Outdoor Family Adventures on Mackinac Island

Head to Mackinac Island for famous fudge, historic forts and the great outdoors.

The American love affair with the automobile got its start in Michigan, but one of the state’s most idyllic vacation destinations—Mackinac Island—is entirely car-free.

Mackinac Island sits like a crown jewel between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan on the Straits of Mackinac, where the waters of lakes Huron and Michigan merge. Postcard-pretty Victorian homes dot the island’s high bluffs and the clippity-clop of horse hooves can be heard through the historic downtown from the moment one steps off the ferry.

Mackinac (pronounced mack-in-awe) may be known for its ban of motorized vehicles and as the location for the movie Somewhere in Time, but families treasure the island for its simple pleasures, from leisurely horseback rides along towering bluffs, to a stomach-filling survey of the confectionary delights made in the town’s many fudge shops.

A Car-Free Environment

Since 80 percent of the island is actually state park land, there are miles of scenic trails and footpaths for exploring by horseback, on a bike or simply on foot. The promise of two amazing natural stone formations, Arch Rock and Sugar Loaf, is one way to keep the kiddos on the move.

Children accustomed to car trips adore the breezy rides offered by horse-drawn taxis; if yours are anything like mine, then you’re sure to hear more than a few ‘eews’ when the huge plough horses do their business, so to speak. Bicycles and horses are available by the hour or the day; bike shops line the main street just off the ferry landing for those wishing to explore on two wheels. Be warned that tiny legs may tire quickly as there are plenty of steep hills to navigate. Guided horseback rides are encouraged for inexperienced riders and families with young children. We walked from the Grand Hotel to Cindy’s Riding Stables to saddle up for a guided tour of the forests on the island; although we’re all experienced trail riders, neither the kids (ages 9 and 14) or I were ready to go off on our own.

Forting Around

Mackinac’s rich military history—the island was the site of the first land battle of the War of 1812—is told at both Fort Mackinac and Colonial Michilimackinac, two sites that cover different periods in the island’s history. Fort Mackinac focuses on the mid-to-late 1800s, while Colonial Michilimackinac takes visitors back to the 1770s, when it was occupied by red-coated British soldiers. At both sites, there are ample opportunities for play and learning, and Fort Mackinac has a terraced tea room that overlooks the Straits of Mackinac and a children’s play area. Admission is $10 for adults, $6.25 for children (ages 5 to 17), and free for children 4 and under. The Mackinac “Triple Choice” package allows your pick of three historic Mackinac sites, and costs $13.50 for kids (ages 5 to 17) and $22 for adults.

Fudge Heaven

Shopping on Mackinac Island is heavy on the fudge, with a few boutiques, souvenir shops and galleries offering local art and scrimshaw.  

The sweet aroma of freshly-made fudge entices children and adults alike; more than a dozen downtown shops offer the hand-crafted confection, made on huge marble slabs with flavors ranging from traditional chocolate to rum nut. Sampling is almost like a sport. My family popped into the iconic Murdick’s Fudge Shop—the island’s original fudge vendor—for a tasting, and that’s where we ran into trouble: We couldn’t choose a favorite. After what seemed like an hour of debate, I went for regular fudge (ever the traditionalist), while my daughter picked double chocolate and my son chose chocolate mint.

Once a flavor decision is made, the fudge is cut into one-pound blocks wrapped in wax paper and boxed up securely for travel—along with a plastic knife in case of fudge emergencies.

Island Stays

Accommodations on Mackinac include more than 40 bed and breakfasts and a number of historic hotels and inns, which are particularly suited to families. The Island House Hotel—Mackinac Island’s first summer hotel—offers spacious premium rooms and a number of two-bedroom suites, ideal for families. The grande dame of them all, however, is the Grand Hotel, built in 1887.

With a sweeping porch that overlooks the Straits of Mackinac, a great lawn for games, meandering garden paths, varied children’s programs and a huge swimming pool, the Grand is a family paradise. No two of the hotel’s 385 rooms are exactly alike, but all feature furnishings and décor reminiscent of Grandma’s cottage. Doubles are roomy enough for a family of four; request a room with a balcony because it adds a bit of airiness, and it is a perfect spot for mom and dad to have some quiet time at the end of the day.

Accommodation pricing at the Grand is per adult, and includes breakfast and a five-course dinner nightly; doubles start at $225 per night, $119 for 18-year-olds, $55 for ages 12 to 17, and free for kids 11 and under. After 6 p.m., a coat and tie are required for gentlemen over the age of 12, and ladies of all ages are expected to wear their best attire. Following dinner, the house orchestra performs standards in the hotel ballroom; while children are welcome on the dance floor, they risk being overrun by the enthusiastic senior rug cutters.

Those not staying at the Grand are welcome to visit, but to preserve the stately atmosphere of the hotel, a fee is charged—$15 for adults (12 and older), $7.50 for children ages 5-11 (ages 4 and under are free)—which allows access to the hotel, shops and gardens, and is redeemable at the Grand’s lunch buffet. Call 800-33GRAND for more information, or go to www.grandhotel.com.

Getting There

From May through November, ferry service is available. High-speed ferries run from either St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula, or from Mackinaw City, which has its own share of fudge shops, cafés and historic attractions for those who wish to stay on the main land.

Only a few dozen families live on Mackinac Island year-round. The only way to and from the island in the winter is via air charter. Just a handful of accommodations are open during the winter, as are only a few stores for provisions. But Mackinac’s pristine winter playground—full of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails—is all the enticement an adventurous family needs.

Destinations: Mackinac Island

Themes: Family Travel, Historical Vacations, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Cycling, Golf, Horseback Riding