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Manistique Lakes! Just the name is enough to evoke bouts of nostalgia in millions of past visitors. The lakes - North Manistique Lake at 1,722 acres, Big Manistique Lake at 10,130 acres, South Manistique Lake at 4,001 acres, Milakokia Lake at 1,956 acres, Lake Ann Louise at 311 acres, and Millecoquins Lake at 1,890 acres, along with a number of smaller lesser-known lakes in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan - have served several generations of Mid-westerners with a recreational paradise at both a reasonable distance and an affordable price. The lakes were gouged from the earth by the last glacier to recede from Michigan. Several are fed by small streams and wetlands around their margins. Others have no obvious inlets and are fed from underground springs. Most shorelines are sandy and shallow, providing great natural swimming beaches for children and adults alike. All types of water sports are enjoyed on the lakes: water skiing, jet skiing, pontooning, power-boating, sailing, wind surfing and paddling. Local resorts and service groups sponsor children's activities and learning activities.
None of the lakes are very deep; the deepest is North Manistique Lake which reaches about 50 ft. Most reach less than 30 feet with average depths much more shallow. All offer a mixture of fish that excite anglers, although certain lakes specialize in one species more than others. Here are found white sucker, walleye, bluegill or sunfish, rock bass, northern pike, largemouth bass, muskellunge, yellow perch and smallmouth bass. Most have public boat access. The State Dept. of Natural Resources monitors catches and conditions and regularly stocks the more desirable species. Nearby rivers, such as the well-known Two-Hearted River of Hemmingway fame and the Tahquamenon River, the basis of Longfellow's Hiawatha, provide brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout and steelhead trout, plus great smelt runs in the spring. There is no impromptu beach party that can compare with the hordes of 'smelt-dippers' who appear to don waders and several layers of sweaters only to wade into the creek mouths near the Great Lakes to dip the tiny smelt up by the bucketsful after dark. Many of these intrepid smelt-dippers will rent a cabin at Manistique Lakes awaiting the ideal water temperatures of 42-44 degrees, when the cry goes up from many a camp, "The smelt are running!" The resulting melee becomes a true Yooper beach bash, winter coats and all. Because smelt runs have become less prolific in recent years, the DNR has placed a two-bucket catch limit on the popular bite-sized fish in several areas until the numbers improve.
The town of Curtis, sitting at the south end of Big Manistique Lake, views itself as host to the many visitors that appear year-round. And, as any good host, it sets out to make sure guests have a great time. A number of festivals are a drawing card each year, with Oktoberfest, Art on The Lake, Curtis Winter Carnival and a spectacular Fourth of July celebration with what is billed 'the Biggest Little Town Parade in Michigan' and an extravaganza of fireworks over the lake at dusk. The town offers bait shops, banks, churches, gift shops, grocery stores, marinas, miniature golf, sporting goods and a variety of restaurants and pizza parlors. And Curtis lists over 30 resorts and small motels, along with hotels and private rental properties in the area open for business, most year-round.
Ice fishing, particularly for northern pike and yellow perch, draws many to the resorts for a mid-winter angling holiday. The Manistique Lakes area also serves as headquarters for ice skating, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Curtis Area Chamber of Commerce grooms and maintains 140 miles of snowmobile trails. They branch out in every direction and connect with the myriad of trails that total 2,500 miles in the State of Michigan Trail System. Most of the lakes hold at least one State Forest primitive campground, popular with backwoods hikers, cyclists and nature lovers. And the nearby Hiawatha National Forest is a treasure trove of campsites nestled beside small hidden lakes among a wealth of birds and wildlife.
