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Gociety, meet Michigander Nick Meekhof. This farmer, writer, and lifelong adventurer spends his time exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State, finding hidden gems in unconventional places. Here, Nick lists just 16 of his favorite Michigan islands. Check out the current goals he lists on his Gociety profile and then be jealous.
Michigan is the Great Lakes State. The ‘Water-Winter Wonderland.’ 4 out of 5 Great Lakes prefer Michigan, and in Michigan, you’re never more than 6 miles from a lake. If you’re from here, these are familiar slogans; water’s in our culture and in our blood. We’ve all ridden bikes around Mackinac Island, spent a day on Detroit’s Belle Isle, and have aspirations of backpacking Isle Royale someday. So if you’re looking for any sort of aquatic adventure—be it sea kayaking beside cliffs, scuba diving for shipwrecks, or spending the night in an abandoned lighthouse—this is the place to be. Here are 16 adventure-ready islands in the Wolverine State that you’ve probably never heard of.
1. Harsens Island
Harsens Island has often been called the Venice of the Midwest. It’s located in the St. Clair Flats, the largest freshwater delta in the world. The St. Clair River empties out here through dozens of channels and marshy islands, creating a biome closer to the Mississippi Delta than to Michigan. From Harsens Island you can windsurf on Lake St. Clair, duck hunt on the neighboring islets, or get lost kayaking in a maze of towering phragmites, the grass that grows up to 10 feet tall over the entire island. Stock up for your trip at Harsens Island Brewery, located in nearby Marysville.
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2. Lime Island
Lime Island is Michigan’s newest state park, and it was made with overnight kayakers in mind. It’s not the easiest place to get to—requiring a choppy three-mile paddle across the St. Marys River, dodging freighters a la Frogger. But if you can make it out there, wilderness solitude awaits you. There are a couple rustic cabins you can rent, but beyond that, the island is luxuriously primitive. The Canadian border is just a stone’s throw away, so you can pass time watching 1,000-ft barges shipping iron ore from Duluth to Cleveland from the comfort of a waterfront campsite.
3. Big Charity Island
Without Saginaw Bay, Michigan wouldn’t be the Mitten, and without Big Charity Island, Saginaw Bay wouldn’t have one of its most well-hidden gems. It’s equidistant from both shores, approximately six miles to either Caseville or Au Gres. Charity Island dinner cruises operate out of both towns and take you to the island for a meal at the lighthouse, a tour of the island, and a smarmy ride back at sunset. Plus side: you may bring your own booze.
If you’re not so into the kitschy aspect of island life, take your own kayak out to Little Charity Island and enjoy the desert-island vibe all to yourself.
4. Heisterman Island
Heisterman is another island in Saginaw Bay, and a waterfowl-lover’s dream. There are actually several islands here, many of which connect to each other and the mainland in periods of low water, so the island distinction gets a little fuzzy at times. Like Harsens, it’s extremely marshy—great bird-watching if you’re a lover, great hunting if you’re a fighter. It’s one of the few places on the Sunrise Shore where you can watch the sun set over the water.
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5. Government Island
In the eastern Upper Peninsula, there is an archipelago of about 30 islands called the Les Cheneaux. The ‘Snows, are they are locally known, are spectacularly beautiful and diverse; some have jagged, cliff-like shorelines, others have sandy beaches. Some are covered in evergreens, while others are bald and pebbly. Most of them are privately owned and dotted with cottages now, but one island—Government—still remains federally preserved. It’s not a piece of cake finding coastal campsites that are both free and legal, which makes Government Island such a gem.
6. Summer Island
Doesn’t that name sound beguiling? Out of this entire list, Summer Island is perhaps the most remote. To get there, you must travel down to the southern tip of the UP’s Garden Peninsula, past ghost towns and abandoned harbors, and once out on the big lake, past several other islands of forgotten lore and lost repute. But make no mistake; there’s a lot of history on Summer Island. You can explore the remains of a Native American settlement, the abandoned shanties of fishermen, and the overgrown camps of loggers while you stake out the best possible site to bivouac. Set a course for Summer.
7. Round Island
There are just as many “Round Islands” as there are “Pine Rivers” in Michigan, so let me clarify. This is the one between Mackinac and Bois Blanc. The one you see as you’re driving over the Mackinac Bridge and don’t know the name of. The one that doesn’t have a town on it, or even cottages. The one you pass while you’re taking the ferry to Mackinac Island and wonder about.
Well, wonder no longer. Going to Round Island via Bois Blanc is the nautical equivalent of hiking Pikes Peak and then saying, “See that other mountain on the horizon? We might as well strike out for that one now that we’re this far.” Bois Blanc is already a seldom-visited island with plenty of wilderness to explore, but island-hopping over to Round will bring an entirely new level of adventure.
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8. Tubbs Island
Every summer, I plan a car-camping trip with my friends, and every year I am expected to one-up our previous campsite. Also, it must be within a two-hour drive of Grand Rapids. The first year, we camped on a lake in Newaygo along the North Country Trail. The second year, we camped along a bend in the White River.
