Mackinac Island: 15 Reasons to Visit Michigan’s Island Gem
Beautiful Mackinac Island is perfectly positioned in Lake Michigan between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. One of the prettiest islands in the continental United States, it’s a perfect trip idea for families, couples and solo travelers alike.
Home to elegant hotels, historic forts and loads of Victorian charm, Mackinac Island, MI really is a Michigan travel gem.
It’s America’s summer place: a mix of Great Lakes breezes carrying the sweet scent of fudge; rich history and pure northern Michigan magic. It’s a place for meandering hikes to a historic fort, a bike ride along a scenic coast, yacht races, ferry boat rides and pure Michigan fun.
Known as “America’s All-natural Theme Park,” Michigan’s Mackinac Island is truly one of the most unique vacation destinations in the world and should be at the top of any Michigan travel bucket list.
I’ve put together a list of 15 of my favorite things to do on Mackinac Island, including Arch Rock, Fort Mackinac, Skull Cave and much more.
About Mackinac Island
If you’ve ever imagined a fairy-tale come to life, chances are it might look a little like bit Mackinac Island, Michigan. Victorian inns and cottage neatly accented in gingerbread trim line the streets, as do horse-drawn carriages, a popular way to travel on the island since automobiles are not allowed.
A national heritage landmark, this historic park is part of the Michigan State Parks system. It is 1,800 acres of living history that transports to you back to another time. A time before automobiles, when the world was just a little bit slower, and a little bit more relaxed, too.
Home to almost 600 year-round residents, the island is about than four squares miles. If you decide to bike or hike around the perimeter, though, it’s an 8-mile trek.
The island’s population swells in the summer months, but spring and fall are popular times to visit, the island too. During autumn, Mackinac Island is a perfect stop on your Michigan fall color tour, as the fall foliage provides a stunning backdrop against the brilliant blue water.
Planning Your Trip to Mackinac Island: Mackinac Travel Guide
There is a reason the island was named a “Top U.S. Island” by both USA Today and TripAdvisor. The seaside resort and crown jewel of Michigan tourism sits quite majestically at the tip of the Michigan mitten (also known as the lower peninsula). It’s dog-friendly, too, with many restaurants allowing dogs on their porches or patios.
You’ll want to plan your trip carefully, though, to fully enjoy the beauty of this special place.
When to Visit Mackinac
You can visit Mackinac any time of the year, but summer and fall are really the best times to get the full flavor of the island. May through October are the busiest times, and all of the businesses on the island are open. Many businesses (including accommodations) close during the winter months.
What to Bring
As someone who frequents the island, take it from me: you want comfortable shoes. You’ll be doing a lot of walking, and the last thing you want is to have to cut your sightseeing short due to sore feet. Weather in northern Michigan, especially on the water, is unpredictable. Being a light tote or backpack to store sunblock aand a light sweater or jacket for the ferry ride.
Be sure and check the local Mackinac Island weather as your trip approaches to help you plan what to wear on yourvisit to the island.
Where to Stay
We’ll be blunt; you should try and stay at least one night one the island, if you can.
Sure, it’s more affordable to stay in Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, and that’s fine, too. There’s nothing quite like staying overnight on the island, though, when that last ferry pulls away from the dock. It’s just a special feeling, and I highly reccomend it.
There are many Mackinac Island hotel and inn from which to choose, at a variety of price points, too.
Check out our Guide to the Best Places to Stay on Mackinac Island for tips on finding accommodations.
How to Get to Mackinac Island: Ride the Mackinac Island Ferries
Travel to Mackinac Island is by plane or boat; most visitors arrive via a Mackinac Island ferry from Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, which is all part of the fun!
Sit on the open-air upper desk and feel the wind on your face as you take in some of the most stunning scenery on the Great Lakes.You can also sit comfortably below deck and catch a glimpse of the Mackinac bridge as you go by. Catch the ferry either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Travel on Mackinac Island is restricted to bicycle, horse or foot: there are no cars allowed on the Island.
