Planning to Visit Beaver Island Michigan? Travel Tips & Things to Know Before You Go
There’s a reason I’ve been to Beaver Island Michigan every year since I was born. There’s also a reason why every time I leave I want to cry and say, “No! I refuse.”
It’s because Beaver Island is like no other place on Earth.
– Shalee Blackmer
If you’re looking for a unique place in Michigan to visit, consider making Beaver Island your Michigan vacation destination. It’s the largest island in Lake Michigan and offers a range of activities for history enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.
Also known as America’s Emerald Isle, Beaver Island Michigan is a peaceful destination where you can relax and truly get away from the everyday mundane.
Let’s explore Beaver Island history and all the great things to do on Beaver Island Michigan together…
All About Beaver Island Michigan
Where is Beaver Island Michigan?
Beaver Island is a 6-mile-wide, 13-mile-long island (55.8 square miles) in Lake Michigan. You can find it about 32 miles northwest of Charlevoix. In fact, it’s part of Charlevoix County. The island is mostly flat with a sandy shoreline and large patches of forest throughout its center. It has two streams and several small to medium inland lakes.
Along with being the largest island in this lake, Beaver Island is part of an archipelago that includes 13 more islands — Garden, High, South Fox, Hog, and North Fox Islands are a few of the biggest. Some of the islands are part of the Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which include Hat, Gull, Shoe, and Pismire Islands. The latter two islands are also within the Michigan Islands Wilderness Area.
Living on Beaver Island Michigan
Despite its size, Beaver Island is the third-largest Michigan island after Isle Royale and Drummond Island. Even though it’s more than 14 times the size of Mackinac Island, the year-round population isn’t much greater — only about 650 people versus about 500 Mackinac residents. More than half the island’s residents live within St. James Township on the northern tip.
Visiting Beaver Island Michigan
Many Michiganders believe the only island you can visit is Mackinac Island, but don’t count out Beaver Island just yet!
The History of America’s Emerald Isle
Today, Beaver Island Michigan is mainly known for its seclusion and recreational activities. However, it was once the site of a Latter-day Saints kingdom.
The Rise of King Strang
It all started with the death of Joseph Smith, the Latter-day Saints founder. While some of the followers believed that Brigham Young was the successor, others supported James J. Strang.
In 1844, Strang founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Voree, Wisconsin, and claimed that it was the only legitimate continuation of Smith’s church. With backlash from the Young supporters, Strang sought refuge on Beaver Island in 1848, taking his followers with him. The island was mostly inhabited by Irish immigrants at the time.
The Strangites, as they were called, prospered under Strang’s rule, and he became a political power in the area. They founded St. James, naming it such in his honor, and built King’s Highway, which is still the primary road into the center of the island. The group cleared some of the land to construct farms, cabins, and other improvements.
Once Strang was established on Beaver Island, he declared himself a polygamist despite previously opposing the practice. He had five wives and 14 children. In 1850, he declared himself king of his church, which included most of the island’s inhabitants. He had an elaborate ceremony in the large log church that his followers built. A witness described the crown as “a shiny metal ring with a cluster of glass stars in the front.” He was presented with a royal red robe, breastplate, shield, and wooden scepter as well.
In 1853 and 1855, Strang was elected into the Michigan House of Representatives. During those terms, he created Manitou County to include Beaver Island and a few others. He also founded the Northern Islander, Northern Michigan’s first newspaper. The printing shop is one of the only buildings on the island that remains of the Strangites, and it currently houses a museum.
The Downfall of King Strang
All this time, the Strangites didn’t get along with the island’s locals. Strang extended his authority to them and was frequently accused of seizing their property by force and of physical assault. One time, he fired a cannon at drunken fishermen who threatened to expel his church. His seat in the local government blurred the line between church and state. As a result of the violence, many of the Irish immigrants fled to Mackinac Island.
