3 Harbors of Manistee County: Lake Michigan into Manistee Lake

by: Maralee Cook

In fair weather in spring, summer and fall, water lovers on kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and PWCs share the Lake Michigan shoreline, harbors and rivers with power boats and sailboats. When the weather gets rough, surfers and kiteboarders navigate swirling seas and high winds with an audience watching from shore.

All season long a variety of fishing boats, tugs, trawlers and sailboats are docked or moored in the harbors, captained and crewed by interesting and adventurous people from all over the world. This year a German couple circumnavigating the earth stopped over on their way to Chicago. Then there were the honeymooners-he 84, she 72- who were traveling the Great Loop from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean; a couple of Chicago to Mackinac racers docked on their way home after the big race, and a group of sailors that regularly caravan over from southern Wisconsin stayed for a few days before heading further north.


While the three harbor communities share many similarities, there are vast differences as well. The City of Manistee, which straddles the banks of the Manistee River Channel, is the County Seat, and still maintains industry and shipping.   Lake freighters travel the Manistee River Channel in spring through early January carrying coal to the industries on Manistee Lake. Onlookers from the banks of the channel are treated to the sight of the 600-ft. self-unloading freighters, seemingly almost close enough to touch, slowly navigating the bends in the river channel as they continue their passage through the city and under the two drawbridges.


Three piers protect the entrance from Lake Michigan into Manistee River channel, which passes through the heart of Manistee. Over 130 acres of Lake Michigan beachfront parks flank the river channel entrance to both north and south. The parks offer wide sugar sand beaches, volleyball, tennis and basketball courts, softball fields, playgrounds and new comfort stations with concessionaires and showers. The city’s largest municipal boat launch is located on the south side of the river channel with a fish-cleaning station with rest rooms and an extensive parking area for vehicles and boat trailers. This is also the site of Manistee’s annual 4th of July Forest Festival with endless family activities, a famous 4th of July Parade, and fireworks over Lake Michigan.

The north pierhead lighthouse has stood tall for 85 years, and efforts are well underway to raise funds which will enable its complete restoration. The black iron catwalk, which allowed the light keeper to safely access the light as the pier was being pounded by mountainous surf, speaks to its history and leads east along the pier to the 14,000 sq. ft. red brick U.S. Coast Guard Station, built in 2003.


The short “stub” south pier also marks the beginning of the 1.75-mile Manistee River Channel Riverwalk meandering eastward past Cedar Street Marina (231.889.5000) and the Manistee Municipal Marina (231.723.1552) and the shopping, dining, entertainment, cultural and business section of the city. Manistee Inn and Marina offers slips and accommodations (231.723.4000). The new Municipal Marina building reconstructed three years ago, blends perfectly with the surrounding Historic District. When traveling by boat, there are several opportunities to dock and dine along the Riverwalk, and many restaurants will cook your catch (as long as it’s cleaned).


Boaters who prefer to “anchor out”, will find a secure refuge in Manistee Lake with great fall fishing and launch sites for kayaks and canoes. Keep your camera handy for panoramic views of beautiful sunrises over the Big Manistee River’s marshlands and frequent sightings of Bald Eagles, Blue Herons and an occasional Osprey. Visit the SS City of Milwaukee and Acacia Coast Guard Sea-going Buoy Tender for a special experience in these ‘floating museums.’ Pier 31 (231.723.2611) to the north and Seng’s Marina (231.723.9444) to the south are long-time full service marinas with dockage, repairs, haul-out and storage capabilities. Camping and docking are available at Instalaunch Campground with access to Manistee Lake and Lake Michigan (231.723.3901).


Find great lodging in Manistee County when you explore the area’s harbors.