Mackinac (pronounced “Mackinaw”) Island, a special, one-of-a-kind vacation spot with an old-timey atmosphere, is a favorite for traveling families. Where East Coast historical charm meets West Coast natural beauty, this Michigan island at the confluence of the Great Lakes is a must for travelers of all ages and no matter what their interests. There’s something for everyone here to enjoy and savor.
I have had the pleasure of visiting this special island destination on three occasions and continue to be charmed by this beautiful spot in the world and even more so every time I return. During our first trip, we had been totally captivated by this hidden gem—a Victorian summer resort with horse-drawn buggies and bicycles as its only mode of transportation.
This island has been deemed a truly “all-natural” theme park of America. With the majority of the island covered by the beautiful natural beauty of Mackinac Island State Park and transportation is limited to horse & buggy, bicycle or by foot, this special place has somehow escaped the changes of time.
I have written this article based on my own experience of visiting the island, the contributions of Club Bébé Voyage members who have also spent time there, and the unique insider of a Mackinac Island summer resident from our community. A “summer islander”, Laura Bobinsky is pretty much as close as it gets to getting advice from a local!
Where Is Mackinac Island?
Mackinac Island is situated in Lake Huron ensconced between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The island is the the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary home of Bands of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians, a state recognized tribe of Ojibwe and Odawa Native Americans.
How To Get to Mackinac Island
What makes Mackinac Island so special is how remote it is. In order to get there, you must either drive to Mackinaw City on the Lower Peninsula or St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula, park your car and take a 20-minute ferry ride over. The biggest cities that people visit are Detroit and Chicago, which are a four-hour and a six-hour drive to Mackinac Island respectfully.
I would try to stay for at least three days to really get a feel for this slice of paradise and allow its charm to fully envelop you. The first time we went, it was only a day trip from Harbor Springs, MI, one of our many stops during our week-long Michigan road trip. “Pure Michigan” is so replete with natural beauty–sandy beaches and dunes and cool blue waters to name a few–that if you are trying to do a more encompassing trip, a day trip to Mackinac Island is feasible. See how I did it in my Tour of Lake Michigan itinerary (Hyperlink).
However, if time permits, I would strongly recommend booking a hotel or bed-and-breakfast on the island and staying for at least three nights to fully embrace the unique atmosphere of this place.
Why Go to Mackinac Island?
Mackinac Island truly has something for everyone. The island is full of biking and hiking trails for nature-lovers. It also boasts a fascinating history thanks to its unique geographic location. At the crossroads of two of the Great Lakes and between the United States and Canada, this island was an area of contention during the War of 1812 and also the hub of trading in the 1820s and 30s. By the 1850s, it was already starting to attract vacation seekers.
Go if you like to explore the outdoors and if you like history and charming Victorian houses. Definitely go if you think riding on a horse and buggy is fun. Go if you like beautiful sunsets. Go if you like fudge!
Mackinac Island and its Fascinating History
A set of six markers describing Native American history and trade, burial grounds and history can be found at strategic spots on the road which runs around the island’s perimeter. Indeed, Mackinac Island has a long and rich history that began centuries before Europeans arrived. The island was known to the indigenous peoples as “Great Turtle” and was inhabited by the Ojibwa and the Odawa tribes. According to U.S. census figures, 20% of the year-round population of Mackinac Island are Native Americans.
Until recently, very little was done to showcase the important Native American history, but in recent years, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, in partnership with the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians has poured effort into communicating this history to visitors through the signposts and other efforts.
In the mid-1600s, French missionaries arrived — the reconstructed Missionary Bark Chapel, located in Marquette Park, commemorates that mission.
By 1720, the Straits of Mackinac had become the primary transportation corridor in the Upper Great Lakes, fueling a vibrant fur trade that powered the economy of New France. While the fur trade remained the primary economic activity in the Mackinac area well into the 19th century, 40 years the French will relinquish control of Mackinac to the British following the French & Indian War.
