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South Manitou Island is part of an island chain that extends north to the Straits of Mackinac. The island consists of a ridge of tilted layers of limestone, buried under a blanket of glacial debris. Glaciers carved out the Lake Michigan basin. When the basin filled with water, the peaks of the ridge remained exposed as islands. During post-glacial times, winds blowing on the high, sandy bluffs on the west side of the island moved sand inland, forming perched dunes. The dunes are a fragile environment. Please stay on existing paths and avoid stepping on plants.
Tucked away on the southwest corner of the island is a grove of virgin white cedar trees. One of the fallen trees showed 528 growth rings, dating its existence to before Columbus.
The South Manitou Island Lighthouse is the most familiar landmark on the island and is clearly visible from the mainland. The 100 foot lighthouse tower, active from 1871 to 1958, marked the location of the only natural harbor between here and Chicago. Ships took refuge here during storms and steamers stopped at the island to refuel with wood for their boilers. The keeper’s quarters (building on the right) is connected by a covered passage. Be sure to get a tour when you are on the island and climb to the top for a spectacular view.
The Coast Guard Station
In 1901 the U.S. Life-Saving Service built a station on the island to assist ships in distress. The life-savers could row out in their surfboat or use a line-throwing gun and breeches buoy to rescue stranded sailors. A wreck from this era, the Three Brothers (1911), is located just off shore between the dock and the lighthouse. There is a sign describing the shipwreck along the trail to the lighthouse. In 1915 the U.S. Life-Saving Service became part of the U.S. Coast Guard.
After World War II, modern equipment ushered in a new era in life-saving. This was demonstrated on the cold, stormy night of November 29, 1960 when the Liberian freighter, Fransisco Morazan ran aground on the southwest shore of the island. Three Coast Guard cutters and a helicopter rescued the fifteen people on board. The battered wreck is still visible today. As a mark of the changing times, the station was permanently closed in 1958.
The Coast Guard Station now functions as the South Manitou Island Ranger Station and is not open to the public. It is a private residence and office.
The Manitou Passage State Underwater Preserve
This preserve was established in 1988 to conserve the historic and archeological value of over fifty known shipwreck sites, dating from 1835 to 1960. For more information about the preserve, contact a Park Ranger. These sites are protected by state and/or federal law.
Kerry Kelly 2005
Farming developed slowly on the island, but by 1870 most islanders were self-sufficient farmers. Surplus crops were sold to passing ships and mainland markets. The isolation of the island provided an ideal environment for growing prize-winning rye, beans and peas. Today, there are no active farms on the island, but farm buildings, abandoned machinery, the old school and cemetery are reminders of the past.
A motorized tour of South Manitou Island is available. Sign up with the Manitou Island Transit on your way to the island. The tour uses some of the old Dunesmobiles that were once used to ride the Sleeping Bear Dunes. You will be taken to the island cemetery, some of the farms, and the restored school house.
Planning Your Island Visit
A trip to South Manitou Island takes a little planning. The passenger ferry is operated by Manitou Island Transit (231-256-9061). You will want to call ahead for reservations and be sure to pack a lunch. Auto tours of the farming area are also available, so you can see more of the island than you can by hiking.
Fires are permitted in community fire rings only. Dead and down wood may be used. Cutting any standing vegetation, alive or dead, is prohibited. Fires are prohibited on the beaches.
Pets are not allowed on the island due to disturbance of visitors and wildlife.
Deposit all trash in receptacles located at the boathouse near the dock.
Water is available at the Village, Bay Campground, Weather Station Campground, and at the School House. Water is not available at Popple Campground. Please do not use pump areas for bathing or dishwashing.
For safety, hike with a companion and notify someone of your route and expected return time. Wear footgear that gives good support. Terrain varies from sandy beaches to gravel and boulder-surfaced slopes. Carry drinking water. Please stay on designated trails to avoid causing erosion and damage to plants. This is especially important in sensitive areas such as the old growth cedars, dunes and steep bluffs.
CAUTION: Hiking on steep bluffs is dangerous
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