6 Amazing Great Lakes Islands to Explore

The Great Lakes contain over 35,000 islands, and many of them are uninhabited. However, a select few draw sailors and visitors from all over North America during the brief summer tourist season. Here are six of our favorite islands on the Great Lakes.

Island-Hopping on the Great Lakes

Sailing on Saginaw Bay
Sailing on the Great Lakes

When you think of island- hopping, your mind turns to swaying palm trees, seaside tiki huts, and white-sand beaches. However, with over 35,000 islands, the salt and shark-free Great Lakes have some of the most inviting and unique chances for island exploring anywhere in the world. Some of these magnificent island destinations are only accessible by boat or floatplane, while others offer regularly scheduled ferry service. Here are five choice island destinations to explore.

Great Lakes Islands – #1 Apostle Islands

Apostle Islands - Great Lakes Islands

Apostle Islands Courtesy: National Park Service

This is a group of 22 islands in Lake Superior, with the largest being Madeline Island. All the islands except for Madeline are part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

The islands are internationally known for their beautiful sea caves that are created when Lake Superior freezes in the winter. Madeline Island is inhabited year-round but is only accessible by boat or plane. It is a camping and hiking paradise and has a golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones.

The Apostle Islands are a well-known sailing and cruising destination in the Great Lakes with many gunk-hole spots to anchor and explore.

Great Lakes Islands – #2 Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale - Great Lakes Islands
Moose on the Loose

This is Michigan’s only national park, located in northern Lake Superior. It is also the most remote national park in the lower 48! Considered the ideal destination for serious hikers and paddlers, it has established trails, rustic campsites, and shelters.

The two major embarkation points to an Isle Royale adventure are Rock Harbor on the northern end of the island and Windigo on the southern tip. The park has a lodge and cottages at Rock Harbor for those who want to experience the park without camping.

The park is considered the least-visited national park due to its remoteness. Ferry and seaplane service is available from Houghton and Copper Harbor Michigan as well as Grand Portage, Minnesota.

Original Cabins Can Still Be Seen on Isle Royale
If you hike or paddle around the north end of the island, you will see some of the last private cottages still allowed on the island. These have been passed down from generation to generation but are slowly being phased out. Some cabins and boathouses have been left to nature to slowly fade away.

Great Lakes Islands – #3 Beaver Island

Iron Ore Bay in southern Beaver Island - Great Lakes Islands
Iron Ore Bay in southern Beaver Island,

The largest island in Lake Michigan, this island has ferry service from Charlevoix so you can bring your car and tour its 55 square miles. Known for its beaches and hiking trails, its remoteness draws those looking for an adventure off the beaten path.

Beaver Island was, for a brief time, considered a kingdom of sorts for the Strangite Mormon Church in 1850. The “kingdom” ended in 1856 with the assassination of its leader—John Strang. Today, the island is a year-round tourist and vacationer’s destination. The island also has the nickname “America’s Emerald Isle,” as so many of its full-time residents are of Irish descent.

Great Lakes Islands – #4 Charity Island

Charity Island from Space - Great Lakes Islands
Charity Island as seen from Space in the Middle of Saginaw Bay Source: Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Big Charity Island sits in the middle of Saginaw Bay about halfway between Tawas and Caseville. An excellent fishing area, it was known as a resting spot for Native Americans crossing the bay and as a source for chert from which to make arrowheads.

A lighthouse guards the north shore and Explorer Charters offers visitors transport to the island from Caseville during the summer season. Visitors can tour the restored lighthouse and enjoy gourmet dining while watching the sunset over the bay.

Great Lakes Islands – #5 Drummond Island

Great Lakes Island Drummond - Great Lakes Islands

Area Near Drummond Island –Source: Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

This is the largest inland island in the United States, and at 249 square miles, there is a lot to do. It’s a true paradise for sportsmen and sailors.

For sailors, this island guards the famous cruising grounds of North Channel. De Tour Village is considered a must-do stop for provisions and fuel before venturing into the wilds of northern Lake Huron.

The biggest draw of this island is sport fishing. Charter captains can take you on the hunt for large lake trout and salmon. The other unique activity is exploring the numerous backwoods trails on ATVs.

Great Lakes Islands – #6 Manitou Islands

Sleeping Bear Dunes and Manitou Islands
Sleeping Bear Dunes and Manitou Islands

Located in northern Lake Michigan, North and South Manitou Island is part of an island chain that extends north to the Straits of Mackinaw. These islands are a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, with almost their entire area available for hiking, camping, and exploration. Outside the small village, the 15,000 acres of North Manitou Island is considered a wilderness area. The island is home to numerous species of hawks and eagles.

The Legend of the Sleeping Bear and Manitou Islands

Sleeping Bear Dunes and National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes and National Lakeshore

The two islands are associated with one of the most famous Native American myths in the northern Great Lakes. Long ago a great famine had spread over the land. Longingly, a mother bear and two famished cubs walked the shore on the Wisconsin side, gazing wistfully across the great lake toward Michigan, which in those days was the land of plenty.

Hunger overcame their timidness and the bears hurled into the lake out toward the Michigan side. As they got closer and closer to the Michigan shore, the mother bears encouragement urged on the weary cubs. When finally, within sight of the land of plenty, the mother’s heart broke when she saw one of the baby cubs sink and drown. With the remaining cub, she struggled to reach the shore. After two miles of slow wearisome swimming, the second of her beloved cubs also perished.

The mother bear finally reached the beach, alone, she crept to the top of a giant sand dune to watch for any sign of her cubs. As she gazed, two beautiful islands slowly rose to mark the watery graves of the cubs. Heartbroken and alone, the mother bear gave herself to the great spirit, wishing to join her cubs.

Seeing the lifeless mother bear without her cubs, The Great Spirit Manitou, who had created the two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared, turned to the Michigan shore and created a massive solitary dune to cover and forever symbolize the faithful mother bear. The North and South Manitou islands and massive Sleeping Bear sand dunes remain today as a remembrance of this fantastic story for all to enjoy.

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