Located in the southeast corner of Michigan’s upper peninsula, Mackinac Island (pronounced Mack-i-naw) has long been an island resort. With a land area less than 4 square miles, it won’t take you long to explore the island. In fact, one day on Mackinac Island is plenty of time to see the main attractions. Its quiet streets, local restaurants and natural beauty may beg you for a longer stay, though.
What’s so great about Mackinac Island? For us, it was the car-free streets! Yep, there are no cars on the island. Folks get around by walking, bicycling or horse-drawn carriage. The natural beauty and history are pretty great, too.
Whether you are looking for a place to get out and explore or sit back and relax, Mackinac Island is a great getaway.
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A Bit of History
Mackinac Island has a history of being a Native American burial ground. It was the natives who first named the region “Michilimackinac,” meaning big turtle (referring to the profile of the island). A French-Canadian explorer is believed to be the first “white man” to see and explore the island. By the late 1600s, Mackinac Island, which sits on Lake Huron, served as one of the most important stops on the Great Lakes fur trade.
Following the French and Indian War, the British gained control of the island, eventually building Fort Mackinac high up on the bluffs. The fort never saw battle during the American Revolution but the US acquired the land through a treaty agreement.
Fort Mackinac eventually saw action during the War of 1812 when the British surprised the fort, forcing its surrender. Despite a couple of hard-fought battles by the US, the British retained control. Finally, the US received Mackinac Island in the Treaty of Ghent following the War of 1812.
Not long after that, John Jacob Astor set up the headquarters for his American Fur Company on Mackinac Island. Eventually, commercial and sport fishing took over as the leading industries on the island. This ultimately led to Mackinac Island establishing itself as a premier tourist destination.
Something we did not know before visiting is that the island actually was the second national park, dubbed Mackinac National Park in 1875. This designation led to even more tourism and the hotels and souvenir shops multiplied and flourished.
Twenty years later, in 1895, the US Army decommissioned the fort and turned the island over to the state. Mackinac Island State Park became Michigan’s first state park and covers roughly 80% of the island.
Getting To Mackinac Island
While there is a small airport on Mackinac Island, it is open to private and charter flights only. All other transportation to the island is by passenger ferry.
You can take a ferry from Mackinaw City (located on the northern tip of the “mitten” of mainland Michigan) or St. Ignace (located on the upper peninsula on the north end of the Mackinac Bridge). Ferries run throughout the day during the warmer months, late April through October. In the height of summer, the ferries run roughly every 30 minutes.
We stayed in St. Ignace (more on that below) and took the ferry from there. Whether you are coming from St. Ignace or Mackinaw City (yes, the city name is spelled differently from the island name… Confusing, I know), you can take either Shepler’s Ferry or Star Line Ferry. Costs are the same and the times are basically the same.
Honestly, I picked Shepler’s because the parking seemed to be not quite as complicated. More importantly, I was trying to avoid a “Mighty Mac” departure, which spends an extra 10 minutes or so going out to Mackinac Bridge instead of going straight to Mackinac Island. Both ferries offer this “excursion” at various times throughout the day, for no extra charge.
As it was, we got on an earlier boat than intended and did take a Mighty Mac ferry. It was kind of interesting to see the bridge from underneath, but not something that I really cared too much about. Choose your ferry line and time based on getting or avoiding this little “side trip” to the bridge.
Getting Around Mackinac Island
As mentioned previously, cars are not allowed on the island. Yep, you heard me correctly. No cars. Seriously, even the “garbage truck” we saw was actually a horse-drawn carriage!
In the late 19th century, as tourism increased, a few visitors brought cars to the island. The noise of these early cars bothered the horses and the carriage drivers complained. It didn’t take long for the town council to ban “horseless carriages,” a ban that still stands today.
So, once you’re on the island you can get around by foot, bike or horse. As soon as you get off the ferry you’ll be greeted by horse-drawn carriages and bicycle shops lining Main Street.
If you just want to see the “town” part of Mackinac Island, you can easily walk. To explore the “backcountry” of the island, you’ll likely want a bike. If you need to call a taxi, it’ll be a horse-drawn carriage.
I’ve read that emergency vehicles and “service trucks” are allowed on the island, but we didn’t see any. In the winter, snowmobiles are allowed, as most horses are moved to the mainland.
Things to Do on Mackinac Island
With just one day on Mackinac Island, you can bike the perimeter road, explore Fort Mackinac and enjoy the historic downtown. If you choose to stay longer, you’ll have more time to explore the interior roads and trails, learn more about the history of the island and relax and enjoy the often fabulous summer weather.
