Shrouded in lore, the story of how the Manitou Islands earned their names dates back to a time when the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes inhabited what is now known as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in the “little finger” of Michigan’s Mitten. According to one legend, the Great Manitou spirit floated into the world on a raft that carried many animals. Appearing to the Native Americans as rafts floating in Lake Michigan, the Manitou Islands became manifestations of that vision.

A better-known story involves a mother bear and her two cubs forced to flee a raging forest fire in Wisconsin. In search of safety the bears swam towards Michigan. Once the mother bear reached land, she turned but did not see her cubs. Refusing to leave the shore, the mother bear lay down and fell into a deep sleep. While she slumbered, the Great Manitou took pity on the mother bear and raised the cubs from the depths of the lake so she could see them. Over time, wind and sand covered the mother bear’s body, shaping her into one of the largest moving sand dunes in the world.

Considered inhabited by evil spirits, Native Americans never settled on the islands (modern day theories speculate the tribes had plentiful food and resources on the mainland). First occupied primarily by European immigrant homesteaders in the early 1800s, South and North Manitou Islands were a source of lumber, fish and Michelite pea beans—80 percent of the peas consumed in America today are said to have descended from the navy bean cultivar first harvested on the Hutzler farm on South Manitou Island. With its deep-water harbor and safe protection for vessels traversing between the Erie Canal and Chicago, the Manitou Passage was once a wood-fueling stop for steamers making the arduous journey.

As time passed, the Manitou Islands offered recreation in the form of hunting parties and tourism. Halting progress in its path, so to speak, was a decision made by Congress in 1970 to envelop both islands and a 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline into the National Park system. Nearly 50 years later, reminders of island life are slowly, but surely, crumbling back into a place of pristine nature and natural beauty known as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Visitors to the Manitou Islands have two options to get there: private boat or passage on the Manitou Island Transit passenger ferry based out of Leland, a small fishing community and quaint tourist destination on the popular M-22 driving loop along the perimeter of the Leelanau Peninsula. Camping is allowed on both islands, but the only option for a day trip is South Manitou Island; for most of the season, the

ferry departs Leland at 10 a.m. and leaves the island at 4 p.m. (reservations are recommended in summer months). The 18-mile journey takes approximately 1.5 hours and returns passengers to the historic Fishtown district in time to browse the shops and enjoy a dinner at one of a handful of restaurants within walking distance.

On South Manitou Island, day-trippers have about four hours to explore the sights, such as climbing the 117 steps to the top of the 1871 South Manitou Island lighthouse, visiting the small museum and park visitor center, hiking to the perched dunes, or embarking on one of two wagon tours—the farm/schoolhouse loop through the center of the island or the cedar/shipwreck loop that hugs the southern shore. (Tickets for the guided wagon tours may be purchased from the crew once the passenger ferry is en route to the island.) The only modern restrooms and fresh drinking water are located behind the historic boathouse building. While snacks are available on the boat, it’s a good idea to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the island.

In warm weather, the calm and clear waters of the South Manitou harbor are perfect for swimming—many people wear their bathing suits under their clothing and towel off before the journey home. The Great Manitou has lined the shore with an unlimited supply of skipping stones for a laid-back way to spend island time on South Manitou.


Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, (231) 326-4700

A National Park Pass is required and may be purchased at the Manitou Island Transit office in Leland.

MANITOU ISLAND TRANSIT Passenger ferries run from May to early October; schedule varies with the season. Make reservations online or by phone., (231) 256-9061

Note: The return ferry leaves promptly from the island dock at 4 p.m.; be sure to ask a member of the boat crew for an expert opinion on whether your plans are realistic within the timeframe.

CAMPING Overnight camping is available on both North and South Manitou islands, with three designated campgrounds on the South Island and primitive camping on the North Island. There is a fee for camping. Everything must be packed in and out.

TRAVERSE CITY TOURISM, (800) 872-8377 or (231) 947-1120

This article originally appeared in the 2017 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


A freelance journalist born and raised in Kent County, Michigan, Julie Henning has been writing about travel for over a decade. She is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and runs the family-travel website