Have you been to Mackinac Island or know how to pronounce Mackinac? Hint: Say “mack-in-aw” not “mack-in-ack“.
If you haven’t been to Mackinac Island, this article explains where it’s located, what to do, see and eat. You’ll learn what makes Mackinac Island such a popular tourist and Great Lakes cruise destination.
Best Things to Do on Mackinac Island
The unmistakable scent of fresh fudge and horse manure commingle here during the sunny, summer months. Carriage horses clop past manicured gardens and confectioneries beckon along Main Street.
Summer break on Mackinac, whether at the dazzling Victorian-era Grand Hotel (above) or a charming bed-and-breakfast, is a tradition for many Midwesterners.
The island has very few full-time residents and even the horses ship out for the winter. The tourism season relies heavily on seasonality.
During the warm months, cruise lines include Viking, Pearl Seas, and American Queen Voyages, visit Mackinac Island on Great Lakes itineraries.
Not only is the island easily walkable, there are few other options to get around. All of Mackinac is vehicle-free, except for emergency and service vehicles.
Old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages, quaint Main Street and the sprawling historic Grand Hotel make visitors feel like they’ve traveled to the past.
It’s no wonder why the time-travel love story “Somewhere in Time,” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, was shot here.
Where is Mackinac Island?
Not sure where Mackinac Island is located? You’re not alone.
Think of the state of Michigan in two parts; the Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula. The two peninsulas are connected by a very high and long bridge.
In fact, severe wind and bad weather can force the bridge to close until conditions improve.
If you look at a map, Lower Michigan looks a lot like a left-hand mitten. The “thumb” side (east side) is located on Lake Huron while the other side is on Lake Michigan.
Mackinac Island is on the Lake Huron side at the very tip of the mitten, between the two peninsulas. The island is small; about only eight miles in circumference.
How to Get to Mackinac Island
There isn’t a bridge to go from the Lower Peninsula to Mackinac Island. If you want to visit this island known for its natural beauty, historic architecture, and car-free streets, here’s how to get to Mackinac Island.
Ride a Ferry Boat to the Island
The most popular way to reach Mackinac Island is by ferry. Several ferry companies operate between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace on the mainland and Mackinac Island.
Ferry companies that operate services to the island include Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line Ferry.
How long is the ferry ride? The ferry ride is approximately 15 minutes. These ferries operate from April to October.
Since the island nearly shuts down in the winter, there’s only one ferry to get there off-season. And it depends on the weather and ice accumulation if the ferry will run.
Pets and bicycles are allowed on the ferry boats with prior arrangement.
Take an Airplane
Visitors can also fly to Mackinac Island. The island has a small airport that serves regional airlines. These airlines operate from cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Traverse City.
Flights take about an hour or less, and the airport is located about 1.5 miles from the downtown area.
Arrive on Your Private Boat
You can also reach Mackinac Island by private boat.
The island has three marinas, and visitors can dock their boats and explore. No matter how you choose to arrive at the island, it’s hard to have a bad day.
How to Get Around Mackinac Island
Without any cars, except for emergency and service vehicles, getting to Mackinac Island can seem confusing at first. It’s really very easy.
Here’s how to get around on Mackinac Island.
Go for a Horseback Ride
Mackinac is a pedestrian-only island with no cars allowed. As such, horses have played an integral role in transportation for residents, businesses, and tourists.
Take part in the spectacular horse culture of Mackinac Island with a guided ride on horseback offered by one of the stables, like Cindy’s Riding Stable.
A horseback ride offers scenery and history at a relaxed pace. Reservations are recommended for horseback riding.
Try a Mackinac Island Carriage Tour
Carriage tours run frequently and can accommodate small or large groups. Most of the horses on Mackinac Island are seasonal employees.
Here, the carriage horses are treated with care and respect. They work limited shifts, enjoy days off, and live on farms on the mainland for the winter.
In the peak summer season, up to 600 horses traverse the quaint streets of the island — and yes, equine outnumber the year-round human residents.
Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, Inc., established in 1946, claims to be the oldest and largest horse-and-buggy livery in the world, with 100 carriages powered by 400 horses.
Carriage tours range from one to two hours and might include a stop at the Surrey Hills Carriage Museum. Here, you can get a glimpse into the island’s horse-loving past that dates back to the 19th century.
Private carriage tours can also be arranged by the hour. Of course, if you just need a ride from A to B, contact one of Mackinac’s horse-drawn taxis and have some cash on hand for the fare.
Walk Along Mackinac Island’s Main Street
Most storefronts and restaurants on the island are concentrated along Main Street and Market Street.
The street can get busy in the summer months with vacationers and cruise passengers. The cruise ship dock is only 0.2 miles away (about a three-minute walk).