Biking the Perimeter of Mackinac Island
To explore the island, you’ll want to bring or rent a bicycle. If bringing your own bike, there is a small surcharge by the ferry. Of course, it’s still cheaper than renting a bike for any more than just an hour.
There are several bike shops lining Main Street. My understanding is that all the shops charge the same price, which is nice. For that reason, we just stopped at the first one, Mackinac Island Bike. Here we rented two all-purpose bicycles for $10/hour. The best part is that you won’t be charged you until you return the bike. Additionally, rental fees are prorated.
Once we had our bikes, we headed off on the perimeter road, M-185, which is Main Street in town and Lake Shore Road elsewhere on the island. According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, this is “the only state highway in the nation where motor vehicles are banned.” I have to say, not having to worry about cars was glorious!
We spent 2 hours, 20 minutes biking the 8-mile perimeter, with lots of stops along the way. The road is almost completely flat, with only a couple of sections that gave us a very small amount of difficulty going uphill. You could definitely get around the island in less time, probably 1.5-2 hours, even with a few quick stops.
As you bike the coastline of Mackinac Island, you’ll have amazing views of Lake Huron and the Straits of Mackinac the entire time. The road truly is right on the coast. In fact, in a few places, you’ll have to watch out for splashing waves or you’ll get hit with a very cold surprise!
Also, watch for roadside signs pointing you to a few of Mackinac Island’s best natural features along the route. Each mile is marked in a counter-clockwise rotation, with the starting point being downtown at Marquette Park.
Just past the one-mile marker, you’ll find Arch Rock, a natural limestone arch. This is the most impressive of all of Mackinac Island’s features. You can stop here and walk up 200+ steps to see the arch. Yes, it’s tough, but it’s doable.
That said, you can get to Arch Rock without having to go up all those steps if you’re trying to save time on your bike rental or just can’t maneuver that many stairs. If you forgo the hike to the top, at least stop just past the sign and admire the arch from the road.
For a less strenuous visit to Arch Rock, you can take a carriage tour. You could also walk the interior roads. It’ll still be a walk of about a mile from town, but you won’t have to hike up all those stairs.
Expect to find crowds here. Just be patient and you’ll get a nice view of the arch and Lake Huron.
Lake Shore Nature Trail
About 1.5 miles past Arch Rock is the Lake Shore Nature Trail. This very short trail/boardwalk loops through the trees and coastal bog. Exhibits describe the local flora and fauna.
If you’re looking to stretch your legs and explore, this is a nice stop. That said, if you have limited time you won’t miss much if you skip it.
Point aux Pins
The northernmost point of Mackinac Island is dubbed Point aux Pins and lies at the 4-mile mark of the perimeter road. As we passed this point we noticed a distinct increase in the wind speed. Of course, this resulted in an also noticeable decrease in temperature.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that we had made a poor decision by not stopping for lunch sooner.
I’m not sure if this is normal or if it depends on how the wind is blowing. At the very least, I would expect the east side and the west side to have different wind patterns.
British Landing Nature Center
At 4.5 miles, you come to the British Landing Nature Center, which is your restroom break! Inside the nature center, you’ll find a small exhibit area on the animals and the geology of the island. I think there are also a few picnic tables, but we had already stopped to eat lunch along the windy shoreline.
This does make a nice, shaded, stop at about the half-way point if you need a break.
The final stop along the perimeter road is Devil’s Kitchen, between miles 6 and 7. Here you can see a small cave carved out by the waves thousands of years ago. This was just a very quick stop for us.
Honestly, this stop wasn’t super impressive. Then again, we’ve seen a lot of caves. And at this point, we were watching the time on our bike rental.
As you return to town, you’ll pass the school, cottages, hotels and shops. You will definitely know you’re back in town when you really have to start dodging people. Honestly, I did not like riding the bike through town at all.
With walkers, other bikers and horse-drawn carriages, the streets were just too crowded to enjoy riding a bike. We quickly bee-lined it for the bike return so that we could start exploring the attractions closer to town on foot.
Perhaps the most interesting site in town is Fort Mackinac. If you want to know more about the history of the island, this is the place to find it. You’ll save a tiny amount of money if you purchase the ticket to the fort along with your ferry ticket.
Even if you aren’t interested in exploring the fort, you should walk up to the area to see the view over downtown and the harbor. It really is quite impressive! From high up on the bluff, it is obvious why a fort was built here.
I have to be honest, we’ve been to a ton of forts over the years. Fort Mackinac is not that dissimilar to most other forts. Still, it’s worth an hour or two of your time to learn a bit of the history of the island. In the summer, you’ll likely find costumed interpreters performing rifle- and cannon-firing and other demonstrations.
