Mackinac Island is the quintessential Michigan destination. Loved by generations of visitors, its deliberately timeless feel draws people back over and over again. And it’s not just the atmosphere – there are tons of things to do on Mackinac Island if you like to keep busy.
Fun fact: Mackinac Island was the United States’ second national park – after Yellowstone – though it’s no longer part of the National Park System.
Mackinac’s claim to fame is that no cars (except for a few emergency vehicles) are allowed on the island, which, combined with its Victorian architecture, helps lend it that charming, old fashioned atmosphere. As such, bukes and horses are the preferred methods of transportation on Mackinac Island.
How to get to Mackinac Island
The island is located in Lake Huron between the Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula. There are no bridges to the island, so most visitors arrive by one of the ferries. Private boats and small planes are also options if you have the funds. However you choose to arrive, you’ll get fantastic views of the Mackinac Bridge along the way.
During peak tourist season – aka the summer months – there are numerous ferry departures daily. Two companies, Shepler’s and Star Line operate ferries out of docks in Mackinaw City on the Lower Peninsula and St. Ignace in the UP. If you’re doing a day trip, I recommend trying for an early departure so you can experience as many of the things to do at Mackinac Island as possible.
Tip: Although Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City are spelled differently, both are pronounced the same way – MACK-ih-naw.
Things to do on Mackinac Island
Ok, now that you’re there, it’s time to start checking off your list of things to do on Mackinac Island. The island’s small size means that you can cover a lot of it with just a short stay – or if you’re looking for a more relaxing visit you can linger over each activity and really soak up the atmosphere.
Bike around Mackinac Island
Bikes are by far the best way to explore Mackinac Island and taking them for a lap around Lake Shore Road is one of the top things to do. This 8-mile loop runs around the edge of the island and takes you past most of the top sights. You can make the ride in under an hour if you’re really moving or stretch it out to last most of the day by lingering at some of the stops.
There are tons of bike rental shops on the island offering kids and adult sizes, or you can bring your own and load it on the ferry for an extra fee. We typically bring our own because we have a bike rack that mounts on our car and the ferry price is cheaper than a rental.
If 8 miles seems like a lot to you, it’s not as far as it sounds on a bike. We did it almost every summer as kids. There are also plenty of stops along the way so you’ll get as many breaks as you’d like.
I always like to do the loop counter-clockwise because I always do the climb up to Arch Rock and doing it in this direction makes the arch one of your first stops. I prefer it this way because there’s decent climb uphill and up flights of stairs so I like to hit it while my legs are still fresh. There are plenty of bike racks at the bottom of the cliff so you can park your bike and head up to the top.
From the top, you’re treated to great views of Lake Huron’s blue waters framed by the naturally formed rock arch. If you can believe it, not that long ago, tourists used to walk across the arch. That’s no longer allowed in the interest of safety and preserving the formation, but it’s still one of the most popular photo spots on Mackinac Island.
If you’re not up to the climb, you can bike through the interior of the island (still a decent uphill), take a carriage tour, or just view it from the road below.
As you continue your bike ride, you’ll arrive at British Landing, a rocky beach where British forces landed during the War of 1812. It’s traditional in my family to pose for a picture on the cannon here. You can also grab snacks and drinks at the Cannonball Inn here if you need to refuel.
As you wind your way back toward downtown, you’ll be treated to great views of the Mackinac Bridge, other rock formations, and a small cave called the Devils’ Kitchen.
Tour historic Fort Mackinac
The area around Fort Mackinac has been fortified in some form or another since the 1700s. It never saw a ton of action, and as such was probably not the worst place to be posted if you had to be in the army during the 1800s. It’s white façade looms above a large open park and the harbor full of boats so it’s impossible to miss. Touring the fort is my second favorite out of the things to do at Mackinac Island.
The main entrance features a steep walk up a ramp to get inside, but don’t feel bad about “stopping to take pictures” on the way up if you need to catch your breath. Guests in wheelchairs or with limited mobility should use the back entrance off of Huron Road instead of going up the ramp.
Fort Mackinac is always lively in the summer, with almost constant performances happening. Period music, weaponry, drill marching, and battle tactics are all demonstrated on the fort’s parade grounds. The uniformed workers participating in the drills do a great job of entertaining the crowd while also teaching them about the topic of the hour.
The fort also does a periodic cannon demonstration. Don’t worry – they use tin foil instead of actual shells so they don’t actually take out a boat in the harbor – and it’s very cool to see the number of steps that went into firing just one round. My last visit happened to be on my birthday, so when they asked the crowd if there were any celebrations happening, my fiance volunteered me and I received a one-gun cannon salute to mark the occasion.
While at the fort, you can also wander through many of the surrounding buildings. The period décor and informational signage provide insight into what life would’ve been like for enlisted men, officers, and families that lived there.
If you get hungry during your visit, you can grab a snack or lunch from the Tea Room, which is operated by the Grand Hotel. A snack cart on the parade grounds also offers drinks, snacks, and hot dogs.
Visit historic downtown Mackinac
The buildings of historic downtown are included with your Fort Mackinac ticket, so they make the perfect stop when you’re on your way out of the fort.
The most interesting building to me is the American Fur Company Store. It shows a variety of period merchandise, but the really fascinating part is the story of Dr. William Beaumont and his patient Alexis St. Martin. When St. Martin was accidentally shot in the stomach inside the store, Beaumont cared for him and conducted research and experiments through the hole in his stomach. It would definitely not pass medical ethics requirements now, but he did learn quite a bit about human digestion in the process.
