Whether you visited Mackinac Island as a kid or it’s your first time, there are a few things that you should know before you start planning your trip. The island is steeped in history and tradition. While some features make you feel like you’re visiting a different era, there are plenty of modern conveniences and luxuries too. Before you visit Mackinac Island Michigan, review our handy guide to learn what to expect.
About Mackinac Island Michigan
Mackinac Island is a unique resort-like destination with old-time charm and natural beauty. It serves as a fairy-tale paradise for weddings, a romantic getaway for couples, and a wonderful vacation spot for families. Its quirks and far-flung location add to its allure.
Where Is Mackinac Island
In Lake Huron and the Straits of Mackinac, Mackinac Island is situated between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. You would think that Mackinac Bridge connects to the island, but it actually connects Mackinaw City on the Lower Peninsula with St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula. The 3.8-square-mile Mackinac Island Michigan is situated just east of St. Ignace.
Brief History of the Island
In the 1600s, Native Americans were using Mackinac Island as a burial ground when French fur traders stumbled upon it. Using a Native American word for “great turtle,” they called it “Michilimackinac” and pronounced the last “c” as “aw.” Eventually, the word was shortened to Mackinac but retained the pronunciation. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the British settled Mackinaw City, deciding to spell the name like it sounds.
In 1780, the British realized the strategic importance of Mackinac Island Michigan and built a fort there, which is now called Fort Holmes. It still stands next to Fort Mackinac, which is a major tourist attraction. Just three years later, the U.S. won the fort from the British. However, the island traded hands a few more times until after the War of 1812, at which point it remained under U.S. control.
The economy on Mackinac Island started booming in the 1820s after business mogul John Jacob Aster made it the headquarters for American Fur Company. Then, it became a summer respite for people in the upper Midwest. Now, the island is a journey in time with many of the Victorian buildings being preserved.
Are Cars Allowed on Mackinac Island Michigan?
One of the things that makes Mackinac Island so special is that you can’t take your car. In fact, motor vehicles are banned from the island. Horse-drawn carriage drivers and the city government took steps to prohibit the “horseless carriages” in 1898 because the vehicles scared the horses. Because of that, M-185 is the only state highway in the U.S. where automobiles aren’t allowed.
Instead, the road is used by bicyclists, carriages, and pedestrians. The island has more bikes per capita compared to anywhere else in the world, so you won’t have trouble finding one to get around. You can even bring your own. Also, all mail and package deliveries are made via horse-drawn dray.
Despite that, there are a few exceptions to the ban. For the filming of “Somewhere in Time” in 1979, a few vehicles were allowed. There are emergency vehicles to protect residents’ and visitors’ health and safety as well. Additionally, the golf courses allow golf carts, and some of the residents use snowmobiles in the winter to get around.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Mackinac Island?
Since most people visit Mackinac Island Michigan during the summer, you might wonder, “Is Mackinac Island open during the rest of the year?” The short answer is yes! The island is always open. Although summer is the peak season for tourists, anytime is a great time to visit. You might consider when is the weather the best or when are the attractions that you want to see open. Here’s a little bit of what you can expect during each season…
Mackinac Island: Spring
Visiting Mackinac Island in the spring is popular because it’s warm but not too hot. The Mackinac Island Lilac Festival is held in early June and is a really fun event with a parade. One thing to keep in mind is that the wind gusts may still be strong during spring because the trees haven’t fully awakened from the winter yet. This can make biking around the island a little more difficult, and you’ll definitely want to have a jacket.
Mackinac Island: Summer
If you enjoy hotter weather, sunbathing, and swimming, you’ll love visiting Mackinac Island in the summer peak season. All of the museums, souvenir shops, and other attractions are open. In July, you can watch the huge fireworks display for Independence Day. The only downsides are that summer is much more crowded than the other seasons, and the weather can change quickly. Storms can pop up out of nowhere, but they don’t usually last long.
