There’s something magical about Mackinac Island that draws families back year after year, generation after generation.
Mackinac Island is located in Lake Huron between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan. Once you set foot on the island, you’ll be transported back in time with charming cottages, fudge shops, and horse-draw carriages on the narrow streets. Mackinac does not allow any motor vehicles, so all travel is done by bicycle or horse.
KidTripster Tip: Mackinac is pronounced “MAC-in-naw.” It’s Mackinac Island, Mackinac Bridge, and the Straits of Mackinac, but it’s Mackinaw City. Now you know!
What to do?
Mackinac Island offers something for everyone from water sports and biking to lessons on military history. Depending on your family’s interests and activity level, you can pack your days with high-action adventures or take things at a more leisurely pace. Mackinac also takes advantage of Michigan’s greatest natural resources, the Great Lakes, with incredible views of Lake Huron and the Mighty Mac (Mackinac Bridge).
Biking is a best way to get around Mackinac Island and also the perfect way to see many of the island’s natural wonders. The 8.2-mile trail around the island is mostly flat, so it’s a manageable ride for most kids and is even doable if you’re towing a bike trailer. You can bring your own bikes on the ferry (extra fee) or you can rent bikes from the many bike shops or hotels; most rental locations also offer bike trailers and helmets. Rentals are typically by the hour, half day or full day. If you plan to bike the entire island, opt for the full day rental. Stop along the way for some beach time. My boys loved adding to the collection of rock cairns that you see.
To see all of Mackinac Island, consider a horse-drawn carriage tour. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours offers a variety of options, including private tours, ghost tours, and a carriage tour that hits the highlights of Mackinac with a knowledgeable guide. The carriage tour is the best option for most families and includes stops at the Surrey Hill Square Carriage Museum, Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory, Arch Rock, and Fort Mackinac. The tour allows you to get off at different locations and explore, then hop back on the next available carriage. The tour is listed as an hour and 45 minutes long, but that doesn’t take into account any stops, so plan on a longer trip if you plan to get off and explore the butterfly conservatory or the fort. Cost: Youth (5-11) $11; Adult $28.50.
KidTripster Tip: There's a combination ticket available that offers admission to the Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory. If you think that your kids will want to check out the butterflies, the combination ticket does save you money.
Prepare to be amazed at just how interested your kids will be in the history of Fort Mackinac. Built in 1780 by the British, the Fort played a major role in both the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. More than 100 years after it was closed, the fort was restored and now plays host to thousands of visitors each year. All 14 original buildings are open to the public. Kids will enjoy walking through the officer’s quarters, military jail, and the lookout stations on top of the walls. There are also hands-on activities in the kids’ area and multiple demonstrations throughout the day, including costumed soldiers, cannon firings, and a military band playing on the parade grounds. Plan on at least two hours to fully explore Fort Mackinac and make sure you bring your camera to capture the incredible views of the Straits of Mackinac and Lake Huron. Cost: Youth (5 to 12) $7; Adult $12.
KidTripster Tip: Portions of Fort Mackinac are very open; the sun and heat can quickly get to both kids and adults. Plan on bringing your own drinks or make sure you have cash. The only vendor selling drinks and food doesn’t take credit cards.
No visit to Mackinac Island is complete without a stop in the downtown area to check out the fudge shops. Mackinac is known for its fudge, and the island boasts more than 15 sweet stores devoted to the chocolate confection. Most stores offer samples, so check out the different options and find your favorite. You may have more than one!
After spending some time indulging in the island’s fudge, take to one of the island’s 70 hiking trails. More than 80% of the island is actually a state park. The well-traveled hiking paths offer unique perspectives on the island. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, the hike up to Fort Holmes at the top of the island offers incredible 360-degree views and a quiet spot for picnicking. The hike is physically demanding though, so make sure you allow plenty of time to complete the hike before sunset.
