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Imagine stepping off a ferry and not hearing the sounds of cars, motorcycles, or worries. It’s just you and your family and the gentle sound of waves folding onto the sand.
Mackinac Island is that place where problems are prohibited, and summer-time nostalgia reigns supreme. And Mackinac isn’t some far-flung island off the coast of Madagascar. It’s a verdant pearl, set right off the coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Lake Huron.
Like a secret we can’t help sharing with our dearest friends, we’re here to tell you about Mackinac Island: things to do, where to go, and how to get there. Discover how to have the best summer vacation in the middle of the Great Lakes.
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Visit Mackinac Island State Park
To say that Mackinac Island State Park dominates Mackinac Island is correct in more ways than one. First of all, it’s literally true! Mackinac Island State Park makes up more than 80 percent of the entire island’s physical space, leaving only a little sliver for all the other attractions.
Secondly, the state park is home to a wide variety of historical and natural features that attract tourists during the summer months, like lilacs attract butterflies. Historic sites, incredible natural beauty, hiking trails, and beautiful rock formations are just a few of the things you can expect to find when you visit Mackinac Island State Park.
When it comes to historical sites on Mackinac Island, Fort Holmes stands above all others. No, really! Fort Holmes sits atop the highest point of the entire island. First built by British soldiers during the War of 1812, the original Fort Holmes (christened Fort George) fell into disrepair after the war’s conclusion. But thanks to the work of Mackinac State Historic Parks, Fort Holmes once again proudly guards the waters around the Straits of Mackinac. From the fort’s lofty heights, we were able to see all of Mackinac laid out before us, as well as the stunning waters of Lake Huron.
Our family’s favorite natural landmark was Arch Rock, a gorgeous limestone formation that’s over 50 wide and 146 feet tall. A popular way to get there is the Arch Rock Bicycle Trail. But, and this is just between you and us, it’s even more fun to visit by kayak. More on that later!
Another great place to visit is Skull Cave, a natural cave carved by the powerful waves of Lake Huron. Fun fact, legend has it that this cave was used by Alexander Henry — a fur trader — to hide himself during an indigenous uprising on the island in 1763. Whether that’s true or not is up for speculation, but what’s certain is that this is a perfect place for a family photo!
Sugar Loaf, the tallest limestone stack on Mackinac, can be seen from far and wide as it towers 75 feet over Mackinac Island Forest. We had a blast tromping through the forest to get there, enjoying the twittering birds, buzzing bees, and fluttering butterflies.
Explore Fort Mackinac
There are forts, and then there are FORTS, and Fort Mackinac is undoubtedly one of the latter. The oldest building in Michigan, Fort Mackinac has stood watch over the waters round Mackinac Island since the American Revolutionary War: garrisoned first by British forces and later by American soldiers.
Today, Fort Mackinac is one of the best ways to learn about what life was like on Mackinac for soldiers and their families. Our family had a blast exploring each of the site’s fourteen historical buildings, including the Post Hospital, Soldier’s Barracks, and — my personal favorite — the Reading Room. As it turns out, commanders thought it was a good idea to keep a fort library stocked to stave off boredom and fatigue during long assignments.
Every morning at dawn, the cannon atop Fort Mackinac sounds reveille to the town below, reminding us of the island’s military heritage. But it’s not always a soldier firing the first shot of the day. Civilians are welcome to enjoy the unique experience of firing the morning cannon. Find out more info about this fun and interactive tradition here.
Learn About The Mackinac Lumber Industry
The best way to learn and internalize something is by doing it, right? And it’s exactly on this principle that the Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park operates. Here, deep in the heart of the Mackinac Island Forest, history comes alive with costumed interpreters demonstrating the sawing techniques of a by-gone era, offering visitors a unique, first-hand look at the Michigan lumber industry.
Seeing the wood being cut and hearing the sawyers’ accounts of life at the mill were great ways for our daughters to learn. The interactive nature of the park has stuck with them for far longer than just going and looking at a historic site. I highly recommend you take the Adventure Tour, which takes you high up into the treetops and guides you through all the major aspects of the historic Mill Creek. Our girls loved riding the Eagles’ Flight Zip Line through the dense canopy.