Mackinac Island: Fall
It’s debatable whether spring or fall has the best weather for taking a trip to Mackinac Island Michigan. The autumn brings beautiful colors in the trees, fewer tourists, shopping discounts, and cooler temperatures. It’s an absolute delight to have a cup of coffee on the balcony or porch of your favorite Mackinac Island hotel or inn while wrapped in a blanket. Be aware, though, that some of the shops and attractions will start implementing seasonal hours.
Mackinac Island: Winter
Believe it or not, winter is still an awesome time to see Mackinac Island. Despite it being the offseason, the island can be a romantic winter getaway for you and your partner. If you don’t mind the cold and snow, it’s the least crowded time to go, but fewer shops and attractions are open. Rather, you can enjoy ice fishing, skiing, and the snow-covered backdrop. Also, it’s fun to get around the island on snowmobiles.
Current Weather on Mackinac Island
It’s important to check the current weather on Mackinac Island when you’re packing for your trip, especially since all forms of transportation on the island are outdoors. Rain could fall unexpectedly no matter the season, so it’s helpful to be prepared with an umbrella. Even though summer Mackinac Island weather is the warmest, the nights can get chilly. Take a jacket or sweater with you to stay comfortable.
How to Get to Mackinac Island
With cars being banned from Mackinac Island Michigan, how do you get there? Most visitors take one of the ferry services, but you could charter a private flight or boat to the island if you wish. In many cases, though, the beginning of the journey begins in the car.
How Far Is Mackinac Island?
The docks for ferry services to the island are located in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, and it takes less than 20 minutes to reach the island via ferry. Each of the ferry docks have private parking available for you to park your vehicle while you’re on Mackinac Island. If you charter a private plane, you’ll want to drive to St. Ignace. In general, here’s how long it will take to get to the island from a few major destinations across Michigan and Chicago:
- Traverse City to Mackinac Island — 2.5 to 3 hours
- Grand Rapids to Mackinac Island — 4 to 4.5 hours
- Detroit to Mackinac Island — 4.5 to 5 hours
- Chicago to Mackinac Island — 6.5 to 7 hours
Mackinac Island Ferry
Riding the ferry to Mackinac Island is a lot of fun, and there are two main ferry companies that offer this service — Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line Ferry. Both have docks on each side of Mackinac Bridge and offer a range of ticket options, including multiday ferry tickets. Shepler’s Ferry runs from late April through October. Star Line Ferry operates all year — full service from late April through October and limited service from November until late April. If you visit Mackinac Island Michigan in winter, you can use the ferry as long as the straits haven’t frozen over.
Mackinac Island Airports
For direct flights to Mackinac Island, there’s only one airport — Mackinac Island Airport. It’s a very small, lighted 3,500-foot paved runway for small jets. The facility isn’t large enough to accommodate commercial jetliners, but it’s the only way to get there when the straits freeze and the ferries stop operating. You can get a charter flight from St. Ignace with either Great Lakes Air or Fresh Air Aviation.
Mackinac Island Things to Do
It will take more than one trip for you to experience all the things to do on Mackinac Island. Fortunately, many of the best attractions are open to the public and free because 80% of the island is Michigan State Park property. On top of that, it’s possible to walk everywhere. Take a look at some of our favorite activities and attractions.
Butterfly House Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island’s Original Butterfly House and Insect Museum was established in 1991 and is the first of its kind in the state. More impressive is that the 1,800-square-foot facility is the third oldest live butterfly exhibit in the country. The Butterfly Garden is full of hundreds of butterflies in every size and color from four continents. Insect World is home to giant beetles and spiders, as well as the heaviest bug in the world.
Mackinac Island State Park
Mackinac Island and Fort Mackinac Historic Park was established in 1895 but was previously created as Mackinac National Park in 1875. Encompassing 80% of the island, most of the park property maintains its natural condition. It features breathtaking vistas, nature trails, interesting rock formations, and historic landmarks.
Mackinac Island Carriage Tours
One of the best ways to experience the charm and history of the island is with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. The company offers comprehensive narrated tours of the island that include trips past the Grand Hotel, through downtown, and to other landmarks. The tours take less than 2 hours. Taxi service is also available 24 hours a day during the summer and by appointment between November and April.
