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Little-Known Fact: Glen Haven and the Manitou Islands once supplied fuel for wood-burning ships that sailed the Great Lakes in the mid- and late 1800s.
It was easy to follow the tracks in the moist, rippled sand. The trail entered the rolling dunes from a grove of jack pines, skirted a brush-choked swale, and ended at the pounding surf of Lake Michigan a half-mile away. From my place behind a clump of beach grass, I watched as seven white tail deer took turns drinking in the fading dusk of early spring.
This was the first evening of my three-day backpack through Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I had expected to see deer in the forests and cedar swamps that surround the dunes, but was surprised to find an abundance of well-worn paths leading through the hills of blowing sand.
Under cover of dusk, the animals melted into an eerie “ghost forest” of bleached cottonwood skeletons half-smothered by the unstable dunes. It was also time for me to leave. Tucked away in the woods, at the edge of one of America’s biggest sandpiles, was my camp for the night.
My trip had begun that morning. I left from Good Harbor Bay, at the eastern end of the national lakeshore, and covered about 10 miles to a campsite near Sleeping Bear Point. During the next two days I planned to hike another 20 miles along Lake Michigan to reach Platte River Point at the other end of the park. Except for some small parcels of private property, the entire stretch is managed by the National Park Service.
The mainland section of the national lakeshore comprises approximately two-thirds of the park’s 71,134 acres. The Manitou Islands comprise the remaining area.
The lakeshore’s name is handed down from a Chippewa Indian legend. As the story goes, long ago, in the land that is today Wisconsin, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. They swam and swam, but soon the cubs tired and lagged far behind. Mother bear finally reached the opposite shore and climbed to the top of a bluff to watch and wait for her offspring. But the cubs drowned. Today “Sleeping Bear,” a solitary dune, marks the spot where the mother bear waited. Her hapless cubs are said to be the Manitou Islands. Today scientists chalk the geology of the area up to the not-nearly-as-poetic forces of ice, wind, and water.
The national lakeshore consists of much more than plateaus of sand, however. There are verdant beech-maple forests, clear lakes, miles of white beach and clear streams.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Empire, MI 49630
The park lies at the base of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, 25 miles west of Trevor City.
Follow M 72 west 25 miles from Trevor City to Empire. (Several all-weather highways approach the park.) North and South Manitou Islands are accessible only by ferry service ($18 round trip for adults; $13 for children under 12) from May to November, weather permitting. Reservations for ferry service are needed; call 616/256-9061 May through October or off-season, 616/271-4217.
For area information, contact:
Glen Lake Chamber of Commerce
Glen Arbor, MI 49636
Benzie County Chamber of Commerce
Beulah, MI 49617
Leelanau Chamber of Commerce
Leland, MI 49654
The Manitou Islands are managed as isolated, seasonal use areas, where hiking is the primary means of travel. But the mainland is suitable for use year-round.
~ Visitation is highest in July and August.
~ In winter, there are 25 miles of marked trails available for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking. Sufficient snow cover for skiing usually exists from late December through mid-March.
~ Summers are cool (temperatures in the 70s in the day and 50s at night) and winters mild (reaching only as low as zero, although wind can make temperatures feel cooler and there is a good chance of snowfall ~ especially in January) along the lakeshore than in nearby inland areas because of Lake Michigan’s moderating influence.
Within this varied ecosystem lives a diverse population of animals. More than 220 species of birds can be seen here ~ including the endangered piping plover on North Manitou Island.
And, in addition to deer, there are foxes, squirrels, snowshoe hares, porcupines, and the secretive bobcat. On South Manitou Island, you might also see beavers, masked shrews, chipmunks, deermice, and four species of bats. Raccoons are quite the scavengers.
Fishing fervor peaks in the fall, when coho and king salmon, sport fish introduced from the Pacific, return to the Platte River to spawn.
Mosquitoes are common in summer.
Beachgrass and sand cherry are among the first plants to grow on newly built dunes. They play an important role in dune development by acting as obstacles that slow sand-laden wind and force it to drop its load. Their roots hold sand in place and stabilize dunes.
Vegetation also features forests of jack pines, cottonwood, and beech-maple.
And a grove of huge white cedar trees highlights the southwest corner of South Manitou Island. The North American champion white cedar is located in the grove. It measures 5.3 meters (17.6 feet) in circumference and stands more than 27 meters (90 feet) tall. One of the fallen trees showed 528 growth rings, dating its existence to before Columbus.
Backcountry camping is allowed in designated areas on the mainland and on South Manitou Island.
On the mainland, these sites are White Pine and Valley View campgrounds. There is no water at either area. Pets and bicycles are prohibited, and fires are allowed in fire rings only.
Three primitive campgrounds are located on South Manitou Island. Reservations are required for groups of 8-20 people per site.
There are two car campgrounds and two hike-in campgrounds on the mainland and there are three hike-in campgrounds on South Manitou Island. Sites with water, flush toilets, showers, and hook-ups are available. Fees, ranging from $8 to $17, are charged at Platte River and D.H. Day campgrounds on the mainland. Group sites are also available and run about $20 for groups of up to 10.
Wilderness camping regulations apply on North Manitou Island. The only pottable water on North Manitou is available at the ranger station.
Contact park office for information.
ree permits are required for the backcountry; they are available at the visitor center, ranger stations, and on the islands.
- No fires are allowed on North Manitou Island, so bring a stove.
- No pets are permitted on the islands.
- Campfires are permitted only in campgrounds and picnic area fireplaces. Beach fires are restricted to bare beach sand between the water and the first dune and are not permitted on the Manitou Islands.
- Do not collect ghost forest or other wood on the dunes.
- You may pick mushrooms and fruit for personal use.
- Bicycles are not permitted off roads.
- Travel on North Manitou Island is by foot only.
- Sand dunes, like snow drifts, can be unstable. Landslides sometimes occur, so do not dig in sand at the base of a dune, dig holes deep enough to bury someone, descend steep slopes where rocks or sand could dislodge and injure someone, or cross steep snow-covered dunes.
- Wear shoes to protect your feet.
- Various hunting seasons span the entire year. Wear bright clothing when hiking or skiing. Firearm deer hunting season in November 15-30.
- Watch for poison ivy.
- Do not enter abandoned buildings.
Leave No Trace:
- Although fires are allowed on South Manitou, stoves are encouraged.
- Stay on designated trails to prevent erosion and damage to vegetation.
- Respect private property.
All LNT guidelines apply.
Maps are available from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A good guidebook is “Exploring Lake Michigan Islands”
Other Trip Options:
- The entire Michigan Lake area provides opportunities for recreational activities such as scuba diving and fishing. Charter operators from Traverse City offer scuba-diving trips to shipwrecks of Manitou Passage State Underwater Preserve.
- And the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive offers brilliant views.