How to Day Trip to Mackinac Island {+Budget Tips}

Take a break from the hustle and bustle and step back into a time of horse-drawn carriages and elegant accommodations. Mackinac Island is a favorite Michigan island getaway that offers a unique experience unlike any other in the country. Bike around the island without fear of cars, enjoy a fine dining experience at The Grand Hotel, and explore the island’s military history at Fort Mackinac, a National Historic Landmark. Oh, and don’t forget the epic fudge shops! Let’s look at how to see it all on a day trip to Mackinac Island.


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Top 5 Quick Tips to Know Before You Go to Mackinac Island

1. You Have to Take a Ferry to Get Here.

In the summer, you have to take a ferry (or charter a boat) to get to Mackinac Island. There’s nothing else for it, for most of us.

If you’ve got cash to burn you could charter a small plane, but other than that you have to get on a boat.

2. No Cars on the Island.

Back when automobiles were first invented, the locals didn’t appreciate the noise and pollution, scaring all the island’s horses and upsetting their carriages. They successfully passed a law prohibiting “horseless carriages” from the island.

Nowadays, it’s a nostalgia factor. Still no motorized vehicles and one of the only places left in America where the primary source of transportation is horse-drawn carriage. A quaint look into a bygone era!

Horse-drawn carriages and bicycles are the two ways to get around, besides walking. Even the trash trucks are horse-drawn containers!

A two-horse carriage and several bicycles on Mackinac Island's Main Street

3. Island Life is Expensive.

Preserving old buildings is expensive. Importing food to an island is expensive, even one just a couple miles offshore in a Great Lake.

The lodging capacity of the island is impressive with its luxury resorts, boutique inns, and bed & breakfasts, but the demand far exceeds the capacity, so rates are always high.

There’s no getting around it. The island’s only economy is tourism, and the island is only comfortably accessible for about half of the year. They need to make a year’s worth of revenue in just 6 months.

4. Check the Weather Before Your Trip.

Visiting this critical point in the Straits of Mackinac can mean unpredictable weather. The Great Lakes are so large; they’re more like inland seas. They create weather just like oceans do.

It will always be on the cool side in the evenings, and even the high in July doesn’t exceed the mid-70s °F. You can count on a decent breeze most days, as well.

Check the forecast before you leave so you can pack appropriately.

5. Pack a Picnic.

If you’re day tripping to Mackinac Island, one of the best things to do is bring a picnic lunch with you.

While you’re out exploring you can eat whenever you get hungry and not have to interrupt your adventuring to come back into town with all the restaurants.

It’s also one of the few ways you can save some money on a day trip to Mackinac Island. Enjoy a picnic in Marquette Park instead of an expensive lunch at a restaurant.



How Do You Pronounce That: Michigan version

Before we get into the Mackinac Island day trip itinerary, here are a few pronunciation keys to help you out with your trip to Mackinac and the surrounding area.

It’s helpful to know that the state of Michigan is two parts: the mitten (the lower peninsula) and the upper peninsula.

The upper peninsula of Michigan is attached to Wisconsin’s northeastern border and is the dividing point between three Great Lakes: Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron.

  • The UP: pronounced (the) “you-pee”, short for Upper Peninsula
  • Mackinac: pronounced “MAC-kuh-naw”
  • Mackinaw: pronounced the same “MAC-kuh-naw”
  • (St) Ignace: pronounced (saint) “IG-nuss”
  • Sault Ste. Marie: pronounced “Soo Saint Marie”, aka The Soo for short

Where is Mackinac Island?

Mackinac Island is located in the Straits of Mackinac, where Michigan’s Upper Peninsula meets the tip of the mitten of the lower peninsula.

The town on the UP side is St Ignace; the town on the mitten tip is Mackinaw City. The two cities and two landmasses are connected via the “Mighty Mac” Mackinac Suspension Bridge.

The Mighty Mackinac Suspension Bridge in the distance over the blue waters of the Straits of Mackinac

Pro Tip: There’s a $4 toll every time you cross this impressive suspension bridge.

Mackinac Island is closer to St Ignace than Mackinaw City, but the harbor is on the south side of the island, so the ferry ride is about the same duration from either town.

How to Get to Mackinac Island

Taking a boat is the only way to get to Mackinac Island for most of the year.

Technically, there is an airport on the island, servicing small prop planes and private aircraft, but none of the major airlines fly to Mackinac Island. Also, flying in for a day trip is a waste of money.