Take In The Views At Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse
As iconic as it is beautiful, the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse has shepherded ships through the Straits of Mackinac since 1889. The gorgeous red roof and sand-colored bricks are a perfect backdrop to any family photo.
But what’s the fun of just looking at a lighthouse? The point is to explore inside it and climb to the top of the keeper’s tower. The keeper’s tower is open to the public free of charge, but spots are limited. Upon arriving, check with the tour officials for details about visiting the tower.
Discover how to have the best summer vacation on Mackinac Island, where problems are prohibited, and summer-time nostalgia reigns supreme!
Dive Into History At Colonial Michilimackinac
The year is 1779, and you and your family are fur traders living off the fat of the land, conscious of the American Revolutionary War as it rages all around you. Well… not really, but that’s what it felt like when our family stepped into Colonial Michilimackinac, a unique place where past and present blend into a cohesive whole. Reconstructed and remodeled off of fur trader villages of the 18th century, Colonial Michilimackinac is one of the best places to learn about what life was like on Mackinac Island for colonial settlers.
As the largest of the island’s historic exhibits, we felt like we were part of the past, watching settlers go about their daily lives, interact with each other, cook, clean, and just shoot the breeze. With 16 historic buildings to explore, there’s a cornucopia of things to discover.
We made it a bit like a treasure hunt for our daughters, asking them to tell us something new they’d learned in each of the historic structures. One thing especially cool is the continued archaeological digging that goes on in the area. New things are constantly being unearthed, helping to slowly reconstruct what life was like for those who called Mackinac Island home in the 18th century.
Go Shopping In Historic Downtown Mackinac
Step off the ferry and into the heart of Mackinac Island’s historical downtown. It’s here you’ll find the oldest houses on the island, some dating as far back as 1780. If that weren’t enough, there are tons of boutique stores, fudge shops, and art galleries to explore, all within easy walking distance of one another — this is a small island, after all!
At the Biddle House, we enjoyed watching costumed interpreters go about their daily lives: cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Our youngest daughter was especially fascinated by the process of spinning sheep’s wool into yarn. If we’d let her, I’m sure she would have loved sitting there for hours, her eyes fixed on the spinning wheel.
Farther on is the McGulpin House, where a baker sold his delicious confections to the American Fur Trade. This house easily dates to the early 18th century, and it shows! With a thatched roof and old stone chimney, the McGulpin House is a marvelous example of the importance of restoration.
Get Creative At The Mackinac Art Museum
It should come as no surprise that the natural beauty and rich history of Mackinac Island have inspired generations of artists. And what better place to view these artists’ creations than on Mackinac itself, at the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum.
Originally built in 1838 to house displaced Native Americans, the “Indian Dormitory” was soon transformed into Mackinac Island’s public school. It continued in this capacity until 1960 when it was purchased by the Park Commission and restored to its original mid-19th-century appearance. In 1966, it opened its doors for the first time as a museum and has been going strong ever since.
From hand-beaded indigenous garments to early charts of the Great Lakes to 19th-century photographs, the Mackinac Art Museum is a treasure trove of beautiful works that weave a tapestry of art, history, and culture. During the summer months, there are a bunch of kid-friendly activities at the museum, such as artist-led drawing sessions and tours of the various exhibits.
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Enjoy Mackinac’s Butterfly Conservatories
Would it surprise you to learn that, in addition to the historical buildings, stunning natural scenery, and charming downtown, Mackinac Island is also home to not one but two world-class butterfly conservatories? I know, right? Someone looked at Mackinac and said: “I like what I see, but the lack of butterflies disturbs me. Let’s fix that.” And they freakin’ did!
The first of these conservatories, named The Original Mackinac Island Butterfly House so as to leave no doubt in your mind, is the first of its kind in Michigan and the third in the United States. Boasting hundreds of butterflies from four continents, this flitting, fluttering, flapping facility has 1800 square feet of verdant garden dedicated to beetles. No, I kid, it’s BUTTERFLIES and don’t you forget it!
