View from the Tea Room

A Perfect Day in Mackinac Island State Park

There’s no wrong way to enjoy Mackinac Island. But what would a perfect day look like if you spent it ONLY in Mackinac Island State Park? Here are some ideas and a sample itinerary to help you start planning your Mackinac Island State Park trip:

Fire the Cannon at Fort Mackinac

A soldier at the cannon platform at Fort Mackinac Start your day off on Mackinac Island with a blast! Every morning, from May to October, one lucky individual gets to fire the first cannon volley of the day at Fort Mackinac. Firing the Fort Mackinac cannon involves going through the very same steps the fort’s soldiers took many years ago. You will load and prime the cannon, then wait for the signal, and … fire!

 Be sure to book this unique experience in advance by calling our office, (906) 847-3328. More information about this unforgettable opportunity can be found on our website.

 Keep your Fort Mackinac ticket handy, as you’ll need it again later.

Take a Hike Through Mackinac Island State Park

 After the excitement of firing the cannon, take some time to enjoy Mackinac Island’s more serene sights. There are more than 70 miles of trails and paths in Mackinac Island State Park with extraordinary limestone rock formations, breathtaking lake views, and beautiful wildflowers to discover along the way.

 To get started, exit Fort Mackinac through the Avenue of Flags and start towards Anne’s Tablet Trail. Within the wooded surroundings, you will find the gazebo from the movie Somewhere in Time starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve, and filmed mostly on the island. Upon arriving at Anne’s Tablet, you will find a bronze plaque honoring author Constance Fenimore Woolson. Mackinac Island is the setting for her 19th-century novel, Anne. The view from Anne’s Tablet is one of many amazing overlooks on Mackinac Island.

 Continue along Garrison Road past the Rifle Range. Here on this 600-yard range, Fort Mackinac soldiers practiced shooting at targets located on the side of the hill below Fort Holmes. After a few turns, the road will straighten and lead you to Skull Cave. This is the cave in which British merchant Alexander Henry, in his recollection of the event, hid during Pontiac’s Uprising in 1763. Make sure you read all about Henry’s experience in our Historic Mackinac Island Visitor’s Guide. A few hundred feet ahead you will see three cemeteries including Mackinac Island’s Post Cemetery, the final resting place for Fort Mackinac soldiers, their families, and local officials. The earliest known burials in the Post Cemetery date to the mid-1820s.

Fort Holmes At the north side of the Protestant Cemetery, Fort Holmes Road come in from the right. When you are going up, be sure to make a stop at Point Lookout where you will see Sugar Loaf, a limestone rock formation rising 75 feet from the forest floor. Take the stairs if you want a closer look at Sugar Loaf or continue the summit to Fort Holmes. Fort Holmes sits atop the highest elevation on Mackinac Island with spectacular views of Lake Huron, Round Island Lighthouse, and the Mackinac Bridge. Take your time touring Fort Holmes and learning all about the War of 1812 and the spot’s historical significance.

Cave of the Woods

Cave of the Woods on Mackinac Island.

 After leaving Fort Holmes, follow the road to the left for the most direct route back to Garrison Road. Experienced hikers may want to continue straight down to British Landing Road. Beyond a large clearing, featuring the Mackinac Island Airport, State Road branches to the left. Make sure you spot the short trail that leads off State Road to the Crack-in-the-Island and Cave in the Woods. While these geological formations may not be as well known, it is still worth discovering. That being said, if the hike to Fort Holmes was enough for you, it might be best to return to Fort Mackinac at your own leisurely pace.

Explore Fort Mackinac

 After traversing the interior of Mackinac Island, it is time to return to Fort Mackinac! More than just a military outpost, Fort Mackinac served as a home for soldiers and their families. It eventually became the headquarters for Mackinac National Park, where tourists to the island visited the great fortress on the bluff, much like they do today. Take your time exploring the 14 historical structures which feature exhibits explaining everything from military training, medical treatments, and family life within the fort.

