My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Les Cheneaux Islands


I am beginning to wonder if I do too much exploring online, and not enough on the ground trips. Given my current employment situation, I have to be content with putting together some future trips for when I can afford to take them. Michigan has so many great areas to explore, I know I will never make it to all of them.

One such area I want to spend more time in is the Les Cheneaux Islands, just east of the Mackinac Bridge, near Hessel and Cedarville Michigan. The Les Cheneaux Islands are a group of 36 small islands, some inhabited, along 12 miles of Lake Huron shoreline on the southeastern tip of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The name is French for “the Channels”, noting the many channels between the islands in the group.

I know a little about the islands, but have only been through Hessel and Cedarville a couple of times on my way to or from other areas and places. The area is quite busy during the summer months, as the islands and the sheltered bays around them draw large numbers of boaters to the area. The area is becoming very popular with kayakers as well, for the same reasons.

The motivation for starting to put this together came from a regular source, the Little Traverse Conservancy. They announced on their Facebook page that they are going to be having a work day at their Shelter Bay Preserve. They are going to dismantle an old cabin on the property, and remove it via pontoon boats. They included an aerial shot of the area that also showed a boat ramp nearby that is to be the gathering point for those who can make it to the work day.

Hmmm, a boat ramp on a sheltered bay near the Les Cheneaux, I need to check that out more for future reference!

One of the things that always holds me back as far as exploring new places, especially when the places are on one of the Great Lakes, is knowing where the access sites are before leaving home. There have been a few times when I headed off to some new destination, and wasted entire days looking for access sites, places to camp or motels as a place to stay, or even how to get to my final destination. On the other hand, I have discovered many great places by accident while looking for where I thought I was going in the first place. But, I have limited time these days, and let’s face it, I’m not as tough as I used to be either. In the old days, pulling off to the side of the road and curling up to catch a few hours sleep on the seat of one of my old pick up trucks was no big deal if I couldn’t find a place to stay the night. That idea doesn’t appeal to me anymore.

Back to the Les Cheneaux, by checking the map the LTC included in their Facebook post, I was able to locate the preserve and the boat ramp in both Google Earth and my GPS software, now I have a starting point to go by! I knew the LTC also has other preserves in the area, including several on the islands themselves. So checking their website, Little Traverse Conservancy, I was able to pinpoint their preserves on a map done with my GPS software.

Les Cheneaux Island area

You can click on the map for a larger view.

All but two of the blue dots on the map are LTC preserves or points of interest. One of the blue dots is the boat ramp, and one is a township park where the LTC purchased the land and then donated it to the township for the park. It has free parking and access to Lake Huron for kayakers right in Hessel.

When checking the area through Google Earth, I discovered that there is a campground near the boat ramp, and another just up the Forest Service Road that leads to the boat ramp.

Now I am getting somewhere! I know where there are a couple of campgrounds on the mainland to use as a base camp, two access sites to Lake Huron, and where the preserves are in the area.

The LTC doesn’t allow camping on their preserves, which I can understand, but they are great places for day hikes. I was surprised to learn that the LTC owns a great deal of Marquette Island, the largest in the Les Cheneaux chain. I could easily spend a day or two there hiking the preserves and taking photographs. The LTC also owns a good portion of Boot Island.

Then there is Government Island. This is from Hunt’s Guide to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula:

Picnicking and camping are available on this beautiful, uninhabited island, just off La Salle Island and an easy 4 1/2 miles straight out of Cedarville. Of all the 36 Les Cheneaux Islands, it’s the only public land, because a Coast Guard Station was here from 1874 to 1939. Today it’s part of the Hiawatha National Forest. The pilings from its dock are on the cleared site at the island’s northwest end. Today, says the U.S. Forest Service, “the island is being managed to preserve the natural wilderness condition favorable to plant and animal life.” Birch and conifers dominate the two-mile-long island. It’s been a popular day-trip destination for the area’s many boaters.