The second butterfly conservatory, The Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory, is a beautiful and approachable tropical environment, enjoyable and entertaining for kids and adults alike. This conservatory prides itself on pushing the envelope, ensuring that no two visits to its enclosures are the same. The Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory has partnered with the Mackinac Carriage Tours, making it easier than ever to visit them during your stay on Mackinac.
Have A Blast Kayaking Round Mackinac
Get out on the water and enjoy Mackinac from a whole new perspective when you take a kayaking tour! Our girls were so excited for this part of the trip. SO EXCITED! They hardly slept the night before, they were so pumped.
We took them on the sunrise tour, which took us out to Arch Rock and through the underwater caves of the Rock Maze. Of all the things we did on Mackinac, this was undoubtedly our family’s favorite. We booked our tickets on Great Turtle Kayak Tours website. Spots fill up fast, so if you want to go, I highly (highly!) recommend booking them well in advance.
Trust me (and my girls), it’s worth it!
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Getting Around Mackinac
Visitors to Mackinac Island have remarked upon the peace and tranquility they feel while visiting there — I know we certainly did. No doubt this partially stems from the embargo on motor cars coming onto the island. It’s true, the only vehicles permitted on the Mackinac Island roads are for essential and emergency services. Former vice-president Mike Pence even caused a scandal when he brought a motorcade with him on a visit to the island. Whoops!
Luckily, you don’t only have to rely on foot – or pedal-power to get around the island, although doing so is certainly part of the fun! No, there’s a more elegant way of touring Mackinac Island, an old-fashioned and mellower way, that makes you feel as if time stopped ticking here around the turn of the 19th century. I am, of course, talking about the Mackinac Island Carriage Tours.
These horse-drawn carriages are available throughout the island and are willing to take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. So hop aboard and let the adventures begin!
When You Go
How To Get To Mackinac Island
Typical of Mackinac’s desire to keep the island pristine, the small airport only services regional charter flights and private aircrafts, not commercial airlines. If you happen to be one of the former, and would like to pilot your way to Mackinac — which sounds like a blast by the way! — you can find more info about flying to MCD here.
The rest of us will have to make due with the much larger, if perhaps less conveniently located airports that dot the region. The closest is Pellston Regional Airport, which is about 15 minutes south of the Mackinac Island Ferry dock in Mackinaw City. Other airports include Chippewa County International Airport and Sault Ste. Marie Airport; both are between 30 and 45 minutes away from the ferry dock.
Start your research for flights with exclusive discounts from Scott’s Cheap Flights. Try out their free 7-day membership to save BIG money on flights. I’m not kidding. They have the best deals out there and we’ve tried them all, or so it seems. There’s no need to buy a membership (you’ll still have access to great deals with their free one).
Another excellent discount site for flights (and cars, hotels) is Expedia!
Where To Stay In Mackinac Island
Serving Mackinac Island since 1887, the Grand Hotel is a bridge between past and present, tradition and modernity, opulence and charm. Considered a national historic landmark for its gorgeous original architecture, the Grand Hotel greets you like an old friend as soon as you step foot on the island, welcoming you back for another summer of fun. Each of its 388 rooms is uniquely designed and guaranteed to serve as a cozy cabana when you’re not out exploring the rest of Mackinac Island.
Just imagine waking up every morning and from your hotel room watching the sun rise over placid Lake Huron. That’s exactly what you’ll get when you stay at Mission Point Resort, where tranquility, beauty, and hospitality are blended into the perfect hotel experience. The resort’s prime location puts you within easy walking distance of all the island’s phenomenal attractions, shops, and restaurants, as well as within a stone’s throw of the beach. As a bonus, Mission Point is pooch friendly! So feel free to bring your pup along with you on your next visit to Mackinac Island.
Last but not least is the Inn at Stonecliffe, a once private mansion now turned summer resort. Its lovely French windows and striking exterior add a dash of elegance and prestige you won’t find anywhere else. Large, airy rooms provide you with some of the best views on the island while also maintaining a sense of quiet seclusion and flawless comfort.
No matter where you stay on Mackinac Island, you’re certain to find helpful staff ready and willing to assist you in any way they can!
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