes. The lake shore can be wet and rocky.
- Camp early or late in the season. We hiked 15 miles in one day. Avoiding heat and bugs is essential.
- The western shore is VERY rocky. If you plan to hike the perimeter of the island, be prepared.
- Poison ivy is prehistorically large, and it’s everywhere. Stay on the trails.
- For truly rustic camping, check out North Manitou Island, if you dare.
- And, of course, hide your food and hygiene products — Micro-bears are watching.
Here’s a collection of photos to inspire your camping adventure. Enjoy.