Strang was harsh on his followers too. In one of his edicts, he set rules for how his female followers would dress. He flogged the husbands of two women who refused. During their recovery, the husbands conspired against him. Strang was shot from behind on June 16, 1856, while walking along the dock on St. James Harbor to board the USS Michigan. Afterward, the husbands ran onto the gunboat, which took them to Mackinac Island.
On July 9, 1856, Strang died from the wounds. The husbands were never arrested or convicted. After that, mobs from St. Helena and Mackinac Island forced the Strangites to leave, and the local government became nearly nonexistent. By 1895, the county that Strang established was abolished.
Beaver Island Becomes America’s Emerald Isle
With the Strangites gone, Irish fishermen from Mackinac Island, Gull Island, and other Michigan port cities quickly moved to Beaver Island Michigan. Irish immigration increased, and the community developed a distinct identity that was fostered by the island’s seclusion from the mainland. For several years, religious ceremonies and general conversations were in Gaelic.
Besides Strang, other infamous persons took up residence on the island. From 1865 to 1898, the island was dominated by Father Peter Gallagher, a colorful, charismatic priest who led the insular society. In 1893, Feodor Protar was a friendly, local doctor who moved into a cabin toward the middle of the island and lived as a recluse. He left a lot of admirers behind when he passed away in 1925, and his cabin is now a museum.
Beaver Island became the biggest supplier of freshwater fish in the United States by the mid-1880s. However, this came to an end in 1900 when the government put legislation in place to stave overfishing. In 1901, Beaver Island Logging Company formed and greatly increased the island’s role in the logging industry. Despite that, the economy continued to be dominated by fishing.
In the 1940s, most of the residents left the island as the fish population decreased. Tourism renewed interest in the island in the 1970s, and it became known as America’s Emerald Isle, a reference to its Irish ancestry. Now, Beaver Island vacations are popular among those who live along the Great Lakes.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Beaver Island Michigan?
Really, there’s no bad time to visit Beaver Island Michigan. Each season brings its own special features to Beaver Island, making it one of the best places to visit in Michigan no matter the time of year!
Spring on Beaver Island
With moderate temperatures and fewer crowds, spring brings the beauty of blooming flowers.
Summer on Beaver Island
Summer is the most popular time for a Beaver Island vacation. Despite more people visiting, the crowds never get overwhelming. Since the weather warms up, it’s the ideal time to enjoy a beautiful beach and go swimming.
Fall on Beaver Island
In the fall, the mostly untouched island is full of spectacular colors with the changing leaves, which starts a little later in the season because of the moderate temperatures. You can literally bike or walk among the colors via the island’s plethora of trails.
Winter on Beaver Island
Even the winter is a fun time to visit, especially if you enjoy winter activities, such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
How Do You Get to Beaver Island?
Since Beaver Island Michigan is located in Lake Michigan, there’s no way to drive there. Instead, you have to hop on a ferry or plane.
Take the Ferry to Beaver Island
Beaver Island Boat Company has been providing ferry services to Beaver Island for more than 30 years. Generally, the ferries run from mid-April to late December. It takes about two hours to travel 32 miles on Lake Michigan to reach the island’s docks.
Keep in mind that you can’t make reservations for ferry tickets. The company sells tickets on a first-come, first-served basis, so we recommend arriving at least one hour before the ferry departs. Then, you’ll have time to get a parking permit, buy your tickets, and check in any luggage that you have. Both day parking and overnight parking are available.
Peak season is between May 24 and September 7. During this period, child tickets are $20 and adult tickets are 32.50. Outside of that period, child tickets are $15 and adult tickets are $27.50. Children under the age of 4 always ride for free.
Fly to Beaver Island
If you want a shorter journey to the island, it only takes about 20 minutes to fly there. On top of that, you get an awesome view as you approach.
Two small airlines offer charter flights from Charlevoix Airport. You can take pets or bicycles with you for an additional fee.
- Island Airways has been serving the Charlevoix-Beaver Island route for more than 70 years. One-way tickets are $41 for kids and $55 for adults, while round-trip tickets are $82 for kids and $110 for adults. Its terminal is at Welke Airport, which is about a 5-minute drive from St. James Township.
