Mackinac Island is the no-cars-allowed historical wonder that sits in Lake Huron, smack between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. The island is a popular family vacation destination, but it’s also a great day trip. Learn some history, take a long bike ride, eat some yummy fudge and watch out for the horse poop are just a few of the things to do on Mackinac Island during a throw-back day trip to a earlier time.
Only a mile from the Michigan border, my parents’ home is a quick drive to the Warren Dunes State Park and it was a favorite place to visit with my friends when I was a teenager. Once I grew up and had a child of my own, it became a must-see for us every summer when we returned to visit. Up the west side of Michigan we’d go, stopping at New Buffalo and Sawyer and Silver Beach, but we’d never been north of Grand Rapids into northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula. Last summer, my dad suggested we visit Mackinac Island but we didn’t make it up there. This summer I was determined to remedy that, and we decided an RV was the perfect way to get there.
Catching the Ferry
After parking the RV in Leelanau on the first night, we headed out at 8:30 AM the next morning and reached the Shepler’s Landing ferry stop around 11:15. All around us, people were lining up to catch a ferry to the island with families and with or without bicycles. Mackinac Island has the unusual distinction of not allowing any cars on the island, and bikes and horses are the main modes of transport. A few competitive ferry companies vie for business, with different routes and features. We could have even booked a pirate ship replica for our ferry, but my tween shrugged nonchalantly as to indicate his apathy, so we caught the first ferry we could.
Sitting atop the upper level, we could see the island as it got closer and closer and the Grand Hotel pulled into focus. This magnificent National Historic Landmark has been in business since 1887, and each of its 397 rooms has its own personality and associated décor. Recognized often as one of the most kid-friendly family destinations in the United States, Grand Hotel shows its colors right up front with a tantalizing ice cream parlor that draws you in. Of course, we stopped and had a cone, enjoying every lick outdoors on the patio.
Mackinac Island Treat: The Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel’s front porch is the world’s largest at 660 feet, and the pristine white columns shine like a welcoming beacon. If you have ever experienced the no-worries, we-have-you-covered Disney or cruise experience, the Grand Hotel emulates that with a process that whisks you from the ferry to the hotel. Your luggage is handed over when you debark the ferry and it’s shuttled straight to your room. Day trips make it even easier because there’s no luggage to handle.
Next time I go to the island, I won’t forget to pack a dress: for guests staying at the Grand, men are required to wear sport jackets and ties after 6:30 and women are encouraged to wear their Sunday Best, too. It’s no wonder the producers of the Christopher Reeve movie “Somewhere in Time” chose the Grand Hotel as the filming location.
Every October, incidentally, Grand Hotel hosts a “Somewhere in Time” weekend with a period costume gala, panel discussions, and a movie screening. An annual Titanic party takes place every July, set in the same year in history: 1912.
Mackinaw or Mackinac?
We boarded the ferry at Mackinaw City, which whisked us over to Mackinac Island. Here’s the tricky part, as I explained to my tween: both names are pronounced “MACK-in-awe.” Named by Native Americans from the Great Lakes region, Mackinac is short for Michilimackinac (said to mean “great turtle” or “big turtle” based on the island’s shape).
Mackinac is called “the jewel of the Great Lakes” for good reason. East of the straits of Mackinac and solidly on the Lake Huron side, Mackinac Island was a major trading post for fur trade in the late 1700s to the early 1800s. Historic sites abound on this island, and there is a lot to see.
Touring Mackinac Island on Foot
Mackinac Island is wonderfully walkable; as soon as we stepped off the ferry, we merged into Market Street, the main drag. In historic downtown Mackinac, we found a working 1950s era blacksmith called Benjamin Blacksmith Shop; the American Fur Company Store; and a museum dedicated to Dr. William Beaumont, who pioneered studies of the human digestive system. We didn’t have time to avail ourselves of one of the walking tours, which would have given all of the details on each site.
On rainy days, the stores are packed with fun novelty items and books and gifts, and there are no cars to splash water on you from the streets. The island’s Original Butterfly House and Insect World is a great pick for indoor entertainment too, or you could duck into one of the many restaurants, ice cream shops, and candy stores. At lunchtime, we stopped at the Carriage House, which had outdoor seating with a view of the ferries docking at the island. Our waiter had a dry sense of humor and the manager was wonderful about answering our questions about food allergies; my son is allergic to eggs and I’m allergic to nuts. We are super fun.
Do you have a hankering to use a cannon? Even if you never considered it before, at Fort Mackinac, you can pay $50 to help clean, load, prime, and then fire it with a giant BOOM. From June through October, one person per day is permitted to fire the cannon 150 feet above the park below. Kids are welcome to sign up as long as they’re 13 or older, which was a bitter disappointment to my ten year old. I think he already has his calendar marked for late 2022.
For a beautiful view and a wealth of historic knowledge, add Fort Mackinac and Mackinac Island State Park to your dance card for the day.The best value ticket includes entrance to Fort Mackinac, the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum, Biddle House, and Historic Downtown Mackinac. If you’re bringing your pets along, feel free: well-behaved pets on leashes are welcome, and a water bowl sits near the front entrance for furry friends. On the ferry, an adorable Pomeranian smiled at me from two seats over, but it could have been that she smelled the potato chips on our fingers from lunch.