The retail options here are a solid blend of tourist traps and local, artisanal shops. You’ll find souvenir sweatshirts alongside kites from Great Turtle Toys. Buy a hand-drawn postcard from Poppins stationery store.
While it’s hard to ignore all the fudge shops, an island specialty, we’re saving that topic for further down.
The name “Mackinac” is Ojibwe for “Great Turtle,” referring to the island’s shape. That’s why you’ll see many references to turtles throughout the island.
From sculptures to signage, a turtle-themed souvenir is a fitting memento to bring home.
Rent a Bike and Ride Around the Island
In an automobile-free town, bicycles are an excellent way to get around and there are many bike rental shops conveniently located throughout Mackinac Island.
Choose from tandem, single-speed, multi-speed, or e-bikes and gently cycle your way past the flower-covered cottages and Great Lakes shoreline that make Mackinac so special.
There are multiple bike trails stretching for a combined 70 miles around the island, making an afternoon of pedaling the perfect way to see the sights.
There are even a few caves tucked toward the interior of the island, with ominous names like Skull Cave or Devil’s Kitchen, though accessing them isn’t as ominous with a bike.
The M-185 sounds like a highway, but without cars it’s simply a handy 8.2-mile paved road that encircles the island.
It’s an excellent option to ride around the whole of Mackinac in a few hours, with stops, of course. It can be pretty windy on the north side of the island.
Have Lunch and Visit the Grand Hotel
There is no denying that the crown jewel of Mackinac Island is its iconic, Queen Anne-style Grand Hotel.
The historic resort boasts an impressive 660-foot-long front porch, making it the world’s largest front porch.
The Grand Hotel has been hosting families for 135 years, including esteemed guests including former presidents and literary legends like Mark Twain.
Make a reservation at the hotel’s main dining room for the Grand Luncheon Experience, a lunch buffet held daily from noon to 2 p.m.
Try a taste of everything the Michigan island has to offer, from fresh seafood to local cheeses and carved meats.
How Much Does it Cost to Visit the Grand Hotel for the Day?
Yes, you can visit the Grand Hotel for the day. As a full-service resort, prices to stay at the hotel are a tad steep.
Luckily, for day trippers, the grounds of the Grand Hotel are open to non-guests for a $10 fee ($5 for children ages 6 to 9; free for kids age 5 and younger).
Access includes a self-guided tour, with treasured pieces like a centuries’ old grandfather clock directly in the fantastically floral lobby.
There is such a rich past built into the fabric of the hotel, in fact, that the Grand Hotel has the designation of a Historic Hotel of America.
The property also employs its own historian, Bob Tagatz, and if you spot him in his suit and tie with his round-framed glasses, grab him for a quick chat.
The Grand Hotel is a leisurely 15- to 20-minute walk from Main Street. If you want to rest your feet on the way back, the hotel has its own fleet of vintage carriages drawn by drivers in top hats.
Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor is open at the edge of the grounds to non-guests without having to pay an admission fee.
Visit Arch Rock
This particularly appealing rock formation is a stop included on many carriage tours, shore excursions sold by cruise ships, and is hard to miss on a bike ride around Mackinac.
Arch Rock is an ancient 15-story limestone arch and perfect for that can’t-miss souvenir photo op.
It’s both nice to be out among nature along the trails that lead to Arch Rock and the shores of Lake Huron. You’re also near picnic tables and restrooms on this scenic stop.
Nearby is the Nicolet Watch Tower, named for John Nicolet, the first white man to enter Michigan. He did so paddling a birch-bark canoe through the unpredictable Straits of Mackinac.
Mackinac Island Butterfly House
The Original Butterfly House and Insect World is located on McGulpin Street and is open for about six months out of the year.
Mackinac’s Butterfly House is Michigan’s first butterfly conservatory and the third-oldest live butterfly exhibit in the country, going strong for more than 30 years.
This butterfly conservatory is an 1,800-square-foot indoor tropical garden. Inside, there are hundreds of butterflies from around the world, including species from Central and South America, Asia, and Africa.
Butterflies are Free
The butterflies are free to fly around the enclosed space. Visitors can watch them up close as they flutter among the flowers, plants, and trees that make up their habitat.
In addition, the Butterfly House also features educational exhibits and displays about the life cycle of butterflies. You’ll learn their role in pollination, and the importance of conserving their habitats.
There are also interactive exhibits and activities that allow visitors to get a hands-on experience with butterflies. There are feeding stations and a butterfly garden where they can observe caterpillars and chrysalises.
In 2006, the facility added Insect World, with bugs from around the planet, including the world’s heaviest insect species, the 16″ Walking Sticks.
Kids will also enjoy a turtle pond and free butterfly chart to help identify the hundreds of butterflies. From Memorial to Labor Day the Original Butterfly House and Insect World is open daily to the public from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Visit Mackinac Island State Park
Mackinac Island State Park is the largest state park in Michigan and offers a variety of family-fun activities during the tourist season.
