Most people know that Michigan is bordered by 4/5 Great Lakes. However, what is less well-known is that hydrologically Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are the same lake. They’re divided for a few reasons but mostly because of how they narrow at the Straits of Mackinac between regular Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. The Mackinac Bridge, built in 1954 and opened in 1957, is today pretty much the only way of crossing between them (except in winter). This bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. However, the main draw for tourism in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace (the cities on either side of the bridge) is Mackinac Island.
You take the ferry to get to the island; there are no cars. I’m always a fan of ferry rides, and on this one, you get some great views of the bridge as well as the other islands in the Straits of Mackinac like Bois-Blanc/Boblo Island (the French lost the land, so it got a name change). Docking on Mackinac, I definitely felt like I should have been wearing a long skirt and hat like a vacationing Victorian lady. The town on Mackinac is really comprised of two streets that, combined with the horses and horse excrement, make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Except everyone has smart-phones.
Most of Mackinac is a state park, which means that the island as a whole is sort of split into Time Travel Town, War of 1812 forest, and The Grand Hotel. The town has lots of cute shops with knick-knacks, souvenirs, and fudge – also some reasonably-priced, less-Grand hotels. The forest has bike paths, scenery, and an old fort. And The Grand Hotel…is its own thing. The Grand Hotel was built in 1887, and it’s the real Victorian getaway with a manicured lawn, über-expensive rooms, and a dress code. While approaching the island, you can see this long before you can see anything else. Various presidents (Truman, Kennedy, Ford…) have visited the hotel, though most notably to me, however, is that Mark Twain made regular stops at The Grand Hotel when he went on speaking tours through the Midwest. A bit of a change in pace from the Mississippi River, though I can easily picture him in one of those famous white suits standing on the lawn.
To see the island, you have a few options, but I really enjoyed the carriage ride, which took us through town, past the Grand Hotel, and into the forest. The fall of Mackinac to British forces in 1812 was one of the first events of the war, and for two years, there was continual struggle to control the tiny island (and the much larger Great Lakes fur trade). In 1814, American troops reclaimed the garrison, and reenactments occur every day at Fort Mackinac. Or, if you’re short on time, and that’s not at the top of your list, you can at least stop off at Arch Rock – a US National Historic Landmark, which was a huge part of making Mackinac first a National then a State Park (although it was later downgraded, the island was the 2nd National Park created).
The forest here is beautiful – part of Hiawatha National Forest in fact – but it’s not quite as wild as it may appear. Forest fires are part of nature, and in recent years the park service has learned to do controlled burning to put nutrients back in the soil and eliminate the danger of a massive brush build-up while not burning too much land. However, on Mackinac, a fire could destroy the island in a day, so park rangers have to be careful that in taking care of the forest, they also protect the town.
We had great weather for Mackinac, and I loved the tiny stores, the fudge, and all the beautiful flowers. The Butterfly House on Mackinac was the first of its kind in the US and is also a fun stop. And in case I didn’t make it obvious before, Mackinac has fudge, and it is very good.
This was a wonderful end-of-summer trip, and I loved the relaxed feel of the US’s unsalted third coast. Mackinac Island is a place of contrasts with the old-money wealth of the Grand Hotel juxtaposed against undeveloped forest and the historical reenactments watched by hundreds of people with their iPhone cameras. I was tempted to write this whole post like an essay for one of my classes in which I could ponder the role of tourism and development in state and national parks. This is certainly something to be considered as Mackinac preserves its car-less history and protects both the forest and the town, but I think that what we cannot overlook when questioning the governance and organization of places like this is that we are fortunate to face this problem. It’s good that people want to travel to see and learn about history and nature, and because people visit, we have to ask questions, and that inspires us to be good stewards of such beautiful places.
Bonus Fact: Why are Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City spelled differently? Back in the day, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Mackinac Island were French territory, while Mackinaw City and everything south were English.