 While the historic aspects of the fort are fascinating for adults and older kids, everyone will get a kick out of the daily demonstrations provided by costumed interpreters.

Have Lunch at the Tea Room

View from the Tea Room

The view from the Tea Room at Fort Mackinac.

 Once you are done exploring Fort Mackinac, take time to relax at the Tea Room located on the porch of the Officers’ Stone Quarters. The Officers’ Stone Quarters is the oldest public building in Michigan and provides the best view of any restaurant on the island along with offering a wonderful menu.

The Tea Room has been a memorable part of a visit to Fort Mackinac for decades. Whether you are craving a delicious lunch or a quick refreshment, grab a spot on its terrace and just relax. Reservations are not required but can be made by calling Grand Hotel at (906) 847-6327.

Discover Historic Downtown Mackinac Island

 After finishing tasty refreshments at the Tea Room, take the South Sally Ramp or the stairs from the Tea Room to Market Street. Just one block over from busy Main Street, visitors can step inside several historic buildings. The best part – these historic sites are included with your Fort Mackinac admission!

 First stop on your list is the American Fur Co. Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum. 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of Dr. William Beaumont’s famous achievement. Make sure you talk to the historical interpreter to learn about the building and the significant medical breakthrough that happened here, and explore the brand new exhibit. Right across the street is the McGulpin House. This house is one of the oldest private residences in Michigan. Built in the late 1700s, the house is an excellent example of early French-Canadian architecture. Look inside and imagine what it was like to live on Mackinac Island in the 1820s.

 Continue further down Market Street to Biddle House, featuring the Mackinac Island Native American Museum. The Biddle House has two exhibits inside the house, as well as a parlor restored to its historical appearance, that will tell the story of Agatha and Edward Biddle, the Anishnaabek of northern Michigan, and the critical decade of the 1830s. Stay and listen to stories from several members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

Working at the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop Within the same area, you can visit the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop. This shop is maintained today in a similar fashion to how it was in the 1950s, during the latter years of the Benjamin’s ownership. There you can watch live demonstrations and learn about traditional blacksmithing techniques. If you are looking for a cool souvenir to take home, ask the blacksmith if they have anything available from small nails to giant dinner bells.

 Once you complete everything on Market Street, make your way to The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. Nowhere else does a collection of Mackinac-related art and photography come together to tell Mackinac Island’s story. Multiple galleries focus on fine and decorative arts throughout the years – from hand-beaded Native American garments and 17th and 18th-century maps of the Great Lakes to one-of-a-kind pieces from the height of the island’s Victorian era. If you are visiting with kids, then they will love the hands-on activities at the Kid’s Art Studio as well!

Bike Highway M-185

Arch Rock Since cars are not allowed on Mackinac Island, one of the most scenic ways to take in the natural beauty is by bicycle. Bring your own bicycle or rent one from one of the many bicycle shops located on Mackinac Island. M-185 encircles the island, and is the only state highway where cars are banned. The 8.2-mile loop will take about one hour to complete at a leisurely pace, but you will definitely want to plan more time for stops. Make sure to start at “Mile Marker 0” located in front of the Mackinac Island State Park Visitor’s Center.

 There are many historical and natural sights to see during your bike ride. If you do not want to bike around the entire island, there is one spot you do not want to miss. Arch Rock is one of the most famous rock formations on the island. You will see a pull-off area with bicycle racks and benches on the east side of M-185. It is a steep 207-step climb to Arch Rock, but the views are worth it!

 If you continue the M-185 loop, another popular stop is British Landing. This location has several historical markers, picnic tables, and great spots to take photos of the Mackinac Bridge. Do not forget to visit the British Landing Nature Center during your stop. Experience the wildlife, plants, and geology of Mackinac Island in this interactive nature center. Inside you will find a large cedar tree trunk, native animals on display, and more information about the natural history of Mackinac Island. Also, there are 24-hour accessible restrooms, a water fountain, tables, benches, and a bike repair station if needed.