In winter, the straits can freeze over and a snowmobile path accesses the mainland. There’s an above average chance, though, that you will not be day tripping to Mackinac Island in the winter.

Taking the Ferry to Mackinac

Ferries run from both Mackinaw City and St Ignace. The two ferry companies are Shepler’s and Star Line, and they have similar rates and duration of trips.

Choose whichever is most convenient for you location- and time-wise.

A Star Line hydrojet ferry kicks up a large wake as it zooms across Lake Huron

Mackinaw City is bigger and busier than St Ignace. Consequently, Mackinaw City ferries tend to be busier than St Ignace ferries.

Day parking at St Ignace is right by the dock. Day parking in Mackinaw City requires a (free) shuttle to the dock.

Ferries start running for the season in late April, ramp up to full day schedules between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and then reduce trips again in the fall, before closing down for the season at the end of October.

How to Day Trip to Mackinac Island

The most popular way to visit Mackinac is to day trip to Mackinac Island. This is a super popular destination in the summer, and it can get crowded, but it’s still worth a visit!

Here’s how we would spend a day on Mackinac Island.

Hop the Ferry to the Island

Maximize your time on Mackinac Island: catch the earliest ferry you can. Ferries start leaving the cities at 7:30AM.

Maybe that’s a bit early, but you’ll miss most of the crowds. By 10AM or so, the town is packed with visitors.

Budget Suggestion: Buy ferry tickets online ahead to save a few bucks.

Bike around the Island

Disembark the ferry and the first things you’ll see when you exit the dock onto Main Street are:

1. all the fudge shops, and 2. all the bike shops.

There are several different bike shops, but they all charge basically the same prices. Rentals are hourly with a built-in discount if you instead opt for the full day rental.

The Mackinac Island bike path lined and shaded by leafy green trees

We stopped at the one closest to our dock, and it was, of course, chaotic with all the people coming in and out, but we paid, got our bikes, adjusted our seats, and were off within 5-10 minutes.

Most companies have additional options for kids as well, like tandem bikes, tag-a-longs, and baby carts.

It takes about an hour to bike around the island if you don’t stop. If you stop for pictures or to explore some of the side attractions, it’ll take closer to 2 hours or longer.

Budget Suggestion: Bring your own bike. It’s a $15 roundtrip ferry ticket for your own bike versus $14/hour for a rental.

Explore Mackinac Island State Park

As you bike around the island, you’ll notice several spots to pull over for special views, trails, or exhibit plaques. That’s because 80% of the island is Mackinac Island State Park.

Aqua blue waters of Lake Huron against a white stone beach shoreline with green island trees in the background

Originally, Native Americans lived here. Europeans showed up for trade, established a town and eventually a fort, and then it remained much the same until after the Civil War.

In 1875, the island was designated America’s second national park. Just twenty years later, it was transferred back to the state of Michigan with the stipulation that it must remain a state park.

Thus, Mackinac Island State Park was born.

Exhibit plaques across the island explain the Native American history of the island, before the Europeans showed up. The island is actually called the Great Turtle to native peoples.

Several unique geological formations can be seen across the island as well. These are pretty hard to miss because there are usually groups of tourists stopped for a picture at each.

Budget Suggestion: Exploring the park and its natural resources are all free. Don’t skip them!

Visit Fort Mackinac

The imposing walls of the fort are hard to miss from the water when you first sail into Mackinac Island’s harbor. High on the bluff above town, it’s no wonder they built the fort here.

An aerial view of downtown shops and homes, the green grass of Marquette Park, and the blue waters of the harbor on Mackinac Island

Visiting Fort Mackinac is fantastic for those that want to learn about the early European history of Mackinac Island, its military history through the Civil War, and to see a cannon or rifle firing demonstration.

Fort Mackinac has a commanding view over the town, the harbor, and to Round Island across the way. Easily some of the best views on the island!

Wander around the restored fort buildings, learn about the soldiers that lived here, and recount the Battle of Mackinac Island from the War of 1812.

Budget Suggestion: If you like historical sites and forts, get a combo ticket for a discounted rate to multiple sites. A combo ticket gets you into both Fort Mackinac on the island and to Fort Michilimackinac on the lower peninsula in Mackinaw City. A MackPass includes even more options.

Explore the Island Interior via a Carriage Tour (or Walking)

Exploring the interior of Mackinac Island via bike involves quite a few hills, so most visitors will return their bikes once they complete the loop around the island and then catch a carriage tour to explore the interior.

Remember, there are no cars on the island so a horse-drawn carriage tour is your only guided tour option.

