The Mackinac Bridge, which spans the Straits of Mackinac, connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. At 5 miles long, the Mighty Mac is one of the longest suspension bridges in the Western Hemisphere. Situated at the tip of Michigan’s mitten, Mackinaw City sits at the southern end of the Mackinac Bridge.
Both Mackinaw and Mackinac are pronounced with the “awe” sound at the end. The French pronounced Mackinac as “awe” but spelled it “ac.” The British heard the “awe” pronunciation and spelled it as it sounded. So either way you see it spelled, it’s always pronounced “awe.”
Use this article as your initial planning guide with a starting list of things to do, where to eat and sleep, including places to camp.
Things To Do In Mackinaw City
The area is rich with outdoor experiences, such as stargazing, boating, and hiking. History buffs have opportunities to discover Michigan’s early history regarding fur trading and explorations. Every Friday night at dusk in summer, Mackinaw City features a fireworks display over Lake Huron.
Explore The Colonial Fort Michilimackinac
If you’re a history buff, be sure to explore Colonial Fort Michilimackinac, located in downtown Mackinaw City. The fort is the site of one of the most extended continuous archaeological digs in North America, where scholars have been excavating since 1959. From the beginning of June until mid-August, you can see archaeologists in action daily. With their reenactments and demonstrations, history comes alive. In addition, the fort contains 16 restored buildings, and each building, furnished in period settings, has exhibits that highlight the building’s purpose.
Pro Tip: To fully explore the fort, once a military compound and fur trading village with significant history from the Revolutionary War, requires a lot of walking. Colonial Fort Michilimackinac has a limited number of motorized wheelchairs that it lends without charge.
Play At The Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park
The Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, a state park and historic site in Mackinaw City, was once an 18th-century water-powered sawmill. The park rests on more than 600 acres and incorporates over 3 miles of trails. First, see what life was like through Mill Creek’s at-work sawpit and sawmill demonstrations. Then, take a guided walking tour and learn what happened beyond the sawmill. Costumed interpreters provide historical demonstrations and tours that breathe life into history.
Pro Tip: Plan to spend at least 2 hours at historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.
Visit The Lighthouses
Built in 1889, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse guided ships through the Straits of Mackinac. Today, the lighthouse has been restored with the original lens. You can explore the house and take a tour of the tower. A 15-minute movie, Shipwrecks of the Straits, tells stories behind the local shipