9 Secrets . . . of a Mackinac Island Day Tripper

I have never slept on Mackinac Island.

We rent a house near the ferry boat docks in St. Ignace. We use the lake house in St. Ignace as our “home base” for all of our Michigan adventures. We visit the island each year as day trippers. So, take this advice with a grain of salt – er, a grain of sand:

1.) Wear a hat. 

I joke with my husband that I will get sunburned just by looking at a photo of the sun. I realize that not every blog reader will sunburn as easily as I do. I still highly recommend that Mackinac Island visitors wear hats.

Many of the popular island activities are outdoors. You will probably spend hours (or days) outside surrounded by Lake Huron.

Make sure that you secure your hat when you travel by boat to and from the island! Speaking of boats:

2.) Pay attention to the ferry schedule.

My father-in-law, a radio personality, joked on the air that the Mackinac Bridge periodically swings over to Mackinac Island. You know, so that tourists can drive their cars to the island. Some listeners allegedly believed him . . .

Despite my father-in-law’s claims, the Mackinac Bridge does NOT swing over to the island, and you CANNOT drive to the island.

Some people do travel to Mackinac Island by private boat or cruise ship (yes, I have seen cruise ships docked at the island). Most tourists need to park their cars on the mainland and take a ferry to the island.

The ferry companies have docks at both St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula and also at Mackinaw City on the Lower Peninsula.

A few years ago, the ferry company that we used changed its schedule for the first time in years. We did not realize this until we showed up at the ferry dock. The schedule change caused some inconveniences in our planned itinerary for our trip to the island.

Here’s some more things to keep in mind in regards to the ferry schedule:

  • The weather can affect the ferry boat arrivals and departures. Mackinac Island sits in Lake Huron, and the boats may be unable to travel due to wind and waves.
  • The ferries do NOT run 24 hours a day. If you miss the last ferry of the evening, then you will need to spend the night on the island.
  • As I mentioned above, some of the ferries travel between the island and St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula. Some of the ferries travel between the island and Mackinaw City on the Lower Peninsula. On the return trip, make sure that you take the correct ferry to the correct peninsula. Otherwise, the Straits of Mackinac will separate you from your car!

3.) Prioritize what you want to see and do ahead of time. 

On several occasions, I watched families argue on the ferry dock and in a restaurant about their family’s plans for their time on the island.

Television travel shows peddle these Mackinac Island attractions: the Grand Hotel, carriage tours, saddle horses, bike and kayak rentals, Fort Mackinac, a butterfly house, the Haunted Theatre, the Governor’s House, etc. If this will be your only trip ever to Mackinac Island, you don’t want to miss things. I still maintain that the visits to island may be more enjoyable if you selectively chose your island adventures.

I still haven’t seen everything on the island.

For a visit or two, Jonathan and I brought our bikes and rode around the island. (You will need to purchase a special ticket at an additional charge if you bring your bike on the ferry.) For a few years, we left our bikes at home. One year, we toured Fort Mackinac. One year, we sat and watched the sailboats cross the finish line of the Race to Mackinac. (This race starts in Chicago and ends at Round Island Lighthouse off the shore of Mackinac Island.) One year Jonathan flew kites on the beach while I toured the Grand Hotel.

4.) Check out rental and ticket prices ahead of time. Research the attractions that you want to visit. 

This goes with item #3.

One year, I toured the island’s butterfly house. In July. The day was unusually warm and humid for northern Michigan. Now, keep in mind that most (or all?) butterfly houses are also greenhouses. I made a poor decision to tour the butterfly house that day.

5.) Don’t go on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays if you don’t like large crowds of people.

I know that it’s a luxury to avoid the weekend and visit during the week instead. I stand by what I say. If you hate crowds and you come here on a summer weekend with gorgeous weather, you might hate the island forever.

6.) Watch out for bicycles and horses.

If you don’t already know, Mackinac Island is famous for its ban on automobiles. You can travel across the island by foot, bicycle, or horse. Many visitors bring their own bikes, and many rent bikes on the island.

Some of the bike rentals are to people who don’t spend much time riding bikes. Kids ride into other people. I have watched entire families stop with no warning in the middle of the road. People park their bikes ON the bike trails.

In fact, I did actually spend a day on Mackinac Island earlier this week.  I heard a woman riding a bicycle yell to a (her?) child, “I haven’t been on a bike in ten years!”

You will also need to dodge the dozens or hundreds of horses that travel and poop on the island roads.  Most of this traffic is on Main Street in the island’s downtown. When Jonathan and I ride on the island, we try to avoid this area.

If you travel to the island with kids, keep in mind that the kids might not be comfortable around horses. For instance, one year my husband’s family rented horses to ride on Mackinac Island. One of the children in the group was nervous and uncomfortable about riding the horse that was selected for her. This relative still has unpleasant memories about her experiences with the horse that day.

7.) Save money by eating a late lunch on the island and getting a late dinner on the mainland.

Most of the restaurants on the island have separate lunch and dinner menus. Dinner on the island can be pricey. I bring a few drinks, some apples, and some trail mix for a snack. We eat lunch at 2, and then get a late dinner in St. Ignace after we leave the island. You may want to review restaurant menus prior to your trip so that you know which places are within your budget.

8.) If you buy extra Mackinac Island fudge to take home, plan your purchase.

My mother-in-law always bought island fudge right before she got on the ferry to leave the island. This way she didn’t have to cart around several boxes of fudge in the summer heat. Note that the fudge shops on Mackinac Island also have locations in St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula and Mackinaw City on the Lower Peninsula. You can buy fudge after you leave the island! (This year I bought fudge in Mackinaw City the day after I visited the island.)

9.) Don’t spend a lot of time at the souvenir shops on the island.

The Mackinac Island sweatshirts, hats etc. all travel by boat to Mackinac Island. Tourists purchase these and bring them by boat back to the Upper Peninsula or the Lower Peninsula. This amuses me. Keep in mind that you can also buy many Mackinac Island souvenirs at St. Ignace, Mackinaw City, Sault Ste. Marie, Frankenmuth, etc.

Now, when I visited the island this week, I found a merchandise tent for the 110th Chicago to Mackinac Race. (The race finish line was at the island at the same time that we were on the island.) I bought two hats branded with the race logo because my husband follows the race online each year. (Also, we specifically planned our visit to the island to coincide with the end of the race so that my husband could see some of the sailboats that finished this race.)

What special places do you visit for a day trip each year?

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