» wilderness
North Manitou Island offers the unique opportunity to get away from the crowds of the mainland and feel as though you have miles of pristine beach all to yourself. You'll have to put in some effort to get there though, the boat ride over takes at least 1 hour in good weather and it generally runs no more frequently than once per day. Furthermore, after you get on the island your only mode of transportation is your feet and your only food and shelter is what you carry on your back (actually, there are old abandoned orchards on the island so at some times of the year you can find apples, peaches, cherries, and blackberries).

After we got off the boat and listened to the ranger talk, we headed off along the beach to the north. No one followed us. This was fine, good even, it didn't make much sense to me to hike the trails through the woods, like most people do, where you couldn't even tell you were on an island (although you can see various ruins from past inhabitants). However, the beaches are not all sand, many places are rocky and uneven so I soon realized that my decision to wear Keen hiking sandals was not a good one. Little rocks and sand got under my feet constantly and the sliding of my feet inside the sandals rubbed the skin off in many places, all further worsened by the 50 pound pack I was carrying. Soon my feet looked and felt like they had been attacked by a rabid spider monkey, and even as I write this I am left with two black toenails and several scabs. So, if you intend to hike the beaches for any considerable distance: wear hiking boots or bring a defense against the spider monkeys.

As we rounded the northwest corner of the island we ran into the only people we would come into contact with outside the village area. They were camping in some trees near the beach and filtering water from Lake Michigan. Not far after this, the bluffs got much bigger, the beaches got sandier, South Manitou Island became visible to the southwest, and there were constant 1-2 foot waves. At the south end of the bluffs there was a use trail going straight up the slope from the beach and soon after starting the 300 foot climb, I realized that we would not be climbing any bluffs to camp due to the amount of effort it would take to get to the top (even without my pack). I wandered around above the bluffs for a little bit, trying to get a view east from the island's high point, but there was a line of trees blocking the view. Megan was down below taking a swim and soon I headed down the bluffs to join her. Prior to this experience I had kind of laughed at the NPS warning that hiking on the bluffs "can be dangerous" but these bluffs were very steep and prone to erosion. There was one spot where a huge section had caved in and slid down to the beach. Anyway, I had no desire to climb any more bluffs for the rest of our time there.

The water was the perfect temperature, warm with a slight enough chill to make it refreshing. We swam in our underwear since we had no swimsuits and there was no one around for miles anyway. Now we had to find a place to camp. When we hiked to the south end of the bluffs we saw some people swimming in the lake in the far distance and we were pretty sure there was no one to the north so we hiked back in that direction (I was going for total isolation). The only problem with this is that the bluffs go on for miles and you aren't supposed to camp within 300 feet of the Lake. There was a sandy point near the northwest corner that I thought would be large enough but upon rough measurement, it was only 150 feet wide. At this point we had hiked 10 miles, my feet were killing me, and we were pretty sure that there was no one around for miles so we just decided to camp there. There are many good reasons for the 300 foot rule. For instance, they want everyone to be able to enjoy the natural beauty of the beaches and not have them look like junky trailer parks with people's camping gear all strewn about. Not to mention the fact that if people camped on the beach regularly they would probably kill all the vegetation and leave waste around. Apparently people had not been burying their waste in general and the rangers were understandably very upset that they had been having to clean it up. Anyway, I regret that we broke the rules and if I were to go back I would not plan on camping on the northwest corner. I'm not sure what the penalty for camping illegally is, but the park rangers do carry guns.

So we setup our tent, swam a bit more, filtered some water (Lake Michigan is flavorless btw) and then sat on the beach to watch the sunset. A storm was coming in so the clouds were interesting to watch. Also occurring on this night was the Perseid meteor shower. The ranger said it had given them a great show the night before and although it was a bit more cloudy now, the Milky Way, Mars, and many many stars were still visible. We saw a few meteors but they were just brief flashes like typical "shooting stars". We slept with the rain fly off the tent so we could look at the stars as we fell asleep. It took forever for me to fall asleep and when I did, Megan woke me up saying she felt sprinkles. There was a lightning storm in the distance so I got up and put the fly on the tent and soon the rain was coming down hard. It was kind of freaky to be in a little tent with lightning flashing all around as the wind and rain pattered away. Luckily the wind never got too bad because we were in a vulnerable spot with no place to flee to. According to the ranger, this was the first rain they had gotten in 2 months.

When we awoke the next morning at 8am the rain had stopped but we could see rainstorms in the distance to the west and we weren't sure if we should tear down quickly and get everything packed up or just wait it out in the tent. As the storms moved we could see that they were going just south of us so we packed up and started the hike back. We had to be back to the east side of the island by 10:30am to make sure we wouldn't miss the boat.

We hiked south along the beach to the area near Swenson's barn where you can finally reasonably climb up the bluffs and get off the beach and onto the trail. The clouds were very dynamic and we could see rain and lightning bolts hitting the other end of the island and South Manitou Island. I had brought a GPS which was helpful, but not necessary, for picking up the trail again. So, from here on it was just hiking through woods to the other side of the island. This is when I thought we would see more people, but we didn't. The ranger said there were 150 people on the island but outside of the village area you would never know it. Also, outside the village we never really noticed any biting flies. The beaches, and even forests, seemed bug free. Perhaps because they had not gotten any rain for two months prior.

In total, we hiked about 18 miles. The boat ride back was hot, crowded, and wavy. The storms had kicked up some good waves on Lake Michigan which smacked the boat around a bit.

Left: Megan hiking along the northen bluffs. Right: Rocks submerged in the clear waters of Lake Michigan.

Looking north, above Lake Michigan.

Views from the north side. The water is always very clear but I should note that the aesthetics of many of the beaches was lessened by algae that had been washed ashore.


More views from the north side.

Ponds on a northeastern beach.

The northwest bluffs. Top right is the highest point on the island at 1001 feet, 420 feet above Lake Michigan.

Megan heading for a swim under the bluffs.

Lone beach plant (Photo by Megan). Unfortunately, Megan's camera battery died early on so you won't see much from her.

Northwestern bluffs.

Left: Me in the lake (Photo by Megan). Right: Megan swimming, the water was perfect and the waves were nice.

We swam in our underwear and since there was no one around, we hiked in it too.

The bluffs from the water (swimming).

I hope no one from Hollywood sees this shot, it may give them another idea for a movie: "Snakes on a Beach".

Left: Our tent. Right: Lake Michigan.

Interesting clouds at sunset.

Left: A gull hunting along the shore. Right: Remnants of a meal.

Left: Me hiking (Photo by Megan). Right: Sunset.

Note: This campsite is technically illegal, it is only 150 feet from the water instead of the required 300 feet. I wouldn't recommend camping on the northwest corner like we did, it is very very hard to find a spot (climbing the bluffs is not a rational option).

Night. There were, of course, many more stars in person.




Distant rain.

Storm hitting the south side of the island.

Looking east from Big Field.

Looks kind of like a tornado but it's just a rainstorm.

Dune grass and wildflowers.

Cloud line. There was lots of lightning but I have no idea how to photograph that.

In the vacinity of the Crescent dock ruins.

Left: Storms hitting South Manitou Island. Right: Beach rocks.

Megan hiking.

Old buildings.

Emerald shallows.

Distant sailboat.

The former U.S. Life Saving Station, now the ranger's barracks.

The beach in the morning, with distant storms.


< Back to Photos & Trip Reports

» all photo reports from lower michigan
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