Enveloped by beautiful Lake Huron, Mackinac Island is a destination that evokes fascination. Harboring so much of Michigan’s history from the Revolutionary War to the fur trade, the island is an open-air museum. While its ban on motorized traffic promises visitors a step back in time and a unique traveling experience.
But the best things to do in Mackinac Island aren’t just about history and romantic horse-drawn carriage rides down cobblestone streets. Eighty percent of the island is state park, providing travelers with envious access to towering limestone cliffs and arches along with natural springs.
Being such a small island, it’s easy to get around on foot or bike with brief trips to historical landmarks or delve into the local nature.
12. Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum
Housed within the storied Indian Dormitory, the Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum is the only one of its kind on Mackinac Island. The dormitory was originally built in 1838 for displaced Native Americans. However, it never fulfilled its original purpose, instead becoming a school in 1850.
Upon falling into disrepair, it was transformed into a captivating museum housing a wide range of Mackinac Island art. Broken up into several sections, you can explore early artifacts from the 17th and 18th centuries, Native American art, and their expansive photography gallery. The latter takes you through the last 170 years of island history.
11. Round Island Lighthouse
On the west shores of Round Island, the Round Island Lighthouse stands as a beautiful yet lonesome presence upon the Straits of Mackinac. Those traveling to Mackinac Island will get a glimpse of the historic structure with its striking red and white exterior contrasting to the blues and greens of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.
The lighthouse guided ships through the strait from 1895 to 1947, with the last two decades being automated. Over the years, island locals have come together to preserve the important lighthouse from being demolished. Today, the most popular way to visit the lighthouse is during the annual open house, with private boat use being the best choice at other times of the year.
10. Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory
Despite its diminutive size, Mackinac Island features two butterfly greenhouses. The Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory opened in 1997 and is home to hundreds of international butterflies.
The large greenhouse can be found in Surrey Hills, providing a lovely opportunity to watch hordes of butterflies flutter from one blooming flower to the next. Over the ensuing years, the resident butterflies have become roommates with a variety of other animals, including a box turtle, tree frogs, chameleons and even a pair of goats.
Visitors can reach the conservatory on several carriage tours that roam Mackinac Island.
9. Take a Carriage Ride
After arriving on Mackinac Island, one aspect of local life that immediately jumps out is the lack of cars. Read: none. The ban on cars occurred in 1898, back when they were called horseless carriages. This foresight has led to Mackinac Island developing a pristine aura that’s almost impossible to replicate in the modern world.
A popular way to get around is instead on a horse-drawn carriage. These can operate as taxis taking you from A to B, or even as a “hop-on hop-off” journey taking you to the top attractions on Mackinac Island.
However, the best way to experience a carriage ride is after dark. Meander through the Historic Downtown streets lit by lamp posts accompanied by the clip-clop of the horseshoes for a romantic experience.
8. Fort Holmes
Perched atop the tallest hill on Mackinac Island, Fort Holmes was originally built to protect the island’s other military post, Fort Mackinac. In the final year of British occupation in 1814, Fort Holmes was built out of wood and earth. But despite its purpose, the fort proved little use as the US Army claimed the island not long after.
The fort fell into disrepair over the ensuing decades, with just the viewing towers left for visitors when the island became a national park in 1875. Fort Holmes has since undergone several reconstructions and is now a replica of the original. Visitors can explore the block houses and towers for beautiful long-range views.
7. St Anne’s Catholic Church
As you approach Mackinac Island on the ferry, one of the landmarks that stands out the most is St. Anne’s Catholic Church. The soaring bell tower has an elegant presence above the cityscape and was built back in 1874.
Catholicism was first brought to the island two centuries prior and the first church was built entirely out of wood in 1781. St. Anne’s replaced the first iteration and is the oldest still-standing church in the state. The church was dedicated to Saint Anne as she was the patron saint of voyageurs, a fact that the local community could relate to.
Explore the beautiful church before visiting the on-site museum that showcases the history of the building and religion on Mackinac Island.