Upon disembarking from the short ferry ride; a visitor’s first stop may be a bicycle rental vendor or the Mackinac Island Tourism bureau. As we mentioned, Mackinac Island tourism swells in July and August, so it’s a good idea to plan your trip carefully.These long-running ferry’s will also accommodate luggage, pets and bicycles and take between 15-25 minutes depending on your departure site.
PRO-TIP: Whether you ride the Star Line Hydrojet ferry or Shepler’s Ferry, you’ll want to purchase your ferry tickets in advance to save time.
15 Amazing Reasons to Visit Mackinac Island
No Cars on the Island: A Truly Green Vacation Experience
You’ll quickly get used to automobile-free Mackinac Island. There are no automobiles are allowed on the island and transportation is by foot, horse and buggy or bicycles.
Strolling along the island streets and paths lined with well-kept Victorian mansions, it’s quite easy to image life on the island in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when the island was a summer retreat and luxury vacation destination who traveled by train to reach this Michigan island.
You’ll be surprised how easy it is to get used to simply walking, biking, or taking a horse-drawn carriage.
You Can Celebrate Mackinac’s Strategic Role in American History
Mackinac is seeped in both the history of Michigand the American fur trade. The forts on and around the island, like Fort Mackinac and Colonial Michilimackinac, provide a glimpse of life in the 1700 and 1800’s. It was a time when the fur trade prospered and missionaries, British, French and American settlers roamed the island.
Native Americans, who first lay claim to the land, lived here, too. Ojibwa and Odawa Great Lakes Indian tribes also lived on Mackinac Island and around the Mackinac County area.
Mackinac Island is a designated historic district. Displays and historical markers of these spots now on the national historic register share the rich cultural and military of the island and provide detailed explanations of these interesting spots.
Step off the ferry onto this historic island park and you’ll immediately be immersed in the history of Mackinac Island. Not far from the docks is Fort Mackinac, a military outpost established in 1780.
One of the Mackinac State Historic Parks, the fort is open to visitors who can wander the grounds; watch reenactments of cannons firing and tour this limestone fort overlooking the Straits of Mackinac.
This national historic landmark is impressive, and looking out over the Mackinac Island harbor, you can almost feel the ghosts of fur traders and soldiers who once inhabited the island. Learn about Dr. William Beaumont’s medical discoveries that made “Beaumont” a household name in Michigan.
This small wood fort, constructed by British soldiers during the War of 1812, sits at the highest elevation the island. The fort was actually built to protect against attacks from the Unite State and was never directly involved in the war.
The fortified earthen structure is in poor shape and is currently undergoing a reconstruction. Visitors are still able to tour the grounds.
Located in Mackinaw City, Fort Michilimackinac was established in 1683 by the French as a strategically-located fortified trading post.
The fort was not built primarily as a military facility but as a link in the French trade system but ended up playing important roles in both the French and Indian Wars, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Now, historically accurate exhibits and reenactments tell the story of this military outpost that served as a home to military families over the years.
You Can Explore Mackinac’s Natural Phenomena
Towering above the water and more than fifty feet in width, Arch Rock is the most famous of the rock formations on the island. The natural limestone structure overlooks Lake Huron and is accessed by trails in Mackinac Island State Park.
It can be reached by foot, taxi, carriage or bike. It can also be viewed from below, on the perimeter tour of the island. No Mackinac Island trip is complete without catching a glimpse of Arch Rock.
Spooky Skull Cave is a small, shallow cave on Mackinac Island. This Michigan Historic Site is located in the Mackinac Island State Park.
It is is believed to have been used as an inhumation site by Native Americans of the Straits of Mackinac area in the 18th century. It’s definitely worth a walk around the island to spot this piece of history.
You Can Step Back in Time in Downtown Mackinac Island
In the busy summer months, downtown Mackinac Island is a bustling scene: part New England port town; part tourist haven and a whole lot of fun.
