Mackinac Island is located north of Michigan between the state’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. The island is considered one of the most beautiful islands in the U.S. and a gem of Midwest. What makes this place unique is the fact that there are no cars allowed since 1898. Yes, that’s right. The only way to explore the island is on foot, by bike, in a horse carriage, or on horseback. The island is well maintained and there are plenty of beautiful flowers, especially lilacs. In fact, there is a whole festival dedicated to lilacs in June. In this weekend guide to Mackinac Island, I will cover the island’s main attractions and logistic to help you plan your trip.
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A guide to Mackinac Island’s top outdoor attractions
Bike around the island
You can bring your own bike or rent one from several locations on the island. There are plenty of bike routes. The most popular is highway M-185, an 8.2-mile (13.2 km) loop that circles the island. M-185 is the only highway in the U.S. that prohibits access by car. You get to see a little bit of everything, and there are plenty of cool spots to stop along the way, including historic sites such as British Landing. My favorite was a limestone formation called Arch Rock. It is a steep hike up the stairs, but the views are fantastic, especially on a sunny day. You can see different water hues from light to dark blue. There are also a few places on this route where you can spot Mackinac Bridge.
Take a carriage tour
If you want to relax and take in the view, you can rent a horse and carriage to discover the island on your own. Narrated carriage tours are available as well. They will take you to various locations on the island. You can imagine why the island has such a distinct smell!
Hike the island
Since 80% of the island is a state park, there are many hiking paths. My favorite was Fort Holmes, located on the top of the island. Since it is the highest point of the island, you get to take in all the views and relax before descending. Not too far from Fort Homes, there are a few cemeteries and an overlook where you can see Sugar Loaf, another famous limestone feature.
Go on a cruise or kayak around the island
Another way to enjoy the island is from Lake Michigan. There are several cruises, including sunset and night sky cruises. Check the schedule ahead of time. Tours are only offered on particular days.
You can also explore by kayak or paddleboat. Kayaking allows you to see all the best parts of the island from the water, including the Mackinac Bridge, Arch Rock, the Grand Hotel, and lighthouses.
A guide to Mackinac Island’s top historic attractions
Start with Fort Mackinac
If you’d like to learn a bit of island history, I recommend stopping by Fort Mackinac. It dates back to the 18th century and was built to control the Straits of Mackinac. In fact, Fort Michilimackinac was originally built in Mackinaw City and then moved to Mackinac Island and renamed Fort Mackinac. Stop by the fort and learn its importance in fur trade, the war of 1812, and what the French, the British and Americans had to do with it.
Fort Mackinac has all 14 original buildings where you will get to see how the soldiers and their families lived. You’ll also see demonstrations such as cannon and rifle firing. Since the fort is located on the hill, you can see neighboring islands, Mackinac Bridge, the island’s port, and a golf course. You might even spot the Grand Hotel.
Visit Fort Holmes
Fort Holmes is located at the highest point of the island and is a great place to hike to. The current fort is a wooden reconstruction of the original Fort George. Fort George was built by the British in the 19th century during the war of 1812 between United Stated and the Great Britain. The name of the fort was changed when Americans repossessed the island at the end of war of 1812. Fort Homes is open to public and free to enter.
Explore historic downtown
Mackinac’s historic downtown includes Benjamin Blacksmith Shop, the American Fur Company Store, Dr. Beaumont Museum, and the McGulpin House. Your ticket to Fort Mackinac includes admission to all historic attractions. You might also enjoy stopping at St. Anne’s catholic church, the Art Museum, or Stuart House City Museum.
Mackinac Island’s downtown is a cute little area full of restaurants, souvenir stores, and fudge stores. You will find beautiful Victorian style cottages and hotels dating back to 19th century.
Mackinac Island is known for its fudge. There are five main fudge stores on the island, with several locations on the main street. The stores originated in 1880s and are still operational. The fun part of visiting stores is not only tasting fudge but also seeing how the fudge is made. There’s always fresh fudge in the making. Fudge also makes a great gift to bring from the island.