Here are some of the different activities you can do at the park:
- Explore the island: Mackinac Island State Park covers a large portion of the island. There are plenty of trails to hike and scenic views to reach. You can rent a bike or take a carriage tour to see the sights.
- Visit historic sites: Mackinac Island has a rich history, and the state park is home to several historic sites, including Fort Mackinac (see below) and the Governor’s Mansion.
- Swim and relax on the beach: The state park has several beaches where you can swim, sunbathe, and relax.
- Go on a nature walk: The park is home to a variety of wildlife, including deer and birds, and has many scenic paths to explore.
- Attend events and festivals: If your timing is good, Mackinac Island State Park hosts a variety of events and festivals. These include the Lilac Festival, the Mackinac Island Music Festival, and the Mackinac Island Fudge Festival.
- Enjoy outdoor activities: There are many outdoor activities to enjoy at the park, such as kayaking, fishing, and of course horseback riding.
Explore Fort Mackinac
Fort Mackinac is a historic military fort originally built by the British during the American Revolutionary War in 1780.
The fort was later taken over by the United States after the war. Fort Mackinac played a significant role in the War of 1812, serving as a strategic location for American forces to control the Great Lakes region.
Today, Fort Mackinac is a popular tourist attraction. Visitors can tour the fort and its grounds to learn about its history. There are exhibits and demonstrations of military life during the 19th century.
The fort is also home to several historical reenactments and events throughout the year, including musket and cannon firings, military drills, and period costume presentations.
Where and What to Eat on Mackinac Island in the Summer
Now let’s talk about where to eat and what foods to try on Mackinac Island in the summer.
Grand Hotel: As mentioned above, the Grand Hotel is a historic landmark and a must-visit destination on Mackinac Island. The hotel offers several dining options, including the famous Grand Luncheon Buffet, that features a variety of fresh salads, seafood, and other delicious dishes.
The Pink Pony: The Pink Pony is a popular restaurant and bar located in the Chippewa Hotel. The restaurant offers a variety of dishes, including fresh seafood, burgers, and sandwiches. It also has a great selection of craft beers and cocktails.
Mary’s Bistro Draught House: This is another great restaurant that offers a variety of dishes, including fresh seafood, burgers, and pizzas. The restaurant also has a great selection of craft beers and a beautiful outdoor patio.
Doud’s Market: Don’t feel like a sit-down restaurant or prefer to picnic? Doud’s Market on Main Street is a great place to grab a quick lunch or snack. The market offers a variety of sandwiches, salads, and other deli items.
Murdick’s Fudge: Mackinac Island original and famous for its fudge, Murdick’s is one of the best places to try it. The fudge is made fresh daily, with a variety of flavors to choose.
As Promised: The History of Mackinac Island Fudge
The history of Mackinac Island fudge dates back to the late 19th century. According to legend, the first batch of fudge was accidentally created in 1887 by a local candy maker named Henry Murdick.
Murdick was attempting to make caramels, but due to the cold temperatures and humidity on the island, his mixture kept turning into fudge.
Murdick’s fudge quickly became a popular treat among the island’s residents and visitors. Soon other candy makers began creating their own versions of the sweet treat.
By the early 20th century, fudge had become one of the island’s most popular souvenirs. Visitors flock to candy shops to purchase boxes of the rich, creamy confection to take home.
Fudge Capital of the World
Today, Mackinac Island is known as the “fudge capital of the world,” and the island’s numerous candy shops offer a wide variety of fudge flavors and styles.
Traditional flavors like chocolate and vanilla remain popular. In addition, many shops also offer unique varieties like pumpkin spice, maple nut, and even savory flavors like bacon and cheddar.
The island’s fudge shops continue to draw visitors from around the world, and the sweet treat remains an iconic part of Mackinac Island’s history and culture.
Today, Main Street is stocked with brands like Original Murdick’s, Joann’s, and Ryba’s, with multiple locations and the allure of fudge wafting from open doors is undeniable.
Visit a Fudge Shop
According to Michigan’s tourism board, nearly 10,000 pounds of fudge are made on the island each day during peak tourist season. As is tradition, visitors can stop in front of a shop window or step inside for an up-close look at how fudge is made.
Watch as the fudge is made by hand on marble slabs with all-natural ingredients. You can even ask for a free sample!
No visit to Mackinac Island is complete without tasting a bit of fudge. But be wary during the hot summer days – fudge can and should be refrigerated to help it last longer.
Most shops also sell and ship online year-round for sweet cravings in off-season.
Overall, Mackinac Island is a wonderful destination for those looking for a unique and peaceful vacation experience.
Whether you’re interested in history, outdoor activities, or just want to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the island, there is something for everyone to enjoy.