6. The Grand Hotel
Striking a beautiful presence on the peaks of Mackinac Island’s limestone cliffs is the historic Grand Hotel. The opulent building came to be in 1887 and has just shy of 400 rooms. The hotel books out for months on end during peak tourist season, and for good reason.
Aside from staying in the beautiful property, with its exceptional island views, visitors can experience the longest porch on earth. Across the lengthy porch, you’ll discover almost 150 planting boxes and 1,400 geraniums which make up a portion of the hotel’s 150 flower varieties.
If you’re not staying at the hotel, you can explore the property for a small fee. The Grand Hotel is also a popular departure point for Mackinac Island’s iconic horse and carriage rides.
5. Butterfly House & Insect World
The second iteration of Mackinac Island’s love affair with butterflies is Butterfly House and Insect World. It’s a spectacular look into the lives of some of the world’s smallest creatures. The main section is the Butterfly House with hundreds of vibrant colors fluttering around the space.
Gaze upon the beautiful butterflies as they jump between lush greenery topped by warm colored flowers, creating a natural kaleidoscope. Afterwards, wander over to the Education Room where you can hope to witness the emergence of butterflies from the chrysalis stage.
In the complex’s Insect World, visitors can learn about several hundred species of bugs that hail from all over the world. One of which is the walking sticks, the heaviest bugs on earth.
4. Fort Mackinac
One of the oldest structures in Michigan, Fort Mackinac, is an excellent repository of early island life. The original Fort Mackinac was built by the French in 1715 before the British transported it to Mackinac Island in 1870, where it has lain ever since.
Despite the Declaration of Independence having been signed in 1776, the British held the fort for almost four decades until relinquishing power in 1815. Now rebuilt to its former glory, the fort is an enthralling way to explore military life.
Wander between the 14 historic buildings that are now home to a range of exhibitions and period actors that showcase life in the fort and its military importance. Visitors can even learn how to clean, load and fire Fort Mackinac’s cannons.
3. Downtown Mackinac
In the busy summer months, historic Downtown Mackinac opens to visitors allowing all travelers to witness life on the island during the early 19th century. You’ll uncover a number of well-preserved buildings, which take you on a journey back to the 1830s when the fur trade era was at its peak.
Every home, building and business has a story to tell. Among them all are interpreters in period costumes going about their daily life as if nothing had changed. Highlights of Downtown Mackinac include Biddle House, which was restored to its 1820s splendor. The historic merchant house showcases domestic life, where the interpreters go about their day-to-day activities, including turning wool to yarn.
Afterwards, explore the island’s original general shop, the American Fur Company Retail Store. Before visiting the Dr Beaumont Museum. A doctor who made important discoveries of the digestive system after being shot.
2. Bike the Island
With minimal distance from one side to the other, Mackinac Island provides the opportunity to earn a rare distinction. Upon completing the 8.2 mile coastal trail, cyclists can tell their friends and family that they once rode around an entire island!
For this reason, and for the ability to see it all, cycling around the isle is one of the most popular things to do in Mackinac Island. The cycling path is on the M-185 highway, the only one in the United States where cars are not allowed. With the sun shining above, glistening against the waters of Lake Huron, riding around the island is a delight.
Bike riders can complete their circumnavigation within an hour. But with plenty of views and landmarks along the way, riders will want two or three hours to enjoy the experience.
1. Mackinac Island State Park
Culture and history drive many travelers to explore Mackinac Island. But the small expanse is more than 80% protected land. Away from the hallowed downtown streets, discover the natural beauty of Mackinac Island State Park.
Trade man-made landmarks for breathtaking natural monuments, including the 146-foot Arch Rock. Perhaps the most memorable feature on the island, the limestone arch connects two tree-laden cliffs with colorful Lake Huron poking through.
Other must-see sites in the state park include Skull Cave and Dwightwood Springs. The former was created by the crashing waves of Lake Huron and a former hiding spot for the British military. While the latter is the best freshwater, spring on the island.
The park also offers several historic sites, including Fort Holmes, prominent battlefields and several cemeteries.