- Fresh Air Aviation uses modern, comfortable aircraft with experienced pilots at the controls. One-way tickets are $41 for kids and $59.50 for adults, while round-trip tickets are $79.50 for kids and $117 for adults. Aerial tours are available too. Its terminal is at Beaver Island Airport, which is about a 10-minute drive from St. James Township.
Getting Around Beaver Island
Although Beaver Island has several miles of paved roads, most are made of clay or gravel. Because of that, mopeds are a regular form of travel around the island. Off-road bikes also work well. You could even drive a car around the island.
If you’re planning a visit, remember not to forget biking equipment. Although cars can be brought over on the ferry, the best way to explore is by peddling and enjoying the outdoors. Paddleboarding and kayaking are also common adventures. The water here is so clear, you can still see that bottom when depths reach 20 feet!
If you don’t take a bike or vehicle with you, you can rent one. Burton Car Rentals has an assortment of vehicles, power bikes, and cycling safety gear. It offers drop-off and pickup services at the ferry and airline terminals. Duffy’s Rentals is another rental provider and the largest on the island. Happy Paddle is another bike rental option with rates based on how long you need a bike.
Best Things to Do on Beaver Island Michigan
No matter when you plan a Beaver Island vacation, there’s always plenty to do. The island has numerous old trails and miles of scenic roads to explore.
Since much of the island is undeveloped, you have many opportunities to go bird watching, fishing, beach combing, hiking, and biking. You could even journey to some of the outer islands in the archipelago.
Aside from going to the beach, here are a few of our favorite things to do on Beaver Island.
Beaver Island Head & Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouses
The Lake Michigan shoreline has a multitude of lighthouses. In fact, there are at least eight lighthouses within the vicinity of the Beaver Island archipelago. Two of them are located on the island itself.
Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse is located at the northern tip of St. James Harbor. Sometimes, it’s called St. James Harbor Light or Whiskey Point Light. The 41-foot tower was constructed in 1871 and is still an active navigational aid for boats. The residential quarters was removed, and although you can’t climb the tower, you can visit the grounds and get some great photos.
Beaver Island Head Lighthouse is located at the southern end of the island. The 46-foot tower was built in 1852, and the residential quarters next to it was built in 1866. This makes it the third-oldest Great Lakes lighthouse. Even though it no longer functions as a navigational aid, it serves as a facility for a residential alternative high school. The students have helped restore and maintain the tower, and you can climb the 46 wrought-iron steps.
Beaver Island Historical Walking Tour
The Beaver Island Historical Society has created a self-guided historical walking tour that stretches for 2.5 miles. Some of the 17 sites that it takes you to include the Marine Museum, Townships Cemetery, and downtown.
However, one of the most interesting sites and best things to do on Beaver Island is the Mormon Print Shop Museum. There’s a room in the museum dedicated to telling the story of King Strang and his followers.
Also, the museum displays the story of the island’s Native American inhabitants, early Irish settlers, musicians, and Protar. It has a collection of genealogical records, archival photos, diaries, land records, and oral histories.
More Historical Attractions on Beaver Island Michigan
In addition to the historical sites on the self-guided walking tour, a handful of others are worth visiting around Beaver Island Michigan.
For instance, the Toy Museum is located in a birch grove that overlooks St. James Harbor near Whiskey Point. It’s packed to the rafters with antiques and toys — candy jars, rubber figures, Disney figures, Star Wars cards, metal cars and trucks, tin robots, model sailboats, and the list goes on. There’s a sculpture garden behind the museum as well.
On the other side of the harbor, Heritage Park features a large barn that was mainly built by volunteers and features a variety of displays. When the barn filled up, large artifacts were placed under pavilions — a thresher, generator, and old tilt-wheel grader.
The old railroad for the Beaver Island Lumber Company used to cross the property. Although most of the tracks were pulled up in the early 1900s, some of them were rebuilt in 2011. The site has three picnic tables too.
