3 ways to explore the ‘wild side’ of Mackinac

As the name suggests, the Mackinac State Historic Parks are full of history. Glimpses of the past are preserved through original structures such as the 240-year-old Officer’s Stone Quarters at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island and artifacts such as the original Fresnel lens at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City.

  But really, the human history on exhibit at Mackinac State Historic Parks is all recent history. The attractions in Mackinaw City and on Mackinac Island also represent eons of natural history that go back much, much farther in time.

  Some of the iconic rock formations in Mackinac Island State Park, for example, are estimated to have been shaped many thousands of years ago. And the forest of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, as well as the Straits of Mackinac itself, are even older than that.

  In fact, the region’s natural history is the reason there’s any human history to explore in the first place. After all, it was the narrow Great Lakes passage that brought people to the area and it was the forests that provided for them – lumber for homes, animals for food and pelts for the once-lucrative fur trade, for example.

  Mackinac State Historic Parks attractions showcase that mix of natural history and human history. It’s fascinating to tour Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City and learn about 18th-century life on the fort or step inside the old American Fur Company Store on Mackinac Island and discover what it was like to be a 19th-century trapper or trader. It’s also enlightening to get the backstory of those human experiences by stepping way back into the natural “wild side” of Mackinac.

  Here are three of the best ways to get an understanding of the incredible natural history within Mackinac State Historic Parks:

  •  – Did you know that more than 80% of Mackinac Island is state parkland? It was even once a national park! While many visitors rent bikes and pedal all the way around Mackinac Island on M-185, that scenic loop is partially closed in 2021 due to ongoing erosion repairs. All the more reason to pedal up into the middle of Mackinac Island instead and find more than 70 miles of roads and trails through forest that looks much like it did millennia ago. (Get the latest updates on M-185 repairs and detours on Mackinac Island.)

Another popular ride is Mackinac Island’s Arch Rock Bicycle Trail, which takes you out to the iconic Arch Rock overlooking the southeast corner of the island. Arch Rock is a bucket-list natural history destination on its own. But along the way you can make stops on the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail, too. There are several trailside turnouts with interpretive areas where you can learn about the flowers and plants of Mackinac Island.

  •  – If hiking is more your style of exploration, then lace up your boots and take on the trails of Mackinac Island by foot. Many miles of trail aren’t even passable by bike, in fact. Roots and rocks combined with big changes in elevation make some trails within Mackinac Island State Park ideal for a strenuous hike, while the paved roads through the island’s interior offer a more leisurely option for immersing yourself in the ancient forest. Birdwatching on Mackinac Island is another great option for experiencing the wild side of Mackinac.

In Mackinaw City, you can enjoy a stroll along the Straits of Mackinac at the foot of the Mackinac Bridge at Colonial Michilimackinac or walk for miles through the woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. Just as many visitors to Mackinac Island only scratch the surface of all there is to see, so do most people only see a fraction of Mill Creek. Many of the trails into the wilds of Mill Creek are even accessible, and there also are guided hikes scheduled each day.

  •  – Speaking of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the one-of-a-kind Adventure Tour is a fun way for all ages to experience some of the region’s natural history. The high-flying excursion takes visitors not only into the forest, but up to the top of it for a walk over the Forest Canopy Bridge some 50 feet above the creek below. Your tour guide points out natural features along the way, then you zoom back down to ground level on the exhilarating Eagles’ Flight Zip Line.

Before or after your tour, be sure to take the 71 steps up to the viewing platform atop the park’s Treetop Discovery Tower. The panoramic vista from up there offers a spectacular view of the whole region, and a great perspective on the natural features that attracted people to the Straits of Mackinac.

There’s lot of history to experience at Mackinac State Historic Parks, including the wilderness where not many visitors venture. Come explore Mackinac’s wild side!

Summer Birds of Mackinac Island

The woods and waters of Mackinac Island are home to a broad diversity of bird life. Join park naturalist Kyle Bagnall as we search for the island’s feathered residents. Our group will look and listen for songbirds of the forest, raptors soaring overhead, and waterbirds along the shore. We’ll also compare our sightings with those made by cottager Stewart E. White in the summers of 1889-1891 to learn what changes have occurred over the past 130 years.

The group will gather at the Avenue of Flags behind Fort Mackinac for this free guided hike. For the best experience, bring binoculars and wear walking shoes as we’ll experience trails of varied terrain. #thisismackinac

Summer Birds of Mackinac Island

The woods and waters of Mackinac Island are home to a broad diversity of bird life. Join park naturalist Kyle Bagnall as we search for the island’s feathered residents. Our group will look and listen for songbirds of the forest, raptors soaring overhead, and waterbirds along the shore. We’ll also compare our sightings with those made by cottager Stewart E. White in the summers of 1889-1891 to learn what changes have occurred over the past 130 years.