We spent about an hour exploring the fort and the various exhibits on life and military operations here. You could certainly spend longer here if you have a particular interest or haven’t visited quite as many forts as we have.
From Fort Mackinac, I suggest you continue uphill to Fort Holmes. This redoubt sits on the highest point of Mackinac Island and provides fantastic views of the water and the fort. You do not need a ticket to visit Fort Holmes.
Other Sites on Mackinac Island
There are a few other sites near downtown that you might want to visit, depending on your interests.
The Grand Hotel, which dates back to 1887, sits just uphill of the west end of downtown. As you might guess from its name, it’s quite large and impressive. In fact, the Grand Hotel is home to the world’s longest porch.
Unfortunately, to sit on the porch and admire the view (or check out the lobby), the hotel charges a $10 fee for non-guests. While the hotel sounds nice, we didn’t want to pay $20 for the two of us to wander through a hotel.
If you’re looking for a free place to just sit and relax, I’d head over to Marquette Park. Located between the east end of Main Street and Fort Mackinac, this large park is a perfect outdoor area. There is plenty of room here to enjoy the fresh air or let the kids run around.
A carriage tour is another way to see some of the highlights of the town. According to the web site, the tour will take you past the Grand Hotel, Fort Mackinac, Arch Rock, the Butterfly Conservatory and includes a visit to the carriage museum.
We seriously considered doing a carriage tour, but ultimately chose to rent bikes instead. If we ever visit Mackinac Island again, we’ll likely spring for a carriage tour.
Main Street Shopping and Dining
Along Main Street, which is where the ferries dock, you’ll find all the shopping and dining you can think of. Mackinac Island is known for outstanding fudge, so you’ll find an abundance of fudge shops, in addition to the usual souvenir shops.
There’s also a wide variety of dining options, including pizza, bars and upscale restaurants.
For an afternoon beverage and then dinner, we stopped at the Pink Pony. I didn’t have any good reason for picking this restaurant, other than I had heard of it, though I couldn’t tell you when or where.
Grant got the Mountain Town Pink Pony Ale and I opted for their signature cocktail, an island rum runner. We both enjoyed our drinks and the Buffalo Chicken Dip after a long day of cycling and walking. For dinner, we had the Fish Tacos and a French Dip, which were both tasty.
This restaurant was a great way to end our one day on Mackinac Island.
Before jumping on the ferry, we had to make a quick stop for souvenirs and, of course, fudge! We chose Murdick’s Fudge since they were the island’s first candy shop back in 1887. The shop offers a large variety of flavors.
We came home with a slice each of Chocolate Mint, Traverse City Cherry and Michigan Maple Walnut. Speaking of which… I think I need to go get a bite now.
Where to Stay
There are several hotels and bed & breakfasts on Mackinac Island, though you won’t find any chains. We contemplated staying a night on the island, but with the already high prices and overnight parking for the camper, we opted against it.
Instead, we camped at Straits State Park in St. Ignace. The state park campground was nice, though it did not offer water or sewer hookups. My only real complaint about this park is that every day you are there you need a parks pass, even when you’ve already paid for camping. That meant for our 3-night stay, we needed to pay for 4 days. It actually was cheaper for us to get an annual pass.
Other than having to pay for the pass, our stay was nice. The bathrooms were great and our site, at least, was reasonably private and very nicely shaded.
The state park is also home to the Father Marquette National Memorial, which is across the interstate from the park. This site commemorates the French Jesuit missionary Jaques Marquette, who founded the first European settlement in Michigan.
There are also a number of hotels in St. Ignace that, generally, are cheaper than staying on Mackinac Island. Given that you can see most of the island with just a day trip, staying in St. Ignace is not a bad option, especially if you want to save a little money.
Final Thoughts on Mackinac Island
For us, one day on Mackinac Island was just about perfect. We took the 10:30 ferry from St. Ignace, arriving on the island right around 11 am. We spent almost 2.5 hours cycling the island and another 2.5 hours walking to the fort and other attractions in to town. After that, all we needed was dinner and a drink, along with a little souvenir shopping! We were back on the ferry to St. Ignace at 7 pm.
With another day, we certainly could have enjoyed more time exploring the other inland streets and trails. If you’re really looking to get away, the summer weather and general quietness of the island could certainly be enjoyable for several days.
The lack of cars was amazing and even with all the people, the absence of engine noise was noticeable and refreshing. I definitely could live somewhere that didn’t allow cars, though 4 square miles might be a little too small of an area for me.
Mackinac Island is a great place to visit, though, and I could certainly see us coming back one day.