Bike Mackinac Island
A day of biking Mackinac Island is an excellent way to experience its natural wonders. M-185 is 8.2 miles and circles the edge of the island. At a leisurely pace, it takes about 1 to 1.5 hours to bike it. You can take your own bicycle or there are several bike rental Mackinac Island companies:
- Island House Bikes
- Mackinac Bike Barn
- Mackinac Wheels
- Mission Point Mackinac Island
- Ryba’s Bicycle Rentals
Visit Arch Rock (Mackinac Island)
There are several striking rock formations around Mackinac Island Michigan, but Arch Rock (Mackinac Island) is the most famous. At more than 50 feet wide, the natural limestone stands 146 feet above the water. You can take a carriage taxi, bike, or walk to get an up-close look. Tours of Mackinac Island give you a view of the arch from below, too.
Mackinac Island Lilac Festival
Every early June, locals and visitors gather to celebrate flowers at the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival. The island is home to some of the biggest lilacs in the world. The event lasts for 10 days and includes several festivities — grand parade, horse-drawn carriage tours, 10K run/walk, queen coronation, and more.
Explore Fort Mackinac
With various live programs and tours from May through October, Fort Mackinac is the home of Michigan’s oldest building. The former military outpost contains 14 historical structures, all of which have been restored with period furnishings and are open to the public as exhibits. You can watch the 20-minute film “Heritage of Mackinac” in the Post Commissary to learn the island’s history.
Mackinac Island Lodging
Staying on Mackinac Island Michigan definitely isn’t a problem because it has more than 1,600 rooms. You have your choice of Mackinac Island hotels, Mackinac Island bed and breakfasts, Vrbo, and Airbnb vacation rentals. You can even find campgrounds and more lodging options nearby. Here are our top places to stay on Mackinac Island.
Mackinac Island Hotels
Grand Hotel Mackinac Island
Built in 1887, the Grand Hotel is one of Mackinac Island’s most famous. As soon as you step inside, you feel like you’re in a different era where you have tea in the parlor every afternoon and get dressed up for dinner. Each room and suite is uniquely decorated and has modern conveniences. In addition to several dining options, the resort has a fitness center, spa and salon, tennis courts, and croquet fields.
Mission Point Mackinac Island
Mission Point Resort is a family-friendly retreat where you can really relax. The rooms and suites have casual decor and views of Lake Huron on one side or the woods on the other. Aside from the Main Lodge, the Straits Lodge has pet-friendly accommodations. The resort has five places that serve excellent food and wine, miniature golf and other recreational activities, and a spa and salon.
Island House Hotel Mackinac Island
As the oldest hotel on Mackinac Island, Island House Hotel was built in 1852. The Victorian building is located downtown and has several amenities, including a sauna and hot tub, heated indoor pool, and casual bar and grill. The rooms are quaint with sitting areas, and the suites have separate living rooms, kitchenettes, whirlpool tubs, and private balconies.
Mackinac Island Bed and Breakfasts
Mackinac Island Michigan has at least a dozen B&Bs that offer exceptional vacation experiences. Each one is unique and has its own story. Several of them were built in the 1800s and provide historic accommodations and fresh breakfasts every day. For instance, Haan’s 1830 Inn is a Greek Revival house that was built in 1830, so some of the rooms share bathrooms. Market Street Inn was built in the 1900s and has a cozy atmosphere with affordable country-inspired rooms and suites. The most modern B&B is Cottage Inn of Mackinac, which is a Victorian-style house that was built in 2001.
Airbnb Mackinac Island
If you want a home away from home during your Mackinac Island visit, several locals offer their places as Airbnbs. Most of them are on the west side of the island near Sunset Rock and the airport. For example, The Jewel on Mackinac Island is a three-bedroom home located in the Sunset Forest community next to Hole 12 on the Grand Hotel’s golf course. On the other hand, the five-bedroom Cross Trees Cottage is a luxurious Airbnb on the East Bluff of the state park. There are several Airbnb condos on the island as well.
