How to Take a Perfect Day Trip to Mackinac Island: One Day Itinerary
January 26, 2024
Mackinac Island is an iconic Michigan vacation destination known for horse drawn carriages, creamy fudge and the fact that the island is car-free. Due to the lack of motor vehicles, Mackinac Island has maintained a Victorian-era feel for visitors, unchanged since the island first became a tourist destination.
The picturesque island sits between the two peninsulas of Michigan, not far from the Mackinac Bridge. It is located on Lake Huron and can be reached by a quick ferry ride from both sides of the strait.
The island has been car-free since 1898, when a group of men petitioned the council to prohibit motor vehicles, as they were scaring the horses.
While I was a bit worried that the island would be too crowded and touristy to be enjoyable, I ended up really liking it. I can certainly see why the island receives over a million visitors each year. As you bike along the water, hike among the bluffs and take in the many views of the lake, it’s easy to forget you’re in the Midwest. The island feels a bit like it has been frozen in time and certainly is one of the most unique places to visit in Michigan.
This guide explains how to get to Mackinac Island and provides an outdoor-focused itinerary if you only have one day. It is based on my experience visiting Mackinac Island in summer 2023.
While it doesn’t really feel like it, Mackinac Island is considered to be part of the Michigan Upper Peninsula (or U.P.).
How to Get to Mackinac island
The best way to reach Mackinac Island is by ferry! There are two companies that operate ferries to the island: Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry.
The ferries run from two cities: Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Mackinaw City is below the Mackinac Bridge in the Michigan Lower Peninsula, while St. Ignace is above the bridge in the Michigan Upper Peninsula.
They run their full schedule from the end of May to the beginning of September. During the summer months, boats run every 15 or 30 minutes. They also run a more limited schedule from the end of April to the end of May, and from early September to the end of October.
You do not need to make a reservation on a specific boat ahead of time. You can buy your tickets either online or in person, and simply arrive and take the next available boat.
When you are choosing your boat, you’ll have the opportunity to decide to go under the Mackinac Bridge (it adds about 10 minutes). You can also choose to take a ‘Hydro-Jet’ Boat if you go with the Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry. If you don’t go under the bridge, boat rides typically take less than 20 minutes. They are quick and easy!
If you have your own bike, you can also bring it on the ferry for an additional fee.
For free parking for the Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry, you can park across the street behind the Rusted Spoke Brewing Co. They offered a shuttle to help you across the street, but we crossed on foot.
While the logistics can be a bit confusing at first, the ferries are overall easy and quick to navigate.
When to Visit Mackinac Island
The peak season to visit Mackinac Island is in the summer. This is when the most ferries will run, when the weather will be nice and you’ll have the best chances of everything being open.
If you’re crowd adverse, the fall or spring could be a great time to visit. There is a more limited ferry schedule, but the weather may still be nice in the shoulder months. The island should also be much quieter with less crowds.
The island essentially shuts down to tourists in the winter months from November to March.
I visited on a Saturday in July and the weather was fantastic. The island was definitely crowded, but it was easy to beat others to certain locations by arriving early in the morning.
The Best Things to do on Mackinac Island (And my Outdoorsy One Day Itinerary)
Pro Tip: Get on an early ferry if you want to beat the crowds! I specifically wanted to arrive at Arch Rock before it got busy and going over on an 8:30 AM ferry worked perfectly. The ferries start even earlier if you can swing it, but keep in mind bike shops might not be open yet.
Rent Bikes to Explore the Island
There are no cars allowed on Mackinac Island, so you can only get around via walking, biking or the horse drawn carriages.
I highly recommend renting bikes if you’re able. It’s the perfect way to traverse the island. I had a great experience renting from Mackinac Island Wheels. I chose them because they are a short walk away from the ferry (to avoid the crowds right next to the ferry). Plus, they don’t have a requirement that the bikes cannot leave the pavement, which some other companies have. They were chill and easy going.
FAQ: Can you rent an e-bike on Mackinac Island? No, e-bikes are generally not allowed on Mackinac Island to preserve the charm of being car-free. However, exceptions can be made for qualifying mobility disabilities.
Arch Rock and the Tranquil Bluff Trail
Arch Rock is easily one of the best things to do on Mackinac Island and something you can’t miss!
To reach it, take the short bike ride on the Mackinac Island Outer Loop Road (should take less than 10 minutes from downtown) to the base. You will then park your bike and begin the climb up 207 steps to see the arch.
When you reach the top, you’ll be standing right across from the arch and you can follow the path to get a little closer. The arch is 50 feet wide and stands 146 feet above the water.
The arch was formed during the Nipissing post-glacial period, is made of limestone and is rare in the Great Lakes region. It was seen as a powerful place by the Anishinaabek People (Odawa, Ojibway, and Potawatomi), who inhabited the island before European settlers.
The arch is also a major reason that Mackinac National Park was created in 1875 (it later became a state park instead).
After admiring the arch, you can start the Tranquil Bluff trail from here. This total hike is about 6 miles round trip, but I only did a portion of it. Less than a mile into the hike, you’ll come across multiple viewpoints that allow you to admire Lake Huron and the Outer Loop Road down below. It’s a peaceful trail where we saw very few other people.
By the time we returned to Arch Rock, it was extremely crowded.
Lucky Bean Coffee
After exploring Arch Rock and the bluffs, return to downtown for some coffee and breakfast. I loved Lucky Bean Coffee, which offers some unique and delicious specialty lattes. I loved the pistachio latte!
The coffee shop is small, but cute. They also offer a few pastries for breakfast.