About a 10-minute drive or 20-minute bike ride into Beaver Island is Protar’s Home. Before moving to the island, he was an editor for a newspaper and a talented actor. He made the move to change his life and undertake a spiritual quest.
Protar did what he could for the people he met and was regarded as a Saint. About ½ mile away is the stone and iron tomb that his admirers built.
Beaver Island Water Trail
For more adventurous things to do on Beaver Island, consider paddling the Beaver Island Water Trail. It goes around the entire island, stretching for 42 miles.
Most of the trail is best suited for experienced kayakers because of the unpredictable conditions of Lake Michigan. However, some areas — Paradise Bay, for instance — are more suitable for less experienced paddleboarders and families.
You can rent stand-up paddleboards, standard kayaks, and sea kayaks at Happy Paddle. The rates are based on the type of equipment and how long you use them. Additionally, Happy Paddle facilitates group activities, such as shipwreck snorkeling, sunset paddleboarding, sea kayak tours, and bicycle scavenger hunts.
If you’re visiting Beaver Island in the winter, you can rent various winter recreational equipment — snowshoes, ice skates, and cross-country skis.
Beaver Island Boat Rentals is another company that offers paddleboard rentals. If you’re more interested in boating, though, you can rent pontoon boats, waverunners, and Jetskis.
Hike or Bike Beaver Island
Beaver Island Michigan is home to three nature preserves and a marsh area where you can go hiking and off-road biking. While many of these lands are privately owned, almost 700 acres is open to the public.
You can find trails at the Barney’s Lake, Little Sand Bay, and George & Althea Petritz Nature Preserves as well as Miller’s Marsh Natural Area, which is managed by Central Michigan University.
Watch a Sunrise or Sunset
With miles of Lake Michigan horizon on all sides, Beaver Island has some amazing sunrises and sunsets.
One of the best places to go to watch is Mt. Pisgah. This climbable sand dune is the highest point on the island. If you stay for a while after dark, you have a good chance of seeing the aurora borealis in Michigan.
On the west side of Beaver Island is Donegal Bay, which is where I go every possible night for sunset. I’m not joking when I say it has better sunsets than Hawaii and California…combined.
– Shalee Blackmer
The island’s isolation and lack of light pollution makes it one of the best dark skies locations in the country.
Great Restaurants on Beaver Island
Compared to some vacation destinations in Michigan, you won’t find a lot of restaurants on America’s Emerald Isle. Despite that, you won’t be disappointed with the selection.
The majority of the restaurants are located in St. James Township near the harbor, but a few are located farther inland.
Paradise Bay Coffee Shop
Located near Beaver Island Airport, Paradise Bay Coffee Shop roasts all of its beans on site so that it can serve the freshest coffee possible. The cafe has a food menu with oatmeal, waffles, pancakes, breakfast sandwiches and burritos, and lunch sandwiches. On Thursdays, it hosts a Farmers Market.
Dalwhinnie Bakery & Deli
For fresh deli salads and sandwiches, go to Dalwhinnie Bakery & Deli. It’s known for its portabella mushroom sandwich. On top of that, the shop makes handcrafted pies, pastries, and espresso drinks.
Shamrock Restaurant & Pub
Run by a collective of Beaver Island Michigan locals, the Shamrock Restaurant & Pub is the oldest food and drink business on the island. It’s known across the Great Lakes for its prime rib, cold beer, and grand St. Patrick’s Day celebration. The menu includes burgers, baskets, sandwiches, and pizza too.
When you’re in the mood for ice cream, you can’t pass by Daddy Franks. This parlor has the best ice cream on the island and is a tradition for locals. It’s also a restaurant that serves delicious fast food — burgers, sandwiches, and baskets.
Whiskey Point Brewing Company
For island-made craft beer and wine, stop by Whiskey Point Brewing Company. This microbrewery has a taproom where you can try its craft brews and homemade fruit wines. It even makes spritzers.
Beaver Island Shopping
You can include shopping among the best things to do on Beaver Island. Although the number of shops isn’t abundant, there are a few places that we love:
- McDonough’s Market has a full line of groceries, which is useful if you want to make your own food during your Beaver Island vacation.