Think toy stores, gift shops and cute restaurants mingled with the scent of fresh fudge and homemade candy. You’ll find ice cream parlors, too, where you can even try some Superman Ice Cream, a Michigan favorite flavor!
Main Street Shopping
Here, you’ll find fun boutiques offering everything from Michigan-made items and home decor to books and fashion. Shopping these cute spots is part of the fun; all ages and budgets will find something to delight; maybe even a find a trinket or two as a souvenir.
Our favorite spot on the island?
Little Luxuries of Mackinac, a happy little store with a unique assortment of whimsical gifts. You’ll find pretty paper, handmade home accessories, luxury bath products and more.
You’ll also want to explore Doud’s Market, America’s oldest Grocery store. This local grocer has been family-owned since 1884 and carries grab-n-go items too, for an easy picnic on the island.
Main Street Mackinac Dining
There are a lot of good restaurants from which to choose. My first stop is always lunch at The Pink Pony, a fun waterfront bar/eatery located in the historic Chippewa Hotel. The Whitefish sandwich is amazing; you might even want to stop back by for dinner!
Fudge Shop Tours
So which Mackinac Island fudge is the best? That’s a question you could have a sweet time solving. Unsurprisingly, all of the fudge shops use their own secret recipe. That gives them all a completely different taste. Whether it’s Ryba’s, Kilwins, Joann’s or one of the many other fudge shops on island, you’ll get a completely different fudge at each spot.
My favorite? Murdick’s, because it’s always perfectly creamy and lasts well. Who can eat all of that fudge at once?
Set off the Michigan coastline tight at the spot where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet, the island is technically located on Lake Huron.
You Can Feel Fancy at The Grand Hotel
Esther Williams once swam in the pool here; Superman walked endless porch, and that’s just part of the real-life legend. Trust us, though: this acclaimed hotel-resort certainly lives up to its glowing reputation.
Listed by Conde Nast Traveler magazine as one of the “Best Places to Stay in the Whole World; it;s also listed in Travel + Leisure magazine among the “Top 100 Hotels in the World. Even the American Automobile Association (AAA) rates the facilities as a four-diamond resort.
Grand Hotel’s Famous Guests
The Grand Hotel is setting for the cult-favorite Hollywood movie “Somewhere in Time,” starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve, and the Grand Hotel has hosted many notable visitors, including five U.S. presidents, inventor Thomas Edison, and author Mark Twain.
Take some time and stroll along the “longest porch in the world,” all 660 feet of it.
A certain aesthetic is maintained here, and that adds to the charm. Resort-casual (no cut-offs of midriff-baring tops) during the day gives way to a more formal dress code after 6:30 p.m. You can check the Grand Hotel dress code here.
You Can Hit the Links at the Wawashkamo Golf Club
This nine-hole golf course – the only golf course on Mackinac Island– was designated one of “America’s Historic Golf Landmarks” by Golf Digest and sits atop a former 1814 battle site.
The views from this scenic course include the Mackinac Bridge, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.
You Can See Native American Art at the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum
Located in a Native American Indian dormitory on the island, this museum exhibits fine and decorative art pieces and maps, jewelry and photographs from the island, documenting the islands history.
Original photographs from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century also document the natural beauty of the island. Michigan philanthropists Richard and Jane Manoogian rebuilt and reopened the museum, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
You Can Take a Sunset Sail on a Tall Ship
There’s nothing like cruising the Straits of Mackinac at sunset. The Star Line ferry service has partnered with Tall Ship Cruises so you can do just that. Bring along a picnic basket with appetizers and a bottle of Michigan wine and enjoy a beautiful, romantic evening.
Picnic at Marquette Park
Just east of historic downtown Mackinac, you’ll find a lovely park at the foot of Fort Mackinac.
The velvety green grass on the gently rolling hills and the towering hardwoods forming a shady canopy make this spot hard to resist. Be sure and find a spot to sit, rest and watch the visitors as the come and go along Huron Street.
