Field Trip: Somewhere In Time – Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island is truly a land caught somewhere in time. And not just because the Christopher Reeve movie was filmed there, either. Located in Lake Huron between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, Mackinac Island covers just 3.8 square miles. More than 80% of that land is preserved as Mackinac Island State Park.  The entire island is registered as a National Historic Landmark, as up until 1875, Mackinac Island was federal land registered as Mackinac National Park,  the second national park registered, right after Yellowstone.

The only way to get to Mackinac is by boat or airplane.  We chose the ferry option, which took us right under the Mackinac Bridge.  Nicknamed the “Might Mac,” the Mackinac Bridge held the title of the largest suspension bridge in the world until a few years ago. (It now ranks 3rd.)  At 5 miles long, with a maximum height of over 553 feet (168 meters) above the water, the Mighty Mac is an impressive sight to behold.

Especially from underneath! Here were are cruising on the Lake Michigan side of the bridge.

A few short minutes later, we were on the Lake Huron side.  The boys thought crossing from one Great Lake to another was exceptionally cool.   They also found it interesting to know that there is over 42,ooo miles of wire comprising the bridge’s suspension cables.

As impressive as the Might Mac is above water, 2/3 of the structure is below the water, anchored directly into bedrock.   The bridge also has two concrete anchors comprised of over 368 tons of concrete.

The Mackinac Bridge requires constant maintenance, as evident by the presence of this crane.  The bridge gets a fresh coat of paint each year, and by the time the workers finish, it’s time for them to start all over again.  Here the workers are busy removing more than 50 years of lead paint that are beginning to weigh the structure down. (Don’t worry–the paint removed is being properly disposed of, and not just flaked into the water below.)  Mike Rowe did an episode of the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs on the maintenance required of the Might Mac, click here to see it.

This lighthouse signaled our approach into the harbor. The installation of this automated lighthouse made the original lighthouse obsolete.


The Round Island Lighthouse was the original light house that operated near Mackinac harbor for over fifty years. It was staffed by three crewmen, with on caretaker living on the grounds. The US Forest Service has maintained the property as a historical resource since the automatic beacon was installed in 1947.

The approach into Mackinac’s harbor is very picturesque.  Victorian architecture studs the shoreline.

The harbor itself is so quaint and adorable. I’d love to have my morning chai on one of those terraces and watch the boats go by.

The first thing visitors notice is the abundance of horse drawn carriages on the island.  Mackinac Island does not allow motorized vehicles, so all transportation on the island is done either by horse, bicycle, or on foot.

Emergency vehicles are the only exception to the rule.  Thank goodness.

The Victorian architecture found on the island is breathtaking.  Just under 500 residents call Mackinac Island home year ’round, with an average high school graduating class of 2 students. Last year the high school had a huge graduating class of six.  However, tourist season brings thousands of seasonal residents to their summer homes, or employment opportunities. If this were my summer home, that round sun room would totally be my Chick Cave.

My boys were ecstatic to see a public library, and wanted to check out a few books. I told them the late return fees would blow our budget, so we just admired the building instead.  With so many magnificent structures, it’s hard to fathom that all of the wood required to build them had to be brought over by boat.

Perhaps the most famous structure on the island is The Grand Hotel. The Grand Hotel is an elegant place of luxury where proper dinner attire is not only encouraged, but required.  The Grand boasts the largest front porch in the world, with over 100 rocking chairs on the deck in which to enjoy it.  When the hotel was built, the timber brought over for the construction is said to have been as tall and twice as wide as the three story hotel.

Although rustic in many areas, Mackinac is not without modern conveniences like electricity, running water, central air conditioning, etc.  Modernists can rejoice in the fact that Starbucks has a presence here, as well.

You can even hang out in a parking lot if you’re missing the hustle & bustle of the modern world.

Since the vast majority of the island is a State Park, we elected to take a carriage tour to see it.  I don’t know why, but Son #1 and I decided that our carriage horses, while beautiful, had a certain Thestral-like quality to them.

Betty and Clyde did a fine job lugging us around the park. And never once did they sprout wings.