 Once you get your second wind, continue riding your bike through downtown Mackinac Island to complete your 8.2-mile journey.

Picnic in Marquette Park

 End your fun-filled day in Mackinac Island State Park relaxing at Marquette Park. This beautiful greenspace at the foot of Fort Mackinac is where soldiers in centuries past tended a garden. These days, the park is the perfect picnic location. Pick-up a meal from one of the many nearby restaurants and enjoy the flurry of horses, bicycles, and ferries that go by.

 Marquette Park is a popular venue for performances. Check our calendar of events to see what exciting events are scheduled in 2022.

Bonus – Stargaze at Fort Holmes

 While it is not as dark as the nearby Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Fort Holmes is a great location for stargazing. If you are staying overnight on Mackinac Island, you should consider a night hike to Fort Holmes. The fort sits atop Mackinac Island’s highest point, 320 feet above lake level, and is accessed by either Fort Holmes Road or climbing 141 stairs from Rifle Range Road. At the top of the island, not only can you see stars, but also the Mackinac Bridge illuminated, and if you are lucky, the Northern Lights. Just remember to bring your flashlight to navigate the trails at night.

 With so much rich history and natural beauty, it is easy to see why Mackinac Island State Park is a popular destination. Whether you follow this guide or plan your own journey, there is no wrong way to explore Mackinac Island State Park!

Fairy Arch by Henry Chapman Ford 1874

Mackinac Island’s Other Arches

Arch Rock is Mackinac Island’s most famous and spectacular limestone formation. A century ago, curious visitors could find two additional arches, also celebrated for their natural beauty and rich traditions. Today, Sanilac Arch exists as a remnant of its former self, while Fairy Arch only remains in artwork, photos, and written accounts. Their stories highlight the importance of preservation and serve as reminders of nature’s continual process of change.

1. Fairy Arch from Picturesque America or The Land We Live In (1872)

For many years, a small boat was the easiest way to access Fairy Arch (1872)

 Fairy Arch

 Fairy Arch was first described in 1802 by Dr. Francis LeBarron as one of Mackinac Island’s two “natural arches of the Gothic order.” Over the following decades, a thick undergrowth of young trees blanketed the island landscape, which had been previously cleared for firewood. For most of the 19th century, Mackinac’s eastern shoreline was difficult to explore, covered by huge boulders and thick vegetation.

 In 1866, Fort Mackinac surgeon Dr. John R. Bailey rediscovered the 40-foot formation and coined the name Fairy Arch. Despite challenging access, the lovely arch appeared on 19th century maps and in guidebooks. In 1872, Constance Fenimore Cooper wrote, “Fairy Arch is of similar formation to Arched Rock, and lifts from the sands with a grace and beauty that justify the name bestowed upon it.”

 In an 1875 guidebook for visitors of the newly created Mackinac National Park, publisher John Disturnell noted Fairy Arch was about ¼ mile from Arch Rock. He wrote:

 “A little north and beyond [Robinson’s Folly] a high pinnacle of rude rock crops out from the mountain side, near the base of which is a very picturesque arch, known as the ‘Fairy Arch,’ or Arch of the ‘Giant’s Stairway.’ This spot is rather difficult of access owing to the presence of huge rocks and an entangled forest.”

 Fairy Arch became more accessible about 1900, when a boulevard completely encircling Mackinac Island was completed. From the shore, visitors were encouraged to climb huge limestone ledges, like giant steps, to explore this natural wonder. A 1918 guidebook noted, “To visit Mackinac Island and fail to climb the Giant’s Stairway and view this beautiful handiwork of nature, is to miss one of the leading features of the “Fairy Isle.”

Fairy Arch Postcard by Detroit Publishing Co. 1906
Fairy Arch by Detroit Publishing Co. with seated woman inset ca.1910

Views of Fairy Arch were sold as souvenir prints and postcards. The Detroit Publishing Company offered these two images in the first decade of the 20th century.