See Mission Point Resort
With 18 acres of Mackinac Island waterfront, this family-friendly resort on Mackinac Island received a Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor and a Readers Choice Award from Conde Nast Traveler. A lovely resort in a truly gorgeous setting, Mission Point Resort is definitely worth checking out.
Relax at The Butterfly House
The third oldest butterfly house in the country and the first in Michgan, this unique spot on the island is a favorite stop. Step inside the Butterfly House and find a serene, tropical garden with hundreds of butterflies flitting around. Bonus? It’s a perfect place to escape the crowds and connect with nature.
You Can Ride Your Bike Around the Entire Island
Every year, my father and rent bike and make the journey around the island along the wide, paved road that hugs the coastline. Pick up a map when you rent your bike so you can figure out where to stop and refuel along the way, and discover some hidden cut-through, too.
The scenery is always the same but it never fails to amaze me. The bright, turquoise water of Lake Huron laps at the shore as you ride around the island. It’s a great way to pass by some of the must-see sites, like Arch Rock and Skull Cave, too.
ADA and Wheelchair Accessibility on Mackinac Island
Although many of the buildings on Mackinac Island are quite old, local business owners and innkeepers do their best to accommodate travelers of all abilities. Wheelchair-accessible horse-drawn carriage rides (like these through Mackinac Island Carriage Tours) are available.
Some of the hotels are limited in terms of space and lack of elevators due to the age of the buildings, but will work with you to help you find accommodations with other properties if they are not able to meet your need.
Reaching out in advance with specific detail regarding your needs is encouraged.
Plan Your Mackinac Island Vacation
A vacation destination for travelers from across the world, this national historic landmark is a must on your vacation bucket list for a day-trip; weekend getaway or extended vacation. It’s also a great spot for famiy reunions or weddings, too.
Mackinac Island Frequently Asked Questions
A. Mackinac Island is beautiful any season of the year. During the winter travel to the island is limited; check the the ferries to see when they are running. The Turtle Trek in February; Mackinac Island Lilac Festival in June; the Fudge festival in August and other island events bring visitors throughout the year.
In the summer months, the island is the warmest and its a perfect time for easy hiking and biking.In the autumn months, the fall foliage is spectacular with blazing red and yellow leaves against the bright blue backdrop of sky and sparkling Lake Huron.
A. One thing is certain, your visit to Mackinac Island has to involve fudge. Fresh Mackinac Island is somewhat of local delicacy: not many imitators are able to match the creamy, rich chocolate confection that has become an island staple. There are currently 13 fudge shops on Mackinac Island, making so much fudge that the island imports 10 tons of sugar per week.
A. Bicycling around Mackinac Island is a fun way to get around and a great way to see all of the island. You can bring your own over on the ferry or rent one from one of the many bike station right near the ferry docks. The towering trees provide a comfortably shady respite from both the sun and the crowds.
The island itself it approximately eight miles around – perfect for day-long bike or hike on the paved walkways alongside the cool and breathtakingly beautiful Lake Huron.
If that sounds daunting, take the marked trails that cut through the island – some of them dating back to the days when the Island was inhabited by the Native American Menominee tribe.
Carriage tours are also a great way to tour the island if you’re not up to hiking or biking.
Looking for More Michigan Islands?
There are more unique Michigan islands waiting for you to explore! Use our guide to 17 Must-Visit Michigan Islands to discover exciting new travel destinations.
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About the Author
Bella DiMascio is a Content Editor for mymichiganbeach.com. She grew up in the Detroit suburb of Westland and later attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo where she majored in Communication Studies and minored in English: Writing. Creative writing has been a hobby and interest of Bella’s since she was in elementary school and she is thrilled to be using her talents to highlight the Great Lakes State. Outside of writing, Bella enjoys getting outside with her two Australian Shepherds, playing video games, and binging shows on Netflix.