The shore in general is surprisingly rocky and steep, though small boats can be beached at two places. The first landing seen from a boat coming from Cedarville is readily apparent on the island’s east shore. After beaching the boat, walk up the hill into a meadow where you’ll see two small outhouses. The cleared campsites and some picnic tables are nearby. Each campsite has a picnic table and fire ring. A second landing at the island’s south side is also readily apparent. It too is near a picnic area. The view here looks out into the expanse of Lake Huron. Camping is permitted only on designated campsites. None are reservable. Campers are asked to follow the principles of leave-no-trace camping and leave the area as clean as it was when they arrived, or even cleaner. A sandy beach stretches along the west shore for a third of a mile.”

Of course, since it is managed by the Federal Government, I can’t find a link to it other than through third parties. But, there are enough of those, plus what I have learned through books and talking to people is that camping is allowed on Government Island.

Side note, as bad as the Michigan DNR’s website is to navigate in order to find information on camping, access sites, etc., it is a dream compared to any of the Federal sites.

Since the weather around the Straits of Mackinac can be, how should I say this, uncooperative?, I may not be able to get out on Lake Huron or to any of the islands for a day, maybe more, in spite of the fact that they are somewhat sheltered compared to the open water of the Great Lakes. I don’t want to get up there planning on paddling the islands on to find that a stiff southwest wind has Lake Huron too rough for me to venture out on, and nothing planned as a back up. That’s where the nature preserves on the mainland come in, they will be something to do if the weather doesn’t cooperate with paddling the islands.

So now I have a basic plan with a back up in case of bad weather. The basic plan, arrive at Shelter Bay in the early afternoon and set up camp at one of the two USFS campgrounds there. Then, put my kayak in at the boat ramp marked on the map and paddle to the LTC’s Shelter Bay Preserve and hike that, and return to the campground for the night. The next morning, I’ll load my kayak up and put in at Hessel and paddle to Government Island and set up camp there. That will be my base for day trips to the preserves on Marquette and Boot Islands, hiking the preserves there.

My back up plan is staying at the USFS campground, and hiking the LTC’s preserves on the mainland.

That’s a very good start, I will continue to research the area for more places to go, more things to see, and more photographs to take, but it isn’t a bad start for just a few hours of exploring. I am going to add some more detailed maps and more information on the LTC”s preserves, as well as anything else I find.

I will post this as a page to my Places to Explore page as well.

Oh, and I haven’t given up on my Lake Huron/Ocqueoc Falls trip, I know I haven’t done anything with it in a month, but, I am going to the Pigeon River Country for Labor Day weekend, and I’ll spend one day verifying some things I have found online already before I continue to build that page any further.

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4 responses

  1. Anonymous

    I’m reading this post from the comfort of a old but comfortable cabin right on Cedarville Bay. I’m up here to paddle a couple days with a buddy in the “off season” of October. This whole area is terrific for any paddler ability. The islands provide great protection from virtually any wind direction. The scenery is unique to Michigan, a cluster of small bays with many regal boathouses that dwarf the accompanying summer cottage. I can speak to camping on Government Island. There are two primo campsites, a smaller, more elevated location on the Southeast section. And a larger, easier to access site on the mid point of the eastern shore. Multiple groups could find enough space here. Beside paddling among the islands, weather permitting, head towards nearby Port Dolomite. Otherworldly water formations await an aware paddler. Be careful, large freighters also frequent the area. There is an outfitter in nearby Hessel to help support a trip to this area. Enjoy this beautiful part of Michigan.

    October 7, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    • Thank you very much for the first hand report! Unfortunately, many things have come up in my life which have prevented me from exploring the Les Cheneaux Islands as I had planned, but I still hope to make it in the next few years.

      October 8, 2014 at 1:12 am

  2. “The Les Cheneaux Islands are a group of 36 small islands, some inhabited, along 12 miles of Lake Huron shoreline on the southeastern tip of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan..”
    Well, nothing could be better than a trip like this.

    September 9, 2016 at 1:38 am

    • Thank you very much Cindy! Unfortunately, it will be a while before I’m able to spend any amount of time in the islands.

      September 9, 2016 at 7:39 am

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