The Benjamin Blacksmith Shop has live demonstrations with a blacksmith showing off traditional techniques.
The McGulpin House is one of the oldest buildings on the island. Historic interpreters inside provide information about the architecture of the home on certain days during the operating season.
Tour the Mackinac Island Native American Museum in the Biddle House
The Biddle house was the home of merchants Agatha and Edward Biddle. Agatha had indigenous heritage and helped build their fur trading business with community ties. Their historic home now houses a small Native American museum with cooking demonstrations and galleries. The Biddle House is also included with your Fort Mackinac admission.
Visit the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum
This small museum features a collection of artwork and photography related to Mackinac Island. With artifacts ranging from Native American beadwork to historic photographs, you can learn quite a bit about the island. Admission to the Art Museum is also included with your Fort Mackinac admission.
Eat the famous Mackinac Island fudge
Where does fudge tasting rank among the things to do on Mackinac Island? High enough that the tourists that flock here in the summer are nicknamed “fudgies” by the locals. It’s famous for its delicious fudge, and believe me when I tell you that it will ruin all other fudge for you once you’ve tried it. I’ve had fudge in plenty of other places and none of it comes anywhere close to the flavor and texture of Mackinac Island fudge. I don’t know what kind of magic they use to make it, but I am here for it.
One of the great things is that the fudge shops offer plenty of samples to prospective customers. It’s a great way to taste some of the more unique flavors before committing to buying a slice. Ryba’s, Joann’s, and Murdick’s are the two most popular fudge shops, and most frequent visitors have a favorite that they swear by. Many of the shops also have demonstration areas where you can watch the fudge being made.
My favorite happens to be the little fudge counter at the Murray Hotel because of the variety of unique flavors that you won’t find in other shops. You can get your classic milk chocolate at any of the stores, but I’m all about the s’mores, cookie dough, cookies and cream options. For something really out of the ordinary, try their orange creamsicle or apple pie flavors.
Take a carriage ride
This is a great option if you’re not up to doing a bike tour of the island. Taking a carriage tour allows you to see some of the sights without pedaling uphill. Tours depart from the ticket office right by the ferry docks and take you through the heart of the island.
You’ll get stops at the Surrey Hills Carriage Museum with historic carriages and an antique fire department pump vehicle, the Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory, Arch Rock, the back entrance to Fort Mackinac, and an optional stop at the Grand Hotel. All of the stops except for the Grand Hotel operate in hop on-hop off style. The tour also takes you past historic cemeteries, Skull Cave, Fort Holmes, and the Governor’s Residence.
Explore the Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel is Mackinac Island’s most iconic building. With its sprawling Victorian design and beautiful gardens, it’s a sight to behold. It also claims to have the longest front porch in the world. While resort guests may come and go as they please, if you don’t have a room booked there, you can still pay a visit.
Non-hotel guests can play a round of golf on the resort’s course, dine in one of its restaurants, and play lawn games in the gardens. Or just gawk at the beauty. There is a $10 admission fee if you’re not staying at the hotel with an extra charge if you want to use the pool.
Note: The Grand Hotel has a dress code in the evening, so check requirements before you arrive.
Play a round of golf (or putt putt)
Mackinac Island boasts one of the more unique golf courses you’ll come across. The Grand Hotel’s Jewel course is split between two areas. After playing the front nine near the hotel, you and your clubs will be transported to the interior of the island to finish the back nine. It’s an awesome and unique break mid-course.
The Wawashkamo Golf Course is the oldest continuously played course in Michigan. Dating back to 1898, this short course was laid out on land where the Battle of Mackinac was fought during the War of 1812.
At the Mission Point Resort, try your hand at the Greens of Mackinac course, which features 18 putting holes with great views of the water. After dark, you can play glow golf instead for a fun twist.
Visit a butterfly house
Mackinac Island is home to two butterfly conservatories – the Original Butterfly House & Insect World and Wings of Mackinac. Both give you a chance to view beautiful butterflies from around the world in an enclosed environment. At the Butterfly House & Insect World, you can see turtles, tortoises, beetles, scorpions, and a chameleon named Guacamole in addition to the butterflies. At Wings of Mackinac, the butterflies are joined by tree frogs, a macaw, turtles, and a chameleon.
Explore the interior of the island
Most visitors tend to hang around downtown and the loop road, so the interior of Mackinac Island tends to be a little bit quieter. You can bike uphill or walk and see caves, rock formations, and historic sites, or head out on one of the hiking trails.
Skull Cave gets its name thanks to its usage as a Native American burial site. It no longer contains human remains, and it’s now a popular tourist spot. You can view it from the previously mentioned carriage tours or take a walk or bike ride into the interior of the island to visit it. Note that there is a pretty steep uphill grade.
Located at the island’s highest point, Fort Holmes was originally constructed by the British during the War of 1812. It was reconstructed during the 1930s as a replica. The fort is free to visit during the summer operating season.
This 75-foot tall limestone stack rises up out of the forests for visitors to view. Like much of Mackinac Island, this area was sacred to Native Americans. Learn about the legend associated with it here.
Take a hike
Despite its small size, Mackinac Island boasts 70 miles of hiking trails. Explore the tranquil forests or follow a path to one of the island’s caves. Crack-in-the-Island, Eagle Point Cave, and Cave of the Woods are all popular landmarks that can be accessed via the hiking trails. Check out the trail map here.