Horses and Carriages for Rent or Hire
Our equine friends are key at Mackinac Island, since no cars are allowed. From various locations on the main street, you can catch a narrated, horse-drawn ride on a Mackinac Island carriage tour. Or you might choose to go horseback riding on a guided or unguided tour or rent your own private carriage. Less common but still available is the opportunity to drive your own horse and buggy around the island for a unique way to experience the carriage ride. Kids will love to visit the horses in the barn at Mackinac Horseman’s Association and Community Equestrian Center or Jack’s Livery Stable.
Watch your step – I made the mistake of looking up at the Victorian homes instead of at the road, and my feet and landed in a pile of what are delicately termed “road apples”. Oops. The island is very clean overall with diligent street cleaners, but horses are live animals and they do what they doo-doo.
Hop on a Bike
You don’t have to look very far to find a bicycle renting company on Mackinac. If you have your own bike, you’re welcome to bring it on the ferry, but you should know that it will cost extra – Shepler’s (one of the ferry companies) charges $13 per bike to bring to the island. When we go back and stay for several days, it would a smart move to bring our own. However, for a day or a quick getaway, leaving the bikes home and renting them on the island makes the most sense.
There are several places to rent a bike right on Market Street, and they offer single-speed bikes, tandem bikes, bike trailers to tow kids or pets, and more. The prices are reasonable, starting at about $8 per hour.
The trail around the perimeter of the island is mostly flat, and my 10-year-old son and I piloted a tandem with ease. My son is not a fan of riding his bike, but I convinced him to pair up with me and after a few minutes of uncertainty, he started to enjoy it and wanted to go faster and faster. Take it easy, though – believe it or not, you can actually get a speeding ticket or even a DUI while biking. Signs reading “Don’t speed” dot the bike trail around the 8.2-mile perimeter and most people are cruising along casually.
My parents took a bike ride with us too – Dad is 76 and Mom is 74 – and one hill gave them a little trouble, but they were troopers. You’ll see everyone from tiny kids to octogenarians biking with everything on two (non-motorized) wheels. The clear, clean lake and views of Mackinac Bridge charmed us as we rode. There are a number of roads and paths through the center of the island as well, and some of them are quite hilly and strenuous, so plan your day around your desired effort level.
While you’re tooling around the island, don’t miss one of the most photogenic spots: Arch Rock. This natural formation came about during the post-glacial period and frames Lake Huron with a gorgeous view. Standing over 146 feet above the lake (nearly 15 stories tall!), Arch Rock can be accessed from above or below. If you start from the bottom, it’s a challenging climb up, so we didn’t tackle it this time. Next time, for sure!
Fudge, Exercise, or Both?
If biking is not your thing but you love the water, there are scores of options: boating, tubing, kayaking (Great Turtle Kayak Tours is a great place to start), and more. While biking around the island, I had to take off my shoes and socks and cool off in Lake Huron. As I dipped a toe into the clear waters, I braced for cold, and it was pleasantly refreshing. The surface of the water runs about 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, which is about 15 degrees colder than I prefer for a pool swim. It’s perfectly wonderful in the heat of the summer, though.
We don’t hit the links except for mini-golf, but we know the golf courses on Mackinac Island are scenic and beautifully groomed. Bring your sticks if you’re a golfer and you’ll find spectacular greens. The natural beauty of the island is evident as far as you can see, and it’s well worth the drive from wherever you are. Looking for an escape to northern Michigan? Mackinac Island and all of the towns along the way is the perfect summer getaway.
Oh, and before you leave, don’t forget a few slabs of fudge from any one of the fudge shops on the island. We tried Murdick’s, which is the original and has been on the island since 1887. The maple fudge is dynamite, and my son loved the double chocolate. As you board the ferry and look out toward Round Island Lighthouse, the Mackinac Bridge, the towering Sugar Loaf rock formation, and more. I felt that pang of regret as we were leaving, because I fell in love with Mackinac Island, fudge in hand.
Choosing My RV
After perusing the RVShare site, I found a plethora of options and had to whittle them down. Did I want a motorhome that was both a vehicle and a camper in one? Or did I want a “gooseneck” that would connect to a truck bed? Did I want a trailer with a tow hitch? I had a Dodge Durango SRT at my disposal, and it boasted a maximum towing capacity of 8,700 pounds. Matching that up with a 33-foot Forest River camper with a slide-out panel, an outdoor kitchen, and plenty of room to sleep the four of us comfortably, I booked our trip north.
Serendipitously, I Googled RV sites in the area and found a beautiful campsite on the Leelanau Peninsula called the Wild Cherry RV Resort and we drove straight up for five hours through Traverse City. Dad and I disconnected the hitch, jacked up the supports, placed chocks behind the wheels, and hooked up the electricity, water, and plumbing lines.
Oh happy day – when we arrived at the resort, we were stunned. It was far better than we imagined an RV resort might look like, and the owner at the office was delightful as we checked in. Mackinaw City was about two hours from where our RV was parked, so that’s a lot of round-trip driving for a day trip. When we return, we’ll stay overnight on Mackinac Island and enjoy more fudge, more biking, more cannon booms, and more shopping before heading back to our RV.