- The Blue Pearl is a clothing and accessory store for women, featuring vintage and eclectic styles.
- Shipwreck’s Shirts & Beaver Gems carries a range of shirts with Beaver Island Michigan branding. It sells hats, blankets, travel mugs, and other souvenirs as well.
- Paradise Bay Gifts is a seasonal shop that sells island apparel, nautical gifts, jewelry, accessories, and a wide selection of recreational equipment.
- Beaver Island Studio & Gallery has a variety of jewelry, antiques, and gifts, and it’s open from Memorial Day weekend to mid-October.
Where to Stay on Beaver Island Michigan
When it comes to staying on Beaver Island Michigan, you have several options. We’ve listed a handful of Beaver Island hotels and campgrounds on Beaver Island to help you start planning your visit.
Beaver Island Hotels
Beaver Island Lodge
With 14 spacious guest rooms and suites, the Beaver Island Lodge has been established since 1950. It’s surrounded by evergreen and hardwood trees on a bluff that overlooks a private beach. This location is excellent for romantic getaways, family reunions, weddings, and other retreats. The on-site restaurant has an innovative menu.
Emerald Isle Inn
Located within walking distance of bars, restaurants, museums, and the ferry dock, the Emerald Isle Inn features eight efficiency units with kitchenettes. It also has two apartment suites with two rooms and full kitchens. All of the units are corner units with large windows, and barbecue grills and picnic tables are available on site.
Harbor View Motel
Just steps from the marina and ferry dock, the Harbor View Motel offers views of Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse and the bay. It features traditional motel rooms and two-bedroom condos. The motel is the only lodging option with a swimming pool, and it has a large lawn with family games, horseshoe pits, and picnic tables.
Resting on the shoreline of Paradise Bay and St. James Harbor, the Erin Motel features rooms with refrigerators and easily accessible internet. While enjoying the sandy swimming beach, you can see Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse across the bay.
Camping on Beaver Island
Beaver Island Michigan has two campgrounds that are owned and operated by island townships. They’re both open from April to November, and the sites are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis.
- The Bill Wagner Memorial Campground is the biggest campground on Beaver Island and is located on Big Sand Bay, offering a panoramic view of the lake. You can see Mackinac Bridge on a clear day. There are 24 primitive sites scattered throughout the woods with a hand water pump.
- The St. James Township Campground is situated on a bluff that overlooks Lake Michigan and a few nearby islands. The rustic campground has 12 sites with pit toilets and hand water pumps. Both the Donegal Bay swimming beach and downtown St. James are within walking distance.
However, these aren’t the only campgrounds on the island. Here are a couple others that we recommend.
Beaver Island Hideaway Campground
Another rustic retreat, the Beaver Island Hideaway Campground immerses you in nature. It has large, private sites for tents and RVs with fire rings and picnic tables. The campground has clean restrooms, potable water, and outdoor sinks.
Plenty of recreational facilities are on the property, such as a volleyball court, basketball area, horseshoe pits, a children’s play area, and a disc golf course.
Beaver Island Retreat
For glamping at its finest, check out Beaver Island Retreat. This campground has 10 spacious, luxurious safari tents with queen beds and private verandas. Located on 10 acres of land, the retreat features four bath houses, a guest kitchen, laundry facilities, charcoal grills, and unlimited ice.
It’s Time to Visit Beaver Island Michigan
Beaver Island Michigan is the place to leave your stressful mind behind. Here, there are no deadlines, meeting calls, or interviews. It is always island time.
From attempting to ride my tricycle two miles to town as a child to learning to drive on the back dirt roads, my heart is always half there.
If you decide to visit Beaver Island Michigan, I am sure you will soon understand how such a simple place can have a lasting impact. Simplicity and serenity is Beaver Island.
– Shalee Blackmer
What are your favorite things to do on Beaver Island Michigan?
Thanks to Shalee Blackmer for her contributions to this article.