If you’re looking for an adventure by water, consider a guided kayak or paddleboard tour of Lake Huron and the Straits of Mackinac. Great Turtle Kayak Tours offers tours for all skill levels. For a truly memorable experience, opt for a sunrise or sunset excursion. Cost: Starts at $40, depending on tour.
Where to stay?
Mackinac Island offers a variety of hotel options at all different price points. The historic Grand Hotel with the largest porch in the world is the height of luxury. Some meals are included with most of the room prices. There are several on-site restaurants to choose from, and the staff goes out of their way to cater to families. The hotel also offers an incredible outdoor swimming pool, great kids' programs, and fun family activities. Starts at $304/night per adult; kids (11 and under) are free; kids (12 to 17) are $59/night. For a full review, click here.
Main Street Inn and Suites offers a mix of hotel rooms and suites for families needing a bit more space. Located in downtown with views of the harbor, all rooms include a refrigerator and coffee maker, and suites also have a microwave. The hotel has a communal game room with board games, pool table, and large television. Starts at $95/night.
Located near the marina and in the shadow of Fort Mackinac, Chippewa Hotel Waterfront has been welcoming guests to Mackinac Island for more than 110 years. The rooms offer a variety of bed configurations, so you can find one that will work for your family, as well as great views of the island. Guests can relax on the sun deck or soak in the large, 15-person hot tub after a long day of exploration. As an added bonus, the Pink Pony is attached to the hotel, so guests don’t have to walk far for a great meal. Starts at $109/night.
Where to eat?
Mackinac Island is awash in history, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. That lighthearted attitude can be felt at Pink Pony. Located at the marina with incredible water views and outdoor seating, the restaurant is bright pink inside and sports hot pink umbrellas on the patio. The menu itself is full of American favorites including hamburgers, fish, pasta, sandwiches, and steak. You’ll also find an expansive beer, wine, and cocktail menu, along with a lighthearted spirit and live music. This restaurant is a favorite with tourists, so there may be a wait, but the views alone make it worth your time.
Located in downtown, Mighty Mac Hamburgers is as close to fast food as you’ll get on the island. But just because the food is fast doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out. Mighty Mac has been around for almost 50 years and consistently serves great burgers, sandwiches, and fries to visitors without any added fuss. The restaurant itself is located near the harbor and offers great views from the outdoor picnic tables. Kids can run and play; my family enjoys watching the kite flying that happens nearby. It’s a great option if your kids aren’t in the mood to sit down for long, and the prices are very reasonable for Mackinac Island.
One of my family’s favorite restaurants is Yankee Rebel Tavern. The name alone appeals to my boys, but the food and service is what keeps bringing us back. The intimate restaurant offers a variety of homemade seasonal soups, salads, and sandwiches, as well as entrées that will have you issuing your own “rebel yell” of joy; the chicken puff pastry is my personal favorite. Located on Astor Street in the heart of downtown, Yankee Rebel Yell just started accepting reservations for groups of five or more.
Photo courtesy: Yankee Rebel Tavern
Mackinac Island is a straight shot up I-75. You’ll need to take a ferry from either Mackinaw City in the Lower Peninsula or St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula. Arnold Mackinac Island Ferry, Shepler’s Ferry, and Star Line Ferry each offer service to the island; all ferry services run several times per day. Arnold Mackinac Island Ferry is the least expensive. Cost: Youth (5 to 12) $9; Adult $18; Bike $8 (round trip).
KidTripster Tip: There are a few times each day when the ferries go under the Mackinac Bridge. There's no extra cost for these trips, and the detour under the bridge doesn't add much time to your total trip. Kids (and adults) really enjoy seeing the bridge from this unique perspective.
Former journalist Jamie Farber lives in West Michigan with her husband and three sons, ages 2, 8, and 11. Her English degree has somehow led her to a career planning Disney vacations with Mickey Travels. In her spare time, she enjoys planning her family's many trips around the U.S. and the Caribbean.
This writer received a complimentary stay and some activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.