GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In a way, Michigan is defined by the Great Lakes. Not only do the lakes carve the state’s signature mitten shape, but they serve as the backdrop to most of Michigan’s countless tourist hot spots. And none embody Michigan more than Mackinac Island.
As the island in the Straits of Mackinac prepares to welcome a new round of summer tourists, here’s everything you need to know about Mackinac Island.
The island, which sits in Lake Huron, is about 8 miles northeast of Mackinaw City. For centuries, the island served as home to part of the Odawa tribe. The tribe called it Michilimackinac, which translates to “great turtle” in their language.
French explorer Jean Nicolet is credited as one of the first explorers to step foot on the island and establish a relationship with the Native American tribes of northern Michigan, making contact in the early 17th century. The French were eventually allowed to establish Jesuit missions and trading posts, developing a hub for the fur trade.
The island was eventually ceded to the Americans following the Revolutionary War, a move that didn’t sit well with both British and Canadian fur traders. The Americans built Fort Mackinac on the island to maintain a military presence in the straits.
The island served as the battleground for one of the first battles of the War of 1812: the Battle of Mackinac. Despite the Americans claiming independence following the Revolutionary War, British forces fought for control of the island.
On July 17, 1812, the soldiers of Fort Mackinac were taken by surprise by British and Native American forces. Lt. Porter Hanks, who led the fort’s 60-member crew, was unaware that war had broken out and quickly surrendered. But the fight wasn’t over. The two sides fought for the island for two years, with the British ultimately holding ground. The island was finally turned over to the Americans through the Treaty of Ghent, signed July 18, 1815 — three years and a day after the fort was captured.
From there, just like many parts of the United States, settlers and Native Americans fought over land, with the Americans eventually claiming control of the island.
A VICTORIAN GEM
Mackinac Island as its known today started taking shape in the late 19th century. Following the Civil War, most of the island was designated to be preserved as parkland. Mackinac National Park became the second national park in the country, only behind Yellowstone National Park which covers stretches of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
In 1895, the U.S. federal government officially ceded control of the island to the State of Michigan. The parkland was left untouched and became Michigan’s first state park.
The island was a tourist attraction almost immediately, with the first hotels being built in the 1880s, including the Grand Hotel. That Victorian style is still felt, with most buildings on the island committed to the look. Because of the distinctive look and Mackinac Island’s notable no-car policy, several locations on the island have been used in movie productions for Victorian-era period pieces.
MACKINAC VS. THE MOTOR CITY
It’s ironic that one of Michigan’s most popular travel destinations is dead set against one of the state’s most popular exports: automobiles. As the invention first made its way across the state, automobiles were used on Mackinac Island. They were banned in 1901 from the State Park after the locals complained that the noise was startling their horses. The ordinance wasn’t enforced on other parts of the island until the 1930s. It was eventually incorporated into state law in 1960.
The only automobiles allowed on the island are for emergency services like fire trucks, ambulances and police cars. Former Vice President Mike Pence turned a lot of heads when he was allowed to bring a motorcade to the island in 2019 while he attended the Republican Leadership Conference.
BEYOND THE SUMMER
When Michiganders think of Mackinac Island, they think of summer. But the island doesn’t completely shut down come fall. The island averages 1 million visitors each year, but the 2020 census reports 471 people live on the island year-round, making the island Michigan’s 442nd largest city.
According to the island’s website, between November and April, only one or two restaurants stay open, along with Doud’s Market. There are a handful of hotels and no public restrooms. The Star Line ferry continues to run in the off months as long as ice stays out of the harbor. There are also two flight services out of St. Ignace that operate year-round.
For the small community of regulars on Mackinac Island, the closest thing to royalty is Margaret Doud. Born and raised on the island, Doud was appointed to the island’s city council in 1974 and was elected as mayor a year later.
Now, 47 years later, Doud still holds the position, making her one of the longest-serving mayors in the nation’s history. Doud oversees the day-to-day operations of the city.
Mackinac Island has its own water and sewer service, police and fire departments, building inspectors, parks and a community library. The city also oversees one important aspect of the island: cleaning and disposing horse manure off the island’s streets.
AMERICA’S FUDGE CAPITOL
If Mackinac Island is known for one thing, it’s fudge. The island’s tourism bureau claims fudge wasn’t invented on the island, but it was perfected there.
Mackinac Island is home to seven fudge companies and 13 fudge stores. Keep in mind, the island only has one hardware store. During peak season, the fudge companies use more than 10 tons of sugar per week. Many of them also offer shipping so you can get your favorite flavors even without visiting the island.
THE GRAND HOTEL
No building stands out on the island quite like The Grand Hotel. The giant building and its clean, white paint compliment the lush green of the well-manicured grounds, setting it apart from any other hotel. Construction started on the hotel in 1886, and it housed its first guests the next summer with rates ranging from $3 to $5.
The hotel’s iconic porch was added in the 1890s. Measuring 660 feet, it’s considered the longest porch in the world. It was designed as the hotel’s main promenade but how holds dozens of rocking chairs so people can take in a view of the shoreline.
The Grand Hotel was named a historical site by the State of Michigan in 1957 and designated as a national landmark in 1989.
TAKE A HIKE
Downtown Mackinac is worth a visit, but don’t forget, 80% of the island is parkland. There are more than 70 miles of hiking trails throughout Mackinac Island State Park.
Some paths will take you to the island’s most popular sites, including Arch Rock: a limestone formation carved away by wind and water over the course of thousands of years. The arch, standing 146 feet above the water, has long been one of the island’s most popular hiking spots.
Mackinac Island State Park opens for the season on May 5.