Explore more of Natural Side of the Island
Bike around the opposite direction of the island (opposite of the arch) and explore more of the natural sights in Mackinac Island.
You will shortly come across Devil’s Kitchen, a small cave located right along the Outer Loop Road. Like The Arch, it is made of eroded limestone that was carved away during the Nipissing post-glacial prehistoric period.
It’s a quick stop and you can walk partially inside the small cave.
From the Devil’s Kitchen, continue biking until you reach British Landing, the Nature Center and Cannonball Oasis. This is a great spot to use the restroom, admire the views of the lake along the beach and/or grab a bite to eat.
This is the point where you will turn and start biking uphill for the first time. The road starts paved but soon turns to gravel. It’s a lot harder on a bike, but doable.
Quickly on your left, you can turn in and explore another rock formation: Friendship’s Altar. This rock formation stands 13 feet high and is surrounded by the forest.
Cave of the Woods
Continue biking on the gravel surface until you come across the trail to the Crack in the Island and the Cave of the Woods. It’s not well marked, but there is a 0.5 mile trail that leads to both of these formations. I recommend watching on Google Maps for when you’re close to the Crack in the Island, and looking for the small trail marker along the gravel road. It’s located close to the Mackinac Island Airport.
The Cave of the Woods is a small cave formation that you can admire up close.
Crack in the Island
The Crack in the Island is very close to the Cave of the Woods and they can be reached from the same trail. The crack is a bit like a slot canyon. It’s literally a large crack in the ground, and you can squeeze yourself through it. It’s a spot where the limestone base of the island has split.
After exploring these neat rock formations in the interior, you have a few choices depending on how much time you have left. You can continue exploring the interior of the island, perhaps visiting other natural sights such as Skull Cave and Sugar Loaf. Or, you can exit back to the Outer Loop Road and continue to ride around the entire island. Or if you’re short on time, simply return to the loop road and return the way you came.
Have Lunch Downtown
If you’ve worked up an appetite, head to lunch downtown. Personally, I enjoyed a Jamaican restaurant: Kingston Kitchen at the Village Inn.
The restaurant is known for its whitefish. It fuses American food with Jamaican inspiration. They also have many decorative cocktails, and you can even get a sampler of 3 different ones.
Other places to consider are Millie's on Main for pub fare, the Pink Pony for a vibrant pink atmosphere or the Chuckwagon for breakfast food.
Admire the Grand Hotel
You’d be remiss to visit Mackinac Island without at least going to see the famous Grand Hotel. This historic hotel is famous for its 600-foot porch and for being a meeting place for famous figures over the years, such as Thomas Edison and Mark Twain.
The movie Somewhere in Time was also filmed here in 1979 (along with other areas of the island).
Today, it’s hard to find a room for less than $1,000 a night in this historic masterpiece. Plus, they have a lot of rules for those who are not guests. You have to pay a fee to go into the lobby ($12 for adults) and you can’t ride your bike right in front of it, so be sure to park it in the designated area and walk over.
I admired it from the outside and was especially impressed by their gardens and landscaping. There is a gorgeous park right in front of the hotel with a Secret Garden, a fountain and colorful flowers.
There is also an ice cream parlor attached to the building, so you could enjoy an ice cream while exploring the luscious grounds.
Visit Fort Mackinac
If you enjoy learning about history, it’s worth a visit to Fort Mackinac. The fort began as a British outpost until years after the American Revolutionary War. It was used by the British to control the Straits of Mackinac.
Later, there were two battles fought here during the War of 1812. After that, it served as an outpost of the US Army. Since 1895, it has been a museum and a part of Mackinac Island State Park.
Today, all fourteen buildings are open to the public and there are several exhibits to explore. Plus, there are several demonstrations throughout the day including cannon firing, army drills and tours.
You can also enjoy a spectacular view looking down at downtown and Lake Huron while you’re exploring the fort.
Enjoy some Fudge
You can’t visit Mackinac Island without sampling some fudge! As tourism grew on Mackinac Island in the late 19th century, fudge quickly became a quintessential part of visiting.
The first candy store was opened by the Murdick family in the 1880’s. Rome Murdick was also the first person on the island to make fudge on marble slabs in front of customers.
Today, there are 13 fudge shops on the island. In fact, the island imports 10 tons of sugar per week just for fudge making.
I opted to visit Original Murdick's Fudge since it seemed to be the most historic fudge shop on the island. I enjoyed the triple chocolate espresso, but they have over 20 flavors to choose from.
A couple other highly rated fudge shops are Joann’s and Murray’s Hotel. Try a few and compare for yourself!
FAQ: Should you spend the night on Mackinac Island, or is one day enough? This depends on your travel style! I thought that one day was plenty of time to see the main highlights of the island, especially if you get an early start. However, spending one or more nights would give you a chance to enjoy the nightlife, watch the sunrise from a trail and really take your time. I don’t think you can go wrong either way.
I hope this guide for spending one day on Mackinac Island helps you plan your visit! It’s a charming island full of Victoria-era charm. While most people come for the horse-drawn carriages and downtown area, I loved getting off the beaten path a bit to see the more natural side of the island. No matter what you do during your visit, I hope you enjoy this slice of paradise during your next trip to Michigan.
For more Guides on Exploring the Midwest, check out these blogs:
- How to Spend 4 Days in the Michigan UP
- How to Spend 3 Days on the MN North Shore
- The Best MN North Shore Hiking Trails
- The Best Outdoor Adventures in St Cloud
- How to Spend 3 Days in Madison, Wisconsin
- The Best Hikes in Indiana
- The Best Things To Do in Hocking Hills, OH
- The Best Things To Do in Cuyahoga Valley, OH
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