Because the horses do so much hauling, they wear what are termed “Horse Nikes” instead of regular horse shoes, to better care for their hooves. In the winter, most of the horses are taken to a ranch in the upper peninsula where their shoes are removed and they are allowed to live as a wild herd.

Some of the first inhabitants of Mackinac Island are believed to be the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes. They believed the island to be the home of the Great Spirit.  It is said that the island was called Michilimackinac meaning “large turtle” due to the island’s size and shape being likened to that of a turtle.  Mackinac was seen as a special and sacred place where rituals were performed, and tribal chiefs were buried in the many limestone caves.

Arch Rock is one of several unique limestone formations on Mackinac Island.  Towering 146 feet above the water, the limestone arch is fifty feet wide at its widest point. Geologists believe that Arch Rock was formed by thousands of years of water and wind eroding the rock. Native American legend tells a different tale of the famed arch formation.

A young Indian princess is said to have fallen in love with a young brave who was the son of a sky spirit. Her father did not approve of the relationship, and forbid her to marry the non-mortal. Her father then moved her to the Island of the Turtle, and tied her to a rock on a high bluff to punish her, and keep the young loves apart.  She cried many tears for her lost love, and eventually her tears washed away the rock and formed the arch.  The Great Spirit was pleased with the beauty of the arch, and sent the young brave to untie his love so that they could return together to the home of the sky people.

Fur traders, fisherman, and merchants soon discovered the island to be an ideal location for trade among the Great Lakes shipping channels.

The British built Fort Mackinac to defend their interests during the War of 1812. Ironically, the British surrendered the fort due to being severely outnumbered, but not before two battles were fought on the island between 1812-1815.


Eventually, visitors flocked Mackinac for it’s natural beauty, scenic views, and proximity to the water. The island became a major summer resort by the 1800’s. Now the island is known for its rich history, horses, and fudge. Yep, you can’t go anywhere on the main drag of the island without tripping on a fudge shop. True story.

Although we had our fair share of fudge, we really enjoyed the historical sites. The boys really liked seeing the different types of carriages at the Carriage Museum.

They were equally fascinated by this hut-like chapel built by early missionaries.

Churches are abundant on the island. Seemingly every faith persuasion had a presence here at one point or another.

With all the sights to see, you could really spend several days on Mackinac Island exploring them.  Since we were only there for a day, we hit the highlights, then made sure to take time to just be.  We ran around a park and hung out under a huge shade tree for awhile.  Some of us *ahem* may have even taken a small nap under said shade tree.   Not me, of course. I could watch my boys playing together all day long.

Because at the end of the day, its the memories made with family that make a place truly special.

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  1. says

    I’ve heard of this place! What a quaint little town. I’m a especially drawn to the pretty ponies everywhere!! That would be my kind of town…Ben’s, not so much. Oh, gosh do I need a pony nose kiss right now!!

  2. says

    I definitely agree that dappled gray horses are more thestral-like than their other herd-mates. The thought may have crossed my mind once or twice before (yet another reason I know that sometimes we share the same brain).

    I think it’s fascinating that they let them run free in the wintertime, but it makes sense, as horses are such social animals.

  3. says

    Fun post! Brings back some great Michigan memories. I worked in Mancelona, Michigan in Fall “01/Winter 02. On weekends my coworkers and I tried to visit as many cool spots as possible that year. Mackinac Island was my favorite.

  4. says

    An entire island without motorized vehicles? How cool!!!
    I would love the tradition and culture there, but thank goodness for Starbucks. :)

    • says

      Amen on Starbucks. :)
      (Our recent move took us to what I consider “the country” here on Oahu…but I have a Starbucks within two miles. That’s my kind of country! :))

  5. says

    I’m ready to visit…but I want a week. It looks so charming! Love the horse-drawn carriages and fudge is a major PLUS. 😉
    ANd couldn’t help but laugh at your comment about library fees. Today on my to-do list is to search ONE MORE TIME for the three books missing since June!! agh! I should learn from you! :)


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