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Spending a Day in Mackinac Island

Updated on April 10, 2015
An overview of the downtown area of Mackinac Island.  In the background is Lake Huron, mainland Lower Peninsula, and the Mackinac Bridge.
An overview of the downtown area of Mackinac Island. In the background is Lake Huron, mainland Lower Peninsula, and the Mackinac Bridge. | Source

Mackinac Island

Rare in the world is a place where so many points of interest of history, different types of recreation, and uniqueness of general environment combine in such a small area as the 3.8 square mile Mackinac Island. It has been a strategic point of interest in early American wars such as 1812, which is evidenced by its forts that still stand today. And the island has been inhabited almost a millennium before that, with archaeological evidence of Native American settlements.

Today, the island is a popular spot for honeymoons, and special events. But the most common trips there are day and weekend outings. As much as Mackinac Island has to offer, it is possible to cover a good number of things in a day.

Arriving at the Island

There are two ways of getting to the island - by boat, or by plane. Mackinac Island has a small airport that runs through part of the western central section. However, the vast majority arrive by boat or ferry, which means their point of entry will be through the Round Island Channel to the beautiful Haldimand Bay, at the southern end of the island. To the south, you will see Round Island, a small, uninhabited island with a lighthouse at the tip. Haldimand Bay is at the center of one of the two urban areas. That is also the main kayaking area off the coast; if the weather is windy, the waves are diminished in the bay due to its rounded formation and the break walls. You can also take a guided tour cruise around the bay on a boat known as the "Ugly Anne".

Transportation

There are only three methods of transportation on Mackinac Island. Foot, horse, and bicycle. Motorized vehicles have been outlawed there since 1898.

The welcoming beauty of the downtown area of Mackinac Island down the M-185 highway.  Note the absence of any automobile or motorcycle.
The welcoming beauty of the downtown area of Mackinac Island down the M-185 highway. Note the absence of any automobile or motorcycle. | Source

The Island Perimeter

M-185 is a state highway that circles the perimeter of Mackinac. The highway is a loop, with a length of almost exactly eight miles. It is the only highway in these United States that is not traveled by automobile or any other motorized vehicle. It is highly recommended to not leave the island without circling its perimeter. There are many points of interest, both geographical and historical, that are located at or near the edges of the island. If you wish, you can take a leisurely horse carriage tour, where they stop at the various points of interest near the highway. The tour will last a little less than two hours. This is advantageous if you are feeling like a leisurely tour and do not feel like exercising. The advantage to doing it by bicycle is that you can stop at any of the interest points for as long as you like. On the carriage tour, the stops are regimented by the schedule.

The points of interest near the highway include the Arch Rock, Mission Church, Haldimand Bay, Maniboajo Bay, Griffon Cove, Devil's Kitchen, a view of the Grand Hotel and Fort Mackinac. You will also be able to see all the scenic points of the bay such as Hennep, St. Clair, Radisson, and others.

To reiterate, I highly recommend you make this travel of the perimeter part of your outing. You will not regret examining the points of interest, or the view. One caution: if you go by bicycle, be prepared to occasionally make minor swerves to avoid horse manure. It is perhaps the only visible hazard of the island.

Mackinac Island State Park

The State Park holds approximately 80% of the land's area. Originally made a national park in 1875, it was the second one established after Yellowstone, and then twenty years later, it was turned over to the authority of Michigan. it takes up a good portion of the north island, and most of the south, excluding the downtown area.

If you like golfing, there is a nine-hole course inside the park named Wawashkamo. The battlefield for the Battle of Mackinac in 1814 is also inside the park, along with a landscaped Marquette Park.

The natural attractions within are Sugar Loaf, which is a gigantic 75 foot rock, the wondrous limestone formation known as Arch Rock, Sunset Rock, Eagle Point Cave, Cave in the Woods, and Friendship's Altar.

Downtown

Being a major tourist location, by far the most abundant type of shops in Mackinac are, of course, the gift shops. Countless small ventures lining the streets of the downtown area, there are many souvenirs to choose from. However, there is also a grocery store, as well as a general store.

What many may not realize about Mackinac Island before they go there is its abundance of art. There are a total of eight art galleries in the downtown area, as well as events during the year relating to art.

There are also five spas, and several restaurants that cater to diverse culinary tastes with varying formalities, everything from the deli and burger joint to the upscale haute cuisine.


Grand Hotel

There are many inns and lodging available at Mackinac Island, but since this deals with a day trip, lodging will not need to be discussed. With the exception of the Grand Hotel. This is an attraction deserving of a section all its own. Hailed as one of the greatest family and children friendly resorts, this is a very old and historic hotel, founded in 1887. Visible from well off the coast, it is renowned for both its outer and inner beauty, as well as its accommodations, restaurants, and shops.

You should absolutely pay a visit to this hotel, even if you are not a guest. Many of the amenities are open to non-guests, although there is an admission fee to enter the hotel if you will not be renting a room.

The historic and majestic Grand Hotel.
The historic and majestic Grand Hotel. | Source

Fudge

Perhaps what Mackinac Island is most known for to people that are not familiar with the island, other than the Grand Hotel, is the fudge. There are seven fudge makers on the island, with Ryba's and Sanders perhaps being the most famous. The other confectioners are May's, Joann's, Grand Hotel, Murray Hotel, and Murdick's. This is by far the most popular souvenir to take with you when you leave, and believe that after smelling the aroma, you will not want to leave without some.

Keys to Navigation

If you are spending a single day at Mackinac, the first thing you will want to do is go over the attractions and prioritize what you wish to see or do before you leave. You will not be able to cover everything in a day, or even a weekend. There are special events and activities that go on during various seasons that were not covered in the sections above.

If your priority is on sightseeing and scenery rather than activity participation, I recommend you do the perimeter ride on M-185 first, and then work your way into the middle afterwards. Head into downtown after the ride for lunch, and then venture back out into the state park, or the other sights you wish to see such as the Grand Hotel or the other resorts.

On the other hand, if your priority is on activity participation - if you are there to do a round of golf, or kayak, or are there for a special event, it may be best to save the perimeter tour for later in the day, unless the special event is held during that time.

Absolutely carry a watch or cell phone so you can keep track of time. It is very easy to get caught up in admiration or interest of a particular attraction there and lose track of what time it is. If you are there during the late spring or summer on a hot day, be sure to carry plenty of water if you are hiking in the park, or riding around the island.

If you are traveling through the day via bike, remember the rules of the road. The horses and pedestrians have the right of way on Mackinac Island, so don't forget to yield to them at an encounter.

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