Stop by the Grand Hotel
Step back in time and visit the Grand Hotel. It has been welcoming guests since the 19th century. This historic hotel has 399 uniquely decorated rooms. It offers many indoor and outdoor activities. If you are not a hotel guest, not a problem. You can still come in, tour the hotel, and even dine there. If the Grand Hotel looks familiar to you, you might have seen it in movies. Several productions took place here, including Somewhere in Time. If you pass the hotel and walk a bit further to the West Bluff, you’ll see several beautiful houses.
A logistics guide to Mackinac Island
Best time to visit Mackinac Island
The best time to visit is summertime, specifically July and August. This is the time the island is the warmest. It is also the busiest. Even though mornings are chilly, the temperature stays in the 70s F (20 C) during the day. It is perfect to enjoy anything outdoorsy, and there’s plenty of trails to bike and hike.
If you don’t mind colder weather, you might consider spring and fall. With its hilly nature, Mackinac Island would be a great place to visit in fall.
How to get to Mackinac Island
If you’re taking a road trip, make your way to either Mackinaw City at Lower Michigan Peninsula or St. Ignace at Upper Michigan Peninsula. The Mackinac Bridge connects both cities. You have to pay a fee to cross the bridge.
If you’re flying, the closest airports are Pellston Regional Airport (PLN) and Chippewa County International Airport (CIU). You can get connecting flights from Detroit. Both airports offer a shuttle to the ferry docks.
Once you get to either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, take a ferry to Mackinac Island. There are two ferry companies: Star Line and Sheplers. The tickets are sold as a round trip ticket. Booking online guarantees a cheaper rate. There is parking available to leave your car for a day or overnight. The ferries leave every 30 minutes or every hour, depending on the time of day. Consult the schedule, as departure times vary throughout the year. If you’d like to take a bike with you, there is an additional fee for the bike. However, there are no additional fees for luggage or strollers.
A few times a day, ferries make a trip to Mackinac Bridge for no additional fee so you can take a closer look at the bridge. Unfortunately, you cannot walk or bike on the bridge. You can only cross the bridge on foot on Labor Day (September 1st).
Where to stay on Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island is small, and accommodations get booked quickly. However, there are plenty of bed and breakfasts, hotels, a few Airbnb locations, and you can always decide to stay at the Grand Hotel. Closer to the summer season, accommodations get more expensive. I recommend booking months in advance.
I started planning rather late and opted to stay at St. Ignace and take a ferry to the island. There is no camping allowed on Mackinac Island, but St. Ignace offers a campsite in Straits State Park overlooking Mackinac Bridge.
Where to eat on Mackinac Island
There are plenty of good places to eat. If you’re looking for a morning coffee and a bite to eat, Lucky Bean Coffeehouse offers a couple outdoor tables with a view of the city away from the main street. I particularly enjoyed the Watercolor Café that sits right in the port where you can enjoy a view of the boats or sit outside. It also offers a light lunch. On the main street, I enjoyed Good Day Café with homemade ice cream. There’s also a Starbucks for anyone who’s a fan. When it comes to dinner, my favorite place with outdoor seating was Ice House BBQ, one of the best chilis I ever had. If you’re into seafood, I recommend trying local specialties such as whitefish, walleye, or lake perch wherever you choose to go for dinner.
What to pack to Mackinac Island
Wear layers. I visited the island in summertime. Despite the warm weather, I was chilly – particularly in the mornings and evenings. I recommend bringing a jacket or a sweatshirt. Also, if you plan to sit outside on the ferry, it gets quite cold and windy. During the day, when it is sunny, it’s definitely warm. A t-shirt with shorts or capris will be sufficient for summer. If you’re hiking or biking, you will get warm for sure. Comfortable shoes are a must. Make sure you pack short-sleeved shirts, long-sleeved shirts, a jacket or sweatshirt, long pants or capris, and shorts.
Mackinac Island is a great location for all outdoorsy activities with a touch of history. Refer to this weekend guide to Mackinac Island to plan your next trip. You could easily spend anywhere from a weekend to a few days on the island depending on what suits your interests.