Sunday, August 29, 2010

Island Getaways Outside Michigan's Traverse City

Traverse City and surrounding areas are one of Michigan's top travel destinations.

Check out the islands- it looks tropical doesn't it?

Of course I would hate to see what this looks like in the middle of an icy gray winter.

Photo Credit: Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau

Seen from the northwest, Power Island and its tiny neighbor, Bassett Island, lie in the clear waters of West Grand Traverse Bay, beside the narrow Old Mission Peninsula.
The islands are only nine miles north of the resort community of Traverse City.


TRAVERSE CITY, MI – At least once a year, Jane Conway drives up the narrow Old Mission Peninsula, launches her kayak, and paddles two and a half miles across Bowers Harbor to the tree-covered dome of Power Island.

“It’s one of my little rituals, I suppose,” says the 27-year-old Ohio woman. “This is a place I just keep coming back to. Sometimes I bring a friend, but mostly it’s my special getting-away-from-it-all place. My own little island.”

A lot of people feel that way about Power Island (or Marion Island, as the locals still stubbornly insist on calling it). A 204-acre preserve of forests, wetlands, bluffs and beaches on West Grand Traverse Bay, its only human residents are the county park ranger and his family who stay in the summers to keep an eye on things. But for boaters and paddlers, it’s one of the most popular destinations on the bay – thanks to its sheltered location at the mouth of Bowers Harbor.

On summer weekends, in particular, the island’s tiny harbor is filled with boats and frolicking boaters who congregate around the dock and swimming beach, or cluster in the shallows off its southern edge to enjoy the limpid Caribbean-clear waters and picnic on the tree-shaded beaches.

But solitary souls like Jane Conway can find tranquility on the island even on the busiest days, since 90 percent of its visitors never venture more than a few yards from the water’s edge. The interior of the island is a treat for hikers: miles of well-maintained trails lead through the dense beech-maple forest (home to fox, bobcats and a diverse population of songbirds) to a high ridge known as the Eagle’s Nest and along the wild western shore with its steep bluffs and rocky shoals.

To the north, there’s even another, smaller island: little 2-acre Bassett Island, which in low-water periods is linked to its larger neighbor by a causeway of sand, gravel and boulders. Here, the Grand Traverse County parks department maintains a small five-site rustic campground. (Camping costs $15 per night, and reservations must be made ahead of time by calling (231) 922-4818.) It’s a strange experience to camp out on a “desert island” so close to the mainland that you can watch the lights of the homes and restaurants that line the opposite shore.

What’s equally strange is that in spite of its closeness to some of the most sought-after real estate in the Traverse City area, Power Island has never been seriously considered for development or settlement. It passed through several owners – including auto pioneer Henry Ford, who sometimes camped there with his pals Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone – but aside from a brief logging attempt in the 1940s, it has always been left largely in its natural state.

Bassett Island’s career was slightly different. For years it was known as Haunted Island because of a tale (probably apocryphal) that it was inhabited by the ghost of an Indian girl who had been marooned there for some breach of tribal etiquette. In the late 19th century it was purchased by a Civil War veteran named Dick Bassett, who built a small cabin, raised his own food, and was considered a mysterious hermit. In 1901 a steamship company bought the island and erected a two-story dance pavilion that was a major attraction for excursion boats until the early 1930s.

During most of the intervening years, the two islands have been accessible only to boat owners. More recently, though, a new breed of excursion operators are bringing casual visitors out for tours in sea kayaks. One operator, Uncommon Adventures, has designed a “Water-to-Wine Day Tour” that pairs a paddling trip to Power Island with a gourmet picnic and a tasting tour of several nearby Old Mission wineries. A more laid-back approach is favored by Bowers Harbor residents Mary Man­ner and Susan Tar­c­zon, whose kayak livery, PaddleAway Tours, specializes in low-stress paddling excursions geared toward novice paddlers.

Kayakers who prefer to keep their own schedules can bring their own boats or rent them from any number of local liveries in and around Traverse City, such as McLain’s Cycle & Fitness.


The best jumping-off spot for a trip to the islands is at the public boat launch in Bowers Harbor, just off Peninsula Drive on Neahtawanta Road. Thanks to its sheltered location, the crossing is an easy one in most weather – but it can be tricky on a windy day, especially when the wind is out of the south. For novices, the best route is to cross the harbor to Neahtawanta Point and make the relatively short open-water crossing to Bassett Island.

For more information about islands, parks and other special places in the Traverse City area, and for a comprehensive listing of nearby restaurants, accommodations and attractions, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-TRAVERSE or on line at


Laurie Green said...

Loved this post. A bit of nostalgia for me. I grew up in this general area, and made many trips to TC. It had the only commercial airport at that time and was one of the biggest towns around. Being on the shores of Lake Michigan, it really has a seaport feel to it. Never been to either of these islands but they look wonderful.

Roxanne Rhoads said...

I haven't been since I was a child but the hubby and I are planning a wine tasting trip to the Traverse City area soon

Laurie Green said...

Wine tasting sounds great. I'm getting all nostalgic now. Haven't been back in many moons, but remember how fun the Cherry Festival was in TC.