Manistique Lakes is the perfect home-base for a week or two touring Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Real estate is available, often improved building lots with a well and possibly electrical service. Some form of transportation is necessary to reach the huge numbers of scenic, geologic and historic sites within an hour's drive of Manistique Lakes. Seney Wildlife Refuge is only a few miles to the west. A federally-owned refuge based on the remnants of the ancient Great Manistique Swamp, Seney Refuge protects 95,212 acres. Established in 1935 to provide habitat for migratory birds and resident wildlife, it is home to over 200 species of birds and a variety of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and invertebrates, including black bear, grey wolves and moose. To the north, the Lake Superior lakeshore beckons, with such breathtaking locations as Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum near Whitefish Point and a number of picturesque lighthouses, myriad hiking trails and seemingly endless forests dotted with lakes. Northeast of Manistique Lakes, Tahquamenon Falls State Park is the gateway to the largest waterfall east of the Mississippi, second only to Niagara Falls. A logging museum nearby provides restored logging camp buildings and artifacts, features that were a major factor in the UP's early development. Directly east of the lakes, the expanse of the eastern UP's swamps intersected by logging roads stretches clear to Detour Island and south along the rocky, dolomite boulder-strewn shores of Lake Huron. South of the Manistique Lakes, the old towns of Engadine and Naubinaway offer extended trail networks and views of Lake Michigan along US 2, the main highway, with plenty of public access and pull-offs for cars. The dunes on the north side of the highway offer great views of the big lake.
Farther west, the small city of Manistique offers a number of historic attractions, a boardwalk along the Lake Michigan beach and all services imaginable. Nearby, in Palms Book State Park, the Kitch-iti-Kipi spring attracts visitors who can observe the crystal-clear spring via a self-powered observation raft on a cable. Manistique also acts as the official entry city to historic Fayette State Park. This park, located near the tip of the Garden Peninsula, holds the preserved remains of the lime kilns and furnace that smelted pig iron from famed Jackson Iron Company ore until the 1880s. Equipped with its own harbor, the preserved town-site features not only the original furnaces but the town buildings and some of the homes of the workers who lived there. Improved facilities at the State Park portion make the historic site accessible by boat. Within the circle from Manistique Lakes, other attractions delight children and provide opportunities for nature viewing and photography, such as a 'bear ranch' which nurtures orphaned cubs, many small historical museums and abandoned logging camps and smelting facilities. And no trip to the UP is complete without at least one 'pasty' . . .a Cornish miner's meat and vegetable lunch pastry that the entire Upper Peninsula considers their 'national dish'. Purists actually have these mailed frozen to their homes across the United States for special events and endless arguments ensue over the chosen ingredients for the home-made variety. It seems some recipes are Cornish, but others are Finnish . . or maybe Welsh. The original UP settlers were a melting pot.
The history of the Upper Peninsula around Manistique Lakes is the history of Michigan itself. Long before the auto factories of Detroit fed the state's economy, the original destination of the European immigrants who settled Michigan came to the Upper Peninsula to work in the logging and mining industries. Many departed the train in St. Ignace and walked across many miles of wilderness looking for work as miners or loggers. Only after these industries gave out and the land proved poor for farming was the forest allowed to retake the pastures and second and third generations moved south. Many long-time Michigan families in the down-state areas have a history of family from the UP. And many originally started coming north to visit aging relatives at the old homestead. Later they sought their own space in the beautiful north woods of their childhood memories.
Up to 900,000 cars a year used to line up at Mackinac City to await their turn for the ferry across the Straits of Mackinac. Because the car ferries simply couldn't keep up with the crowds, the Mackinac bridge was built and opened in 1957. When they finally reached the other side, a large number of those visitors headed straight to the Manistique Lakes area 75 miles away to begin their annual week's vacation. Vacationing families could fish, swim, boat, and explore among the pine forests, counting white-tail deer that appeared at twilight to feed in the clearings. Some camped in the many rustic campgrounds, or rented a cottage for the week. Retired professionals and autoworkers alike from downstate built cabins along their own small piece of shoreline. Those who rented a cabin often returned to the same small resort year after year to the point that everyone knew which cabin would house the Smiths from Kalamazoo or the Johnsons from Toledo on any given week. From centrally-located Manistique Lakes, generations of Mid-westerners explored the Eastern UP from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron to Lake Superior, developing a sense of pride and wonder at the gifts Nature had provided. Not surprisingly, they still do. Won't you join them?
*Statistics reflect only Big Manistique Lake.
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