Valley of the Giants - So. Manitou Island

South Manitou Island is found in Lake Michigan about 18 miles west of the Leelanau Peninsula. The island is under the authority of the Forest Service and is a favorite destination for people who like to backpack into a pristine environment and for a genuine rustic camping experience. The island is a favorite day trip for vacationers enjoying the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. There are several attractions on the island all of which can be visited via a 20-mile system of trails. Attractions include a lighthouse, unique sand dune formations, abandoned farms, old cemeteries, 3 campgrounds, and several shipwrecks. In the southwest corner of the island is a stand of old growth white cedars known as the Valley of the Giants. These towering trees were spared by the loggers operating here in the early 1900s. The largest cedar has a circumference in excess of 18 feet and the oldest cedars are more than 500 years old; perhaps the oldest on earth. While there is no overlook with a view of gigantic trees spreading across the valley, there is an excellent trail with boardwalks and benches. The trail makes it easy to get up close and spend some quiet time with these aged giants.


white cedars

Visiting the Valley of the Giants on a day trip requires a bit of planning. If you travel to the island by ferry for the day, you will have about 4 hours to explore. The hike to the cedars is about 3.5 miles making for a 7-mile round trip. Not only that, but you also have to pack in all the supplies you may need including food and water. There are no stores on the island and no supplies. Further, wheels are not allowed so it is backpacks for everyone. Going to the cedars you can walk along the old road or take the primitive trail through the forest. The forest trail starts near the lighthouse. It is unimproved but is an easy walk with only gentle elevation changes. The trail system is well marked with signs at trail junctions, but it is helpful to take a map along with you. Maps are free at the Ranger Station. We made the hike out to the valley in about an hour and a half which left time for exploring a bit. If on a day trip, the ferry will leave on time at 4 pm, so it is important to hustle back.

clay clifs

There is another option. Upon arrival you can pause for lunch and an orientation. Then take a wagon ride that includes visits to a couple of historic sites and informative talks along the way. The wagon ride is the only other way to get out there and operates on a strict schedule. Hikers must choose from among a few other attractions to use the hour or so left after the hike to the cedars and back. Some choose a lighthouse tour, some hike out to one of the cemeteries. One of the most unique features of the island topography is found on the west coast of the island. In the post glacial period, the basin formed by the receding glaciers filled with water and Lake Michigan was formed. The prevailing winds pushed sand from the high bluffs inland. This activity formed towering sand dunes known as perched dunes. In some places the dunes are up to 400 feet above the lake. When visiting the perched dunes be aware that this is a fragile ecosystem. It is recommended that hikers keep to the designated trail. We chose to take in the visitors’ center. The center includes several farming implements and buildings. The buildings contain artifacts and information about life for the farmers on the island and the Life Saving Station operated by the U.S Life Saving Service.
The alternative to a day trip on South Manitou Island is to go camping. This is not your ordinary camping trip and will require careful planning. There are 3 campgrounds. The one closest to the dock is over half a mile away. The most distant campground, the Popple Campground, is over 3 miles. There is no transfer service from the dock to the campgrounds and no wheels are allowed. That means you must pack everything to your campsite, everything. So, if you are going for several days, you will have to make a couple round trips to move all your supplies. It is strongly recommended that food be packed in hard containers to thwart the mini bears as the voracious population of chipmunks is known. The Popple Campground is notable for another reason, no fires are allowed there, so no morning coffee for you.
One final note about that “no wheels allowed” policy. It can make for a difficult time for fishermen. There is a fine inland lake on the island, Florence Lake. Boats without motors are allowed on the lake but wheeled vehicles may not be used to transport those boats. You have to carry them in and the boat must be decontaminated by the rangers. Decontamination is required for kayaks, tubes, rafts and waders. Also, only artificial lures are allowed in Florence Lake.

Some visitors make their way to the island on private water craft, but for most people the best option is the ferry service operated by the Manitou Island Transit Company. They are in the town of Leland on the Leelanau Peninsula. The ferry ride lasts about an hour and a half and offers views of Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Clay Cliffs and North Manitou Island. The ferry company does an excellent job and runs things on time. About the only thing they don’t have under control is the weather and the weather is everything. While rain won’t necessarily prevent the trip, wind can be a spoiler. The ferry has plenty of room for 114 passengers and all their gear. To make the crossing more fun, drinks are available on board.

If you are wondering about the name of the island, there is a Native American legend that tells the story. The word manitou, translates as spirit. The story tells of fighting and strife between two tribes, one from the upper peninsula and another from the lower peninsula. It seems that during a long running feud, the upper peninsula tribe attacked the lower peninsula tribe killing all but seven warriors. After the battle, the victorious tribe made their way to the islands. The seven warriors of the defeated tribe followed and under cover of darkness crept into the camp of the upper peninsula tribe and killed nearly all of them. They slipped away undetected by the survivors and returned to the mainland. The deaths were blamed on spirits and after that, Indians avoided the islands.