While Mackinac Island was the hub of fur trading, a number of European fur traders married Indigenous women who held important roles in the business, in some cases, were more prominent than their husbands.
Make sure to stop by the Biddle House, the oldest structure on the Island which dates to about 1780, which was recently redone through the eyes of Agatha Biddle, the Odawa chief who married a Philadelphia fur trader and was a front-row witness to key events on the island in the early 19th century.
With the treaty of the War of 1812 did Mackinac Island come under the control of the United States. That war included the famous Battle of Mackinac when the British repelled an American attack. You can relive that battle by visiting Fort Mackinac — more on that below.
While the fur trade continued well into the 1800s, the military and economic significance of Fort Mackinac began to wane. By the latter half of the 19th century, Mackinac Island became a summer resort. Much of the island was designated as a national park, and beautiful hotels and Victorian cottages began sprouting. As more vacationers arrived, entrepreneurs worked to make Mackinac Island synonymous with fudge, which has stuck to this day.
Kid-Friendly Activities on Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island is a great place to take kids of all ages.
Explore the Island by Bicycle
Famous for its bike paths, Mackinac Island has leisurely bike rides and more athletic bike trails. For families, the bike ride around the island is an ideal way to get some fresh air while discovering the beautiful scenery. There are plenty of spots to stop along the beaches and trails.
If you have small children who do not know how to bike yet, from the many bicycle rental shops on the island, you can rent bicycles with all kinds of kids’ seats.
Consider a stop at Brown’s Brook on the road around the island for a short nature trail and a view of a large stream and underground water source.
Keep an eye out for the signposts educating visitors of the impressive Native American history.
Take a Horse-and-Carriage Tour Around the Island
The first time we visited Mackinac Island, we were only there for an afternoon and one of the main things we did was this carriage ride. It was a great way to learn about the history of the island while admiring the stunning scenery and views. Our son was two-and-a-half years old at the time. That was probably the youngest age that children can appreciate the novelty of a carriage ride.
Visit Fort Mackinac
This historic military fort will take you back over 220 years to the war of 1812 when the British fought the Americans and remained active until 1895.
You can either get here by climbing the steps for Marquette Park or by carriage or bike. The views from the top are jaw-dropping.
The fort is now a museum and adapted for kids. Every 45 minutes, soldiers in period costumes perform reenactments and even fire a cannon.
Go for a Hike in Stonecliffe
Stonecliffe Inn is a lovely hotel outside the town, which we recommend for a drink further down. Consider coming a bit before sunset to explore the trails of the hotel grounds to watch the sunset from Sunset Rocks. See if you can find the path down to the water that follows an old ski slope – that’s right, they once tried skiing on Mackinac Island!
More Hiking Ideas
Eat the Fudge and the Ice Cream!
Michigan is well known for its fudge and ice cream. Once you step off the ferry, you can already smell that sweet delicious smell of fudge. The best prices on ice cream are at Joann’s on the town’s main street.
Discover Grand Hotel’s “Secret Garden”
A newer addition to the property, you can access them by the tennis courts at the base of the hill.
Other Fun Family Activities on Mackinac Island
- Fly a Kite at Mission Point— there are good ones on sale at the local toy store.
- See the butterflies and bugs at The Original Mackinac Island Butterfly House and Insect World.
- Enjoy the playgrounds at the school, Marquette Park, and Turtle Park in the center of the island.
- For older kids — glow in the dark mini golf on upscale putting greens at Mission Point.
Important Info for Traveling Parents: Public restrooms Around the Island!
In town across the street from the main star line dock, at the visitor center by the marina, near the entrance to the fort, at Arch Rock, at Fort Holmes and at British Landing. If you chose to use the woods watch for poison ivy – there’s a lot of it!
When To Visit
The best time to visit is in the summer when the island caters to visitors. The rest of the year only 500 people live here.
The last weekend in October closes out the season. On the Saturday, the island celebrates Halloween with the Great Turtle Trail Run, trick-or-treating for kids through downtown shops, and Halloween costume parties for adults in island establishments in the evening.