Then I discovered Tubbs Island. Just north of Mecosta there’s an island connected to the shore by a low causeway that you can drive over. There’s a small, rustic campground perfect for car-camping. It was peak fall colors when I was here, so we spent a day kayaking along the West Branch Chippewa River, and another day exploring the chain of lakes surrounding Tubbs and Martiny Island. I’d be proud of myself, except I now have to find an even better spot for this summer.
9. Rabbit Island
There are neat things happening on Rabbit Island. The only development here is a remote haven for artists seeking solitude and inspiration through conservation-driven art. Now, you can sign up for 2-4 week residencies on the island to serve as stewards, isolated from humanity while you hone your craft, in a manner not completely unlike Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins. In 2013, filmmakers from Oregon visited the island to tell the story of its artists at Telluride’s Mountain Film Festival, which you can now watch on National Geographic Adventure’s website.
10. Sugar Island
For a landmass big enough to see from space, you’d think Sugar Island would be hard to miss, but then again, much of the far-eastern UP slips under the radar. At 50 sq. miles, Sugar Island is Michigan’s northeastern-most point, and there’s plenty to do there. The sea kayaking is beautiful, the hiking is superb, and miles of untrammeled shoreline wait for a passing sailor to beach it and spend the night. Behind you, a vast forest seldom traversed. Before you, the dark shores of Canada. Beneath you, a limestone-studded beach sprinkled with dune grass. Above you, the faint glow of the Northern Lights at the brink of visibility.
A greater campsite is hard to find.
11. Eaton Rapids
This Lansing bedroom community has the unique distinction of being located on an island in the Grand River, something few business districts are able to boast about. At a spot where Spring Brook joins a swollen Grand River curve, audacious city planners platted the downtown district on an island in 1837. As a result, citizens of Eaton Rapids have plenty of canoe launches, island parks, and what must be an immensely pleasing novelty: kayaking in a circle around your city. The City of Eaton Rapids is currently in the process of converting their dams back into navigable whitewater rapids, allowing future paddlers the opportunity to experience the city’s namesake to the fullest.
12. Turtle Island
Anyone interested in sea kayaking out to a storm-tossed, 1-acre island in Lake Erie and spending the night in an abandoned lighthouse? If you’re a sucker for novelty like I am, Turtle Island is for you.
When President Andrew Jackson heard about the Michigan-Ohio border dispute, his distaste for the 23-year-old Michigan governor led him to side with Ohio, thus angling the border northeast out of Toledo and giving Ohio about 100 extra square miles of Lake Erie. Unfortunately, in the hastily drawn new boundaries, the fate of one tiny little island was not taken into account. If you zoom in on Google maps as far as you can, you’ll notice that little Turtle Island is half in Michigan, and half in Ohio. In the age of GPS and sonar, the Turtle Island lighthouse has become long-since obsolete, and now sits in a state of decrepitude. I have yet to paddle out here, but it’s on my bucket list for next summer.
13. Pointe Mouillee
The Moo is one of the largest freshwater marsh restoration projects in the world. It’s no secret that Lake Erie was once the poster child for ecological disaster. But things are finally starting to move forward again in the Western Lake Erie Basin, and the islands of Pointe Mouillee are one project that conservationists can be proud of. I first heard about the Moo from a completely different source, Mountain Biking Michigan: The Best Trails in Southern Michigan. It’s remarkable that a place just minutes from Detroit’s rust belt relics is now a pristine wildlife sanctuary and a prime mountain biking destination, a trail system in which the Great Lake is never out of sight.
14. Waugoshance Island
At the northern tip of the Mitten lies a chain of islands known as Wilderness State Park. It is aptly named. On this remote peninsula only minutes from one of the world’s first International Dark Sky Parks, just one road cuts through the dense evergreen forests. Rustic camping and backpacking opportunities abound here, but the real treasures are found offshore. Depending on the year, there may be one island or many, but far-flung Waugoshance at the end is always accessible by watercraft only. When the water is clear, you can see shipwrecks at the bottom of the Mackinac Straits, making Wilderness State Park a worthy destination for scuba diving and sea kayaking alike.
15. Huron Islands
The jagged Huron Islands loom out of the Lake Superior mist like tombstones in a graveyard. In a sense, that’s exactly what they are, as they mark the final resting places of numerous freighters that failed to navigate these rocky isles off the coastal Huron Mountains. Should you brave the icy Superior waves, you’ll be rewarded with a deserted island paradise replete with sunken shipwrecks, sea caves, towering cliffs, and a strong sense of isolation.
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16. River islands
It would be unfair to conclude this tour of obscure Michigan islands without tipping the hat to our thousands of river islands. I can’t count how many islands I’ve stopped at on backcountry canoeing trips or afternoon paddles. Nearly every river big enough to paddle has islands, and all can be located with just a rudimentary understanding of Google maps. There’s nothing like the feeling of hauling your boat ashore on a vacant island, staking your flag into the mud (What? You don’t bring a flag on your adventures?), and claiming the discovery as your own for the next 24 hours. It’s difficult to recommend specific places when so few of them have names, but as a Grand Rapidian I can say that the Grand, Flat, Thornapple, and Rogue Rivers all have beautiful stretches with bivouackable islands.