Tour of the Turtle’s Back: Ancient Mackinac Island

Approaching Mackinac Island by boat offers excellent insight of ancient geological forces which shaped the landscape we enjoy today. As the last glaciers retreated about 11,000 years ago, a tremendous amount of meltwater filled ancient Lake Algonquin to a depth of about 220 feet higher than current Lake Huron. At that time, only the highest point of Mackinac Island stood above the water, being about ½ mile long and nearly ¼ mile wide. For many generations, Native Americans have referred to this high point as the Turtle’s Back, as its domed shape creates the perception of a giant turtle floating on the water.

Although exaggerated, this 1817 illustration by Francis Belton clearly illustrates the high point of ancient Mackinac Island.

 For about 3,000 years, the churning waves of Lake Algonquin eroded softer portions of limestone along the shores of this ancient island. As softer sections were removed, harder portions of recemented limestone, known as Mackinac breccia, were left behind, creating features which are still visible today. The two most prominent of these are among Mackinac’s oldest natural wonders – Skull Cave and Sugar Loaf.

 Both of these formations are examples of sea stacks which resisted the erosive power of Lake Algonquin waves. These pillars of breccia became separated from the ancient island as softer rock was gradually washed away. Both features also include caves, which were slowly excavated by the pounding surf, thousands of years ago.

This 1915 map, drawn by Morgan H. Wright, clearly outlines the features of the Turtle’s Back.

 Start your tour of the Turtle’s Back by heading north from Fort Mackinac, along Garrison Road and Rifle Range Trail. Upon your approach, high bluffs of the ancient island rise before you, with reconstructed Fort Holmes perched at the top. Skull Cave is located near the southwestern corner of the ancient island. At first, it may be difficult to imagine this formation as a sea stack, as it is smaller and more eroded than Sugar Loaf. The cave itself largely collapsed by 1850, and was subsequently filled in further. Like other formations across Mackinac Island, this cave was used as a sacred gathering place by nearby Anishinaabek residents, who interred their dead here for centuries. As a measure of respect, and to help preserve this ancient formation, access beyond the fence is not permitted.

 Published on August 19, 1842, an article in the Sandusky Clarion, of Sandusky, Ohio, included the following description of Skull Cave. “Not far from Fort Holmes is a small cave, called Skull Cave Rock, because the Indians were in the habit of interring the dead here. The passage in is necessarily on the hands and knees. The cave itself is about twelve feet square… The rock is light colored limestone, and is constantly crumbling away. The little stone that breaks off from the main rock have many holes in them, and are very easily reduced to a powder.”

This 1897 depiction of Sugar Loaf includes a ladder which once allowed park visitors to access its cave.

 As you leave the cave, continue along Garrison Road, towards the cemeteries. Here, the high bluff of the ancient island largely remains hidden by trees. Venture past the Protestant Cemetery and turn right on Fort Holmes Road, winding your way up a hill to the high promontory known as Point Lookout. From here, a grand vista opens below you, foremost being the 75-foot pyramid of Mackinac breccia known as Sugar Loaf.

 During her visit in 1852, Juliette Starr Dana climbed a ladder which once allowed tourists to enter a small cave in the side of Sugar Loaf, about 15 feet above the ground. Crouching down and examining its surface, she wrote, “It seemed water-worn & the whole rock within & without was full of strange little holes, with the insides nicely polished as by the action of water.” Today, safety concerns prohibit climbing the formation or entering the cave, but a tour around its base is well worth the journey.

 In 1945, geologist George M. Stanley noted that Sugar Loaf stands about 300 feet east of the ancient island, and the top of this formation was a small island of its own. He wrote, “It is a magnificent display of limestone breccia. One may see by close inspection, fragments of bedding limestone of various sizes from vary small fragments to blocks several feet long, tilted in random directions and all cemented into a solid mass.”

 Leaving Point Lookout, continue down the road to Fort Holmes, located at the southern exposure of ancient Mackinac Island. The renowned geologist Frank B. Taylor visited this spot in 1890 and 1891. During the period of Lake Algonquin high water, he noted that we “would stand alone in a wide expanse of water. The nearest mainland would then be about 30 miles to the south and the nearest islands about 20 miles to the north and southwest. In all other directions open water would stretch away 100 to 200 miles.”

 In more modern times, this grand view of the Straits of Mackinac has been celebrated time and again by visitors for the last several centuries. In 1836, theologian Chauncey Colton exclaimed, “I may venture to assert that there are few scenes in nature which are equal to the view from Fort Holmes… To the west, the eye follows the straits until it rests on the bluffs at the northern extremity of Lake Michigan, or is lost in its transparent waters; while all around stretches the vast expanse, with here and there an island, looking pure and peaceful as if the impress of sin had never been laid upon it.”

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!