Discover Michigan's island retreat, full of history and alive with color.
For many visitors, Mackinac Island’s picturesque Main Street, boat-filled docks and friendly bars and fudge shops are the primary draws of this tiny island in northern Michigan. But aficionados of Mackinac (pronounced mack-i-naw) will tell you two things. First, avoid visiting in July and August, when the ferries from the mainland bring boatload after boatload of tourists. Second, Main Street is simply the gateway to explore other parts of the tiny isle.
First visited by Native Americans, the island sits on the eastern edge of the Straits of Mackinac, where two Great Lakes—Michigan and Huron—meet. After a long history of fur trading and military operations, Mackinac emerged as a summer destination around the 1850s; that role was cemented nearly 40 years later when the island’s Grand Hotel opened for business. It remains in operation and is among the last standing large wood-frame hotels built in the United States during the Gilded Age.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
One thing you should know about Mackinac: Motorized vehicles are not allowed. They have been banned since 1898. Though it’s less than a day’s drive—about seven hours north of Columbus—most visitors arrive by ferry from ports on the lower and upper peninsulas. Everyone gets around by foot, bicycle or horse—or horse-drawn carriages.
Despite its origins as a summer vacation spot, fall is an especially wonderful time to visit Mackinac. The hardwood trees of northern Michigan erupt in fiery colors, with spectacular views of mainland forests from island vantage points. The clomping of horses along paved streets grows louder, reminding visitors to take it easy, embrace the moment. And without throngs of tourists, Main Street is more welcoming and easier to navigate.
Bike the Island
Riding a bike is the best way to explore the 4-square-mile island, and rentals can be found at shops along Main Street as well as through many hotels. Biking the circle route is a rite of passage. The road, Michigan 185, is a designated state highway, the only one in the country on which motorized vehicles are not allowed. The two-lane road hugs the rocky shoreline along the 8-mile loop, displaying plenty of natural splendor.
On the island’s eastern side, there are scenic vistas of Lake Huron and nearby wooded islands. The west side opens up to the Straits of Mackinac, providing panoramas of both peninsulas and the iconic Mackinac Bridge. Circling the island, you’ll pass natural landmarks, including Dwightwood Spring on the eastern shore. Named after the son of one of Mackinac’s early summer cottagers, Dwightwood is the most famous of the island’s many clear, cold springs. Yes, you can drink the water.
Nearby is perhaps the most renowned natural landmark: Arch Rock. Visible from the road, it’s worth taking the time to park your bike and climb the stairs of the Nicolet Watch Tower for a closer look. The natural limestone arch stands 146 feet above the water. Native Americans revered it as a spiritual place.
More than three-quarters of the island is part of Mackinac Island State Park, home to 70 miles of trails—some paved, some not. They’re open to hiking, biking and horseback riding. The interior is hilly and rugged, and mountain or fat tire bikes are recommended.
Fort Mackinac, a limestone garrison built in the late 18th century by the British army, is the most historic structure on the island. The impressive fort stands 150 feet above the harbor. It’s one of only a few remaining intact from the Revolutionary War, and it’s also home to the oldest building in Michigan—the Officers’ Stone Quarters, built in 1780. Exhibits explain everything from training and battles to medical treatments to family life. Military and living history demonstrations are held daily on the parade grounds. For an additional fee, the daring can help clean, load, prime and fire a cannon. That experience is available every morning at 9:15 from June through early October.
Most of the island’s wood-frame buildings were built in the latter half of the 19th century, as Mackinac became a summer getaway. Among the buildings preceding that era is the American Fur Co. Store and Dr. Beaumont Museum on Market Street, which provides another glimpse of the area’s past as a military and trading outpost.
Mackinac’s thoroughfare looks pretty much like it did at the end of the 19th century. Many Victorian-era homes and buildings are now boutiques, souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels. It’s the island’s busiest spot, shared by pedestrians, bicyclists, horse-drawn wagons and ferries, loading and unloading guests and their luggage at the docks and hotels. The family-owned Doud’s Market, at the eastern edge of town on Main, is the island’s primary grocer and sells just about anything you might need during an island visit.
Long before fudge became fashionable as a vacation treat, Original Murdick’s Fudge was paddling warm, gooey chocolate and other confections into loaves on marble slabs in front of throngs of curious onlookers. The family behind the now-famous fudge shop initially came to the island in the summer of 1887 to make canvas awnings for the new Grand Hotel. They later found success with a family recipe for fudge, and now they own three shops on the island—two of which welcome people on Main Street. Fudge has become something of a local delicacy, and there are plenty of other purveyors as well.
For a taste of the nightlife, there are quite a few spots clustered around the downtown area. Among Mackinac’s famous watering holes is The Mustang Lounge, billed as Michigan’s most historic tavern. Inside, the log walls date back to the 1780s. A two-minute walk away, the Pink Pony at the Chippewa Hotel is known for its pink-themed bar and restaurant, which overlooks the waterfront.
The Grand Hotel
You’d be hard-pressed to visit Mackinac Island and not stop by the Grand Hotel, which opened in 1887 after being built in just 90 days. Initially available just two months a year, the hotel’s season now extends from May through the end of October. Every autumn, it hosts the annual “Somewhere in Time” weekend, when guests show up in turn-of-the-century clothing to celebrate the beloved 1980 film starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, which was filmed there. Mementos of the movie can still be found in the hallways.
Like the rest of island, the hotel is a throwback to another era, but with modern touches and a casual, welcoming ambiance. The 660-foot-long front porch, believed to be the world’s largest, is worth the price of admission ($10 for non-hotel guests). Kick back in one of the white, wooden rocking chairs that line the porch and take in the turquoise waters of the Straits of Mackinac, the immaculate grounds below the hotel and the mainland. Some 1,400 geraniums in planting boxes adorn the porch.
Linger, or step inside, and you’re likely to run into Bob Tagatz, the hotel’s resident historian. The amiable Tagatz will regale you not only with the history of the impressive hotel, built by railroad and steamship companies, but also of the island. As Tagatz explains, one of the things that strikes most first-time visitors is the building’s bold and colorful interior. The hotel’s public places and nearly 400 rooms and suites have been decorated by Carleton Varney, owner and president of Dorothy Draper and Co.
Tagatz says the bright colors often disarm preconceived notions of a stuffy hotel. “We’re elegant, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously here. We’re not this snobby thing on the hill. The hotel is for everyone, and what fun it is.”
When it’s time to depart, the 25-minute ferry ride back to the mainland is bittersweet, offering a chance to readjust to daily life in the 21st century and take stock of the island’s charms, which are always waiting for a return visit.
Greg Tasker is a writer in Traverse City, Michigan. He works for a winery and writes about Michigan’s tourist destinations.
Reprinted from Columbus Monthly Best Driving Vacations 2020.
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