Even though the prime tourism season ends on Halloween, Mackinac Island remains open through the winter. An increasing number of visitors are visiting for Mackinac Island’s holiday festivities.
Where To Eat & Drink
Grab Hot Dogs or Brats at Windermere Point
This is a good lunch deal for kids. You are sitting outside in front of a stunning view of the surrounding lake facing the incoming and outgoing ferries.
Enjoy the Best Donuts on the Island at the Carriage Museum
If you take a carriage tour or stop here on a bike ride, you cannot miss these donuts made freshly. Enjoy them on the rolling lawn while watching the off duty horses frolic in the pasture.
Sipping Cocktails at Pink Pony
Pink Pony is located inside the Chippewa Hotel and serves the best cocktails and the best whitefish dip on the island. It also has a great outdoor patio overlooking the water.
Insider tip: They also sell their bikes at the end of every season so it’s a great way to get bikes for the kids.
Have a Drink at Stonecliffe
Come here around sunset, get a drink, and go for a walk to admire the stunning sunset views.
Enjoy Lunch with Stunning Views at the Tea Room
The Tea Room is operated by the Grand Hotel. This is a must for local summer resident, Laura Bobinsky, at all times.
Enjoy Lunch at the Fort Overlooking the Stunning View of the Lake
Stop at the Cannonball for Lunch
Consider ice cream or lunch at the Cannonball at British Landing, the only stop on an adventure around the island by bike or by foot. On the menu: hot dogs, burgers, half a BBQ chicken, and more. Lines can be long during the day due to popularity.
Enjoy a Meal at Yankee Rebel
Yankee Rebel is a local favorite restaurant in town.
On the menu, you will learn a slice of Mackinac’s impressive history:
“The Yankee Rebel Tavern was named after the patriot, Ambrose R. Davenport, who arrived on Mackinac Island as a military enlistee and later became a wealthy fur trader. While a prisoner of war during the War of 1812, Davenport refused allegiance to the British crown and simply, but proudly, declared, “I was born in America and am determined at all hazards, to live and die an American citizen.”
Grab pizza slices, salad or prepared Eli items from Doud’s Market, one of the oldest family-owned grocery stores in America. Enjoy a picnic in Marquette Park, on the beach or at one or the many picnic tables around the island. You can enjoy an adult beverage in Marquette Park, but you have to be a certain distance from the street (to be safe from about the statue and back). Mackinac summer resident, Laura Bobinksy’s favorite picnic table locations are at Sugar Loaf (only 1 table) or at Fort Holmes.
On your way back to Mackinaw City, head over to Scalawags for fresh fish from the Great Lakes!
Where To Stay
For a hotel with a larger suite, access to a pool, breakfast and onsite bar, Stonecliffe is a good option especially if you like to ride bikes and want to be away from town.
If you are looking for a super central option right on Main Street, this might be a good fit. I personally think it’s too close to the hustle and bustle, as it’s located right across the street from the ferry port. The hotel has nice rooms and beautiful views of the water.
If you are looking for a hotel oozing with historical charm, look no further. It’s a short walk from the best Mackinac Island attractions, yet away from the bustling traffic of downtown.
We loved staying in this charming Bed & Breakfast with a lovely backyard and a very short walk from the downtown area.
Honestly, there are so many great accommodation options at Mackinac Island. Check out a few other options here.
As you can see, you really should come to Mackinac Island for a few days to fully take advantage of everything this magical place has to offer. We love Mackinac Island! If you do decide to visit for a few days, check the local newspaper for community activities in Marquette Park. There are often free concerts during the summer.
Mackinac Island is truly a special place and community. Here is some of its latest news showcasing how the tight-nit community stepped in to save this wedding that was dramatically interrupted by a fire.
If you are tracking to Mackinac Island, you might want to head further north and explore the Upper Peninsula, check out some of our ideas here.
For more in-depth information about Michigan, we have an itinerary that Juliet followed in 2016 that you can get for free if you become a member.
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