If you’re worried about the well-being of the horses, talk to the tour operators. The horses are an integral part of the economy on the island, and they’re treated like kings and queens.

Arch Rock, a natural stone bridge on mackinac Island, is surrounded by green vegetation with green and blue Lake Huron below

Tours start and end in the main town area and last about an hour and 45 minutes. They unfortunately don’t take reservations. You pay for your tickets and are put on the next available carriage.

The route includes stops at the following spots:

  • Surrey Hills Carriage Museum
  • Wings of Mackinac Butterfly Conservatory (buy a combo ticket if you want to go inside)
  • Arch Rock
  • The back entrance to Fort Mackinac

The entire route between these stops is narrated and passes by other interior sites like the cemeteries, Skull Rock, Fort Holmes, and the Governor’s Residence.

Even if you ride the entire route without hopping off, this tour is a great intro to the island and its history.

If you are allergic to horses, or just not a fan of carriage tours, there are a few walking tour options that offer similar guided routes with tour guide knowledge of the island.

Budget Suggestion: Purchase a combo ticket from the ferry companies for a small discount.

Take a Peek at The Grand Hotel

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is the preeminent luxury resort on the island, home to the world’s longest front porch. It’s postcard perfect. You’ll pick it out easily on the ferry ride in to the island.

This is a super elegant hotel, built in the days of grand Victorian summer resorts. Rooms start at $400-$500 per night.

For the rest of us on average-income budgets, the hotel offers a $10 day pass for tourists/non-guests to explore the common areas and the grounds.

The multi-story columned front entry to The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island lined with American flags

Come see the exquisitely decorated interiors via a self-guided tour, enjoy the view from a rocking chair on the enormous front porch, and walk the perfectly manicured grounds to see flowers in bloom.

It’s an interesting look into a fancier world, without needing to win the lottery to pay for it first.

Pro Tip: There’s a dress code on this resort, including evening attire only after 6:30PM. Unless you plan to bring a full suit/evening gown with you on your day trip, we recommend you visit earlier in the day.

In our case, we arrived late in the afternoon from the back of the property after our jaunt through the interior.

The pink and white exterior of Sadie's Ice Cream Parlor surrounded by colorful flower beds at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

We stopped in Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor by the road for a quick treat, snapped a photo of the front drive and exterior, stepped in the side door for a few photos before realizing the time, and headed back to town to buy some fudge before catching our ferry.

The walk back into town is lined with signs for the day pass info and the evening dress code. You’ll miss these if you also approach from the interior side rather than walking to the resort from town.

Budget Suggestion: If you’re not into fancy decorations or gardens, skip the day pass. You can still stop in the ice cream shop and get a picture of the exterior without a day pass.

Discover Your New Favorite Fudge Flavor

A Mackinac Island must-do: consume as much world-class fudge as you can handle.

Okay, maybe not exactly, but you’d be remiss to not try some of these unique flavors! The Michigan cherry was *chef’s kiss*.

Mackinac Island is the fudge capital of the world, and the fudge industry is competitive and prolific here. Most shops have multiple storefronts on the main road in town.

We highly recommend setting a fudge budget ahead of time, or else you’ll stop in 4 different shops and drop $150 on fudge…

Your eyes and nose will definitely convince you that you can eat more than your stomach actually can.

Budget Suggestion: Ask for half slabs to get more flavors with the same budget.

Ferry Back on a Mighty Mac Bridge Departure

Bridge nerd alert! There are usually a few ferries per day that include a pass under The Mighty Mac bridge for free.

The deck trusses of the Mackinac Bridge extend overhead to a pier column in the distance
The green trusses of the underside of the Mackinac Bridge connect to the cream colored bridge pier

I highly recommend it if you want some cool pictures of that magnificent bridge. It’s a pretty quick detour, adding maybe 15 minutes to the ferry ride.

The schedules vary by company and sometimes weekends vs weekdays. Check the ferry schedule ahead of your trip.

Pro Tip: It might fit your schedule better to do the bridge ferry in the morning if you prefer to stay late on the island.

Other Things to Do on Mackinac Island with More Time

If you have more time to spend on Mackinac Island, there are plenty of other activities to enjoy throughout your stay.

Swap out one of these activities into the Mackinac Island day trip itinerary above, or spend the night or weekend on the island and do it all!

Golf

Mackinac Island is only 3.78 square miles and has no less than two golf courses and two putt-putt courses.