 To improve travel around Mackinac Island’s lakeshore, state highway M-185 was completed in 1933. In a misguided erosion control effort, Fairy Arch was destroyed in the late 1940s. Today, this unique formation only remain accessible through artwork, photographs, and written reminisces.

Fairy Arch by Henry Chapman Ford 1874

Fairy Arch by Henry Chapman Ford (1874)

 Visitors to The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum may enjoy a lovely and somewhat idealized view of Fairy Arch painted in 1874 by landscape artist Henry Chapman Ford. This oil on canvas painting is an example of luminism, a type of landscape painting popular from the 1850s through the 1870s. Click Here for museum hours and information.

 The Little Arch

Lower Arch to Natural Bridge by J.A. Jenney 1874

Men explore the “Lower Arch” in this view by photographer James A. Jenney (1874)

 One half of Arch Rock rests on a large pinnacle of Mackinac breccia limestone that towers 130 feet above Lake Huron. Near the base of this cliff is a small, tunnel like arch, which is now nearly filled with rocky debris. Once much larger, this small arch has been known through the years as the Lower Arch, Little Arch, Maiden Arch and Sannillac Arch.

 In 1874, photographer James A. Jenney, of Flint, Michigan printed a series of Picturesque –  Mackinaw stereoview cards. His view, entitled, “Lower Arch to Natural Bridge” is one of the earliest known photos of this formation. A similar view was published by Mackinac Island photographer Edward P. Foley in 1887, entitled “Maiden Arch, Under Arch Rock.” For many visitors, this smaller formation was easier to explore from the lakeshore rather than risking a steep hillside climb to view Arch Rock from above.

 When Mackinac National Park was dissolved in 1895, the island’s arches became part of the newly created Mackinac Island State Park. That year, a visitor named “M.A.” described Maiden Arch in a small volume entitled, Eight Days Out.

Maiden Arch from Views of Mackinac Island (1886)

Maiden Arch (cropped) from A Lake Tour to Picturesque Mackinac on the D and C (1890)

Victorian era tourists explore Maiden Arch.
1886 (left) & 1890 (above)

 “From [Robertson’s Folly] we followed the beach north to the foot of Arch Rock… There we discovered an interesting arch, which is not on the program, but is more wonderful, and will exist for ages after the renowned arch has crumbled and gone. It is directly under the high cliff, or promenade which extends out into the lake, that tourists walk out upon while viewing the Arch Rock… Two hundred dollars would pay the expense of a winding stairway, down through the principal arch, then under the lower one, and extending to the lake, which would be the most picturesque scene on the island.”

 Maiden Arch was renamed Sannillac Arch in 1916, by author Frank O’Brien, in his booklet Names of Places of Interest on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Sannillac, a Wyandot leader, was the subject of an 1831 narrative poem by Henry Whiting. Written in the style of Native American legend, the popular work contained notes by Henry R. Schoolcraft, Indian Agent on Mackinac Island from 1833-1841. According to local lore, this small arch was a gate through which fairy children entered Mackinac Island, while giant fairies entered through the larger portal, Arch Rock. Over the years, its name was shortened to Sanilac Arch.

Boy under Sannillac Arch ca. 1910-1920

A boy explores Sannillac Arch (ca. 1910-1920)

 Before 1950, tourist literature encouraged visitors to climb through Sanilac Arch. In 1948, an article in The Island News noted, “Mackinac Island [State Park] does not point it out with an official marker and it can only be reached by scrambling up the bluff. The little limestone rocks crumble underfoot and make ascent a tricky accomplishment. The alpenstock is proper equipment.”

 For thousands of years, erosion has naturally carved out the hillside beneath Arch Rock. Today, the space under Sanilac Arch has nearly filled in with small rocks and other debris. Protected behind a fence and stone wall, the little arch may only be enjoyed from a distance to protect this unique formation and preserve visitor safety.

Sanilac Arch by Kyle Bagnall, October 2021

Today, the opening of Sanilac Arch has nearly filled in with stones and other natural debris. (October 2021)

Sanilac Arch by Kyle Bagnall, October 2021

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!