The group will gather at the Avenue of Flags behind Fort Mackinac for this free guided hike. For the best experience, bring binoculars and wear walking shoes as we’ll experience trails of varied terrain. #thisismackinac

Summer Birds of Mackinac Island

The woods and waters of Mackinac Island are home to a broad diversity of bird life. Join park naturalist Kyle Bagnall as we search for the island’s feathered residents. Our group will look and listen for songbirds of the forest, raptors soaring overhead, and waterbirds along the shore. We’ll also compare our sightings with those made by cottager Stewart E. White in the summers of 1889-1891 to learn what changes have occurred over the past 130 years.

The group will gather at the Avenue of Flags behind Fort Mackinac for this free guided hike. For the best experience, bring binoculars and wear walking shoes as we’ll experience trails of varied terrain. #thisismackinac

Summer Birds of Mill Creek

Blackburnian Warbler, Alexander Wilson (1808)

  As spring turns to summer, the woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park are alive with birdsong. By mid-June, year-round residents of the park, such as black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, and tufted titmice, have been singing since winter snow gave way to spring wildflowers. Summer residents, many which migrated north for thousands of miles, arrive “finely tuned” and ready to put on a show as they attract mates and defend nesting territories.

  The official wildlife checklist of Mill Creek includes about 130 species of birds, while the list for Mackinac Island contains 190 varieties. Both parks consist of varied habitats, including Lake Huron shoreline, creeks and streams, swamps, open meadows, and forests of conifers and hardwoods.

Robert Ridgeway (1875)

  Finding birds at Mill Creek begins as soon as you step out of your car. Although the tree canopy is filled with green, listen closely for musical notes floating in the breeze. In the pines growing near the visitor’s center, you may hear a “shrill, thin song, which runs up the scale to end in a high z.” If so, pause and search for a blackburnian warbler hunting for insects among the branches. Catching a glimpse of a male’s flame-orange throat may just take your breath away! As they prefer evergreens for nesting, this species was once known as the “hemlock warbler.”

Ernest Thompson Seton (1901)

  Stop for a trail map as you make your way into the park. Next, follow the sound of rushing water and you’ll soon discover Mill Creek. Sitting near the mill pond, patient watchers may enjoy a visit from a belted kingfisher as it scans for brook trout. Kingfishers are memorable birds, with a dry, rattling call that announces their presence long before they fly into view. Occasionally, they even perch on the zip line, as if teasing participants while they glide over the creek. Unlike most birds, female kingfishers are more colorful than males, as they wear a chestnut-brown “necklace” while their mate sports a simple bluish band across their chest.

Thomas G. Gentry (1882)

  As you head into the woods, it’s nearly impossible to avoid an encounter with an American redstart. In 1893, Mackinac Island resident and researcher, Stewart E. White, wrote this was “the most characteristic bird of the island. It occurs in such amazing abundance that it seems as if every tree contained one of these birds.” Thankfully, such words still ring true today as this flashy black, orange and white warbler is still one of our most common summer residents. Plumage of females and immature males consists of light brown tones with yellow highlights.

  Relentlessly persistent, a restart’s repetitive, mellow song begins as soon as they arrive in May and lasts through August. This woodland songster sings for weeks on end, seemingly, as one early 20th century author noted, “to the accompaniment of his own echo.”

  As you continue down the trail, the species of birds you may encounter numbers in the dozens. Almost assuredly, you’ll hear the insistent, rambling song of the red-eyed vireo, the plaintive “peee-weee” call of the eastern wood peewee, and the rapid staccato of “teacher-teacher-TEACHER” from the tiny ovenbird, ringing through the forest. Venture out in the morning or evening for a chance to hear the ethereal, flute-like call of a wood thrush, perhaps the most magical song of the North Woods.

Mark Catesby (1754)

  If you don’t encounter one of our six resident woodpecker species, you’re almost certain to find evidence of their handiwork, hammering trees for insects beneath the bark. Especially watch for huge, rectangular cavities excavated by the crow-sized pileated woodpecker and small, regular rows of “sap wells” chiseled by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Sapsuckers maintain wells to drink sap that drips out, but more importantly to capture insects that become trapped in sweet liquid that seeps from the tree. Sap wells in dead wood are evidence of a previous season’s efforts.

  No matter where you wander, watch and listen for birds all around you, each of which varies in color, shape, song, size, habits and habitats. Ancestors of many special species found homes in the forest of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park long before people arrived on the scene. While some are suited to the creek or frequent the shore of a beaver pond, others prefer poking through leaf-litter on the forest floor. Some nearly never leave the tree canopy high above, while others may zip past you on their way to pick a sunflower seed from a bird feeder.

  During your visit, be sure to sit and scan the summer sky. Every day, someone spots a bald eagle floating effortlessly on the wind, high above the forest canopy. As you watch an eagle soar, consider it may also be watching you, with eyesight sharper than its talons. As it finally leaves your view, let your imagination follow into the unknown. At Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the feathered residents of Mackinac’s North Woods are waiting. Here you’ll discover ducks on the mill pond, friendly chickadees at the feeder, tiny hummingbirds sipping nectar, and the majestic symbol of our nation soaring over the Great Lakes. We all hope to see you soon.