The Jewel is The Grand Hotel’s signature 18-hole golf course, but it’s open to the public. It is a beautiful course amongst the pristinely cared for landscaping you would expect out of The Grand Hotel.

Wawashkamo Golf Club, in the middle of the island by the airport, is a 9-hole golf course originally built in 1898 on the site of the Battle of Mackinac Island.

It’s Michigan’s oldest continuously in-use golf course, retaining much of its turn-of-the-century golf course design: few trees, short holes, long rough.

Don’t forget putt-putt! We are mini golf masters and are always on the look out for a good spot.

The Gem Miniature Golf is another Grand Hotel spot open to the public, or check out The Greens of Mackinac at the Mission Point Resort on the opposite end of town.

Shop

The main street in town is lined with shops and restaurants. This is souvenir central, where you’ll find all the fudge shops, t-shirt shops, and unique boutiques.

Colorful multi-story Victorian styled shop fronts on Mackinac Island

Find a fun t-shirt or hat. Shop for souvenir knick-knacks. Pick out some new home décor. Discover a new book or two on the history of the island.

Budget Suggestion: Set your budget beforehand.

Eat & Drink

Main Street has plenty of top-notch restaurants to choose from, but don’t forget to explore further afield as well. Not even a block off of the main road is a delicious Jamaican spot.

The Pink Pony is the tourist-favorite bar on the island. Pub crawls are popular with folks staying on the island.

Budget Suggestion: Visit during happy hour for deals on appetizers and drinks.

Kayak Lake Huron

Get on the gorgeous aqua-blue water of Lake Huron and experience Mackinac Island from the water. Yes, this is much different from the ferry!

A group of kayakers paddle around Mackinac Island on the blue waters of Lake Huron with another boat in the distance

Some of the hotels will rent you gear, but a guided kayak tour is your best bet. Try Great Turtle Kayak Tours for a variety of excursions.

Venture out of the harbor, to Arch Rock on the east side or Devil’s Kitchen on the southwest side, or across the way to Round Island.

They even offer sunrise and sunset kayak tours and combos with snorkeling at the Rock Maze on the east end!

Visit More Historic Sites

This tiny but mighty island is chock-full of historic sites. The Great Lakes have been busy centers of trade for both Native Americans and European settlers, and the island saw action in the War of 1812.

A simple brown sign indicating "Fort Mackinac 1780-1895" in a brick archway painted white

You’ve probably already made it to Fort Mackinac, but did you see all the smaller sites in and around town that your fort ticket also gets you into?

  • Benjamin Blacksmith Shop
  • American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum
  • McGulpin House
  • Manoogian Art Museum
  • Biddle House Native American Museum

There are some crazy stories in these smaller sites that you don’t want to miss. The Dr. Beaumont story will stay with you!

Budget Suggestion: These are included in regular admission to Fort Mackinac at no extra expense.

Watch a Sunset

If you get the chance to stay for sunset, you’re lucky. The views from the island as the sun sinks below the trees and the Straits of Mackinaw is an amazing end to a perfect day on Mackinac Island.

Day trippers can manage this in the summer! The last ferry to leave the island isn’t until 9PM during the week or 10PM on Friday/Saturday/Sundays in peak summer.

The long white columned front facade of The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, as seen from the ferry

Where to Stay near Mackinac Island

If you’re only planning to spend one day on Mackinac Island, it’s not worth the money to spend one night at a hotel on the island. Island accommodations will always be expensive.

Mackinaw City and St Ignace are the closest towns to Mackinac Island. Plenty of chain hotels in these two spots, but prices reflect the demand.

Don’t expect reasonable rates in the middle of summer unless you book far in advance.

If hotels are just too expensive but you still want to visit, consider camping instead. Both traditional tent camping and RVs will find plenty of options within easy reach of St Ignace or Mackinaw City.

We actually stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Sault Ste. Marie, an hour north on the UP.

It had much more reasonable hotel prices, even in July at the last minute, and was more centrally located for the other places we wanted to see on our Michigan UP 3 Day Adventure.



A Day Trip to Mackinac Island is Plenty of Time to Explore!

Enjoy this Mackinac Island day trip Itinerary and explore one of Michigan’s best treasures. It’s possible to see it all in one busy day on Mackinac Island!

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Happy travels!

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A view of blue Lake Huron and an aerial view over the town and harbor with text "A Day Trip to Mackinac Island: Life's Better at the Lake!"
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How to Day Trip to Mackinac Island {+Budget Tips}How to Day Trip to Mackinac Island {+Budget Tips}

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