Mackinac Island Camping
Mackinac Island doesn’t have campsites, but you could set up your tent or RV across the straits instead. In St. Ignace, Straits State Park stretches for 181 acres and has 270 campsites. It’s only a 1-mile drive from the park to the ferry docks. At Mackinaw Mill Creek Camping, there’s an 18-hole golf course and other recreational amenities. It’s only a 2.5-mile drive from the campground to the ferry docks.
Hotels Near Mackinac Island
Mackinaw City Lodging
If you enjoy riding the ferry or want even more activities than Mackinac Island offers, there are several hotels in Mackinaw City as well as Mackinaw City vacation rentals. Deer Head Inn and Brigadoon Bed & Breakfast are a short walk from Mackinaw Crossings shops and Colonial Michilimackinac State Park. Both are less than a 10-minute walk from Shepler’s Ferry docks. Clearwater Lakeshore Motel is just a little farther south and only a 2-minute drive or 15-minute walk from Star Line Ferry docks.
St. Ignace Hotels
Just like Mackinaw City, St. Ignace has several hotels and B&Bs to accommodate you while visiting Mackinac Island Michigan. Firehouse Inn overlooks Lake Huron and is just a 1-minute drive or 10-minute walk from Shepler’s Ferry dock. Colonial House Inn is a 1940s B&B located across the street from Star Line Ferry docks. Although farther inland, Sunset Motel offers straightforward lodging and is within a 5-minute drive to most ferry docks.
Shopping on Mackinac Island
There’s no way to visit Mackinac Island without checking out its diverse assortment of local boutiques, galleries, and shops. You’ll need a good pair of shoes to explore the downtown storefronts and four small malls. Even the hotels have shops inside of them! We really love Little Luxuries of Mackinac Island, which sells Michigan-made treats, bath products, beer and wine, and home accessories. Great Turtle Toys is a fantastic shop for kids and the kids at heart, and Maeve’s Arts is a gallery that sells Maeve Croghan’s oil paintings, jewelry, ceramics, and other artistic items.
Mackinac Island Restaurants
Like the lodging options, there’s no shortage of places to eat on Mackinac Island. Best of all, the cuisine is diverse, so everyone will find something to suit their tastes. If you have dietary restrictions, it might be a good idea to check out some of the restaurants beforehand and create a meal plan for your visit. Here are a few of our favorites.
The Chuckwagon of Mackinac Island
Since the early 1950s, The Chuckwagon of Mackinac Island has been serving locals and visitors the best breakfasts, sandwiches, and burgers around. The diner has a bar that you can sit at and watch the chef cook, and the menu features vegan and vegetarian items.
Pink Pony Mackinac
Located in the Chippewa Hotel, the Pink Pony Bar & Grill is the ideal place for a delicious meal and funky cocktails. The Daily Meal featured the restaurant in its list of America’s 10 Best Restaurants for Outdoor Dining. It has an oak bar inside, a deck bar by the water, and an upper patio with an amazing harbor view. The restaurant serves American and Mexican dishes and is famous for its burger and whitefish dip.
The Yankee Rebel Tavern
With a central location downtown, The Yankee Rebel Tavern is an eclectic joint with large tables and spacious seating. It’s open for lunch and dinner every day, serving regional favorites and special sushi dinners. The steakhouse strives to serve the finest American cuisine in the area and has a decent selection of beer and wine.
Mackinac Island Fudge
While you’re on Mackinac Island, visiting one of the island’s famous fudge shops is a MUST! The legendary fudge has been an attraction for more than 100 years after the Murdick family opened a small candy store. So many people go to sample the sweet dessert that the locals endearingly refer to visitors as “fudgies.” There are more than a dozen fudge shops to choose from, and they make a variety of flavors. At the end of August, the island celebrates the famous treat with the Mackinac Island Fudge Festival.
Ready to Experience All Mackinac Island Has to Offer?
With our ultimate guide to Mackinac Island Michigan, you can take the first steps toward planning your Mackinac Island getaway or vacation. While you’re in the area, though, don’t miss the chance to experience the many things to do in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, too. There are plenty of places to stay in St. Ignace and Mackinaw City to take advantage of everything this Michigan region has to offer.