Mackinac Island is one of my favorite places in this entire big state of Michigan. I fell in love with it the very fist time I visited with my husband almost 18 years ago. I’ve been back many time since. So many I’ve lost track! Our boys have been there also, and they enjoy it too. You might be surprised how much there is to do on an island that’s only about 3.75 square miles.
Mackinac Island sits out in The Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron converge. The island is to the east of the Mackinac Bridge which connects Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. It’s just a short ferry ride to the island from the mainland.
The pace of life is a little slower on the island where cars are not allowed. You get around by horse, bike or foot. With the lack of automobiles and abundance of historic architecture, a trip to the island is a bit like a trip back in time. Downtown is lined with restaurants and unique shops. History lurks around every corner of this island that was first settled in colonial times. Outside of town, outdoor enthusiasts find plenty to do, including hiking, biking and boating. If you just want to relax, sink into a chair and take in the incredible views of The Straits of Mackinac.
You can see the island in about two days. Here’s the must-do list to get the full island experience:
1. Drive over the Mackinac Bridge.
OK, so this isn’t on the island. But driving over the world’s fifth largest suspension bridge is an experience unto itself. I’d hate for you to be that close to the bridge and miss out on driving it. The view of The Straits of Mackinac from the bridge are amazing. It’s also impressive when you look down, and all you see below you are the waves of lakes Michigan and Huron churning and crashing into each other.
2. Take a ferry to the island.
Yeah, you don’t really have much choice about this bucket list item. I suppose you could swim, but it’s about six miles across the cold, choppy water from St. Ignace. If you have your own boat, that’s always an option. Otherwise you can fly into the island’s commuter airport, but that’s an unnecessary expense. So I recommend the ferries. You can take the ferry from either side of the bridge. They depart from Mackinaw City on the south end of the Mackinac Bridge and St. Ignace on the north end. On the boat ride, you’ll see more spectacular views, and you’ll be able to say you crossed the Great Lakes by boat.
3. Take horse-powered transportation.
Like I said, there aren’t any cars allowed on the island. It’s about 3.75 square miles all together and 8 miles in circumference. You can take a horse-drawn taxi to get around town or go on a guided tour around the island in a carriage. If you prefer to be in the driver’s seat, visit the one of the liveries to rent a horse and buggy or see the island by horseback. There are around 500 horses that call the island home during the peak season.
4. Spend the night on the island.
This can be pricey, but it’s worth it. There’s nothing like seeing the island wake up in the morning as local shops get their first deliveries of the day by wagon and boats brings goods from the mainland to the dock. You’ll wonder if it isn’t still 1887.
The Grand Hotel, with its massive front porch and tall white columns, is the holy grail of island accommodations. It’s over 100 years old and exudes the grace and charm of times gone by. All sorts of famous folks slept there. Even U.S. Presidents. One night in a double room will set you back $336 per person. If that’s a little steep for you, you can find more reasonable prices at smaller hotels, B&Bs and private rentals. Also, consider visiting in early spring or fall when prices are lower.
Even if you don’t stay at the Grand Hotel, you can tour the public areas and dine at the restaurant.
5. Take a bike around the island.
Bicycle is the best way to get around the island during your stay. You can bring your own over on the ferry or rent one from one of the many cycle shops on the island. You can even rent a bicycle built for two. M-185, the only state highway in Michigan without cars, is an 8 mile paved road that circles the island. It takes you past many of the must-see landmarks, and you can’t beat the incredible lake views always to your right.
6. Sit in an Adirondack Chair on the front lawn of Mission Point Resort.
Mission Point Resort sits just outside of town. An expansive green lawn flows out from the resort right down to the edge of the water. Adirondack chairs are scattered all across the lawn. There is no more quintessential Michigan summer experience than sitting in one and watching the water the while you relax in the sun. It’s one of the most peaceful experiences I’ve ever had. Even with my boys wrestling each other to the ground just few feet away. The lawn is open to the public, so you don’t have to be a resort guest to enjoy it.
7. See the island’s natural wonders.
Arch Rock is a naturally formed limestone rock, 146 feet above the water. It was formed eons ago when lake levels were higher. Devil’s Kitchen is a small cave carved out of the limestone by waves from Lake Huron. Dwightwood Spring is a natural spring flowing out of the limestone cliffs that surround the island.
8. Tour Ft. Mackinac.
The old fort keeps watch over the island’s harbor high up on a hill. The British built and first occupied this fort in 1780. Eventually the Americans took control of it, and it played an important role in The War of 1812. Today it has been restored, so you can see what life was like in a colonial era fort. Interpreters dress in soldiers’ uniforms from the period and demonstrate the use of period guns and canons.
9. Wade in The Straits of Mackinac.
The island’s rocky beaches really aren’t made for swimming, but you can walk down to the water’s edge and dip your toes in the cool waters of The Straits.
10. Eat Fudge.
People have been coming to Mackinac Island to buy fudge for over a century. It’s handmade in the shops while you watch. The sweet smell fills the air downtown. Eat some while you’re there, and take some back to the folks at home. If you come to Mackinac, you have to buy fudge. It’s tradition.
A Little More Information:
Peak Season: June, July and August.
Popular Time to Visit: The Lilac Festival in early June when hundreds of heirloom lilac bushes are in bloom.
Cheapest time to Visit: Early spring and after Labor Day.
Save money any time of year: Stay in a mainland hotel or at a campground in St. Ignace or Mackinaw City.
Other things to do on the island: Golf, hotel spas, fishing charters, Butterfly House tour, Art Museum, tour Historic St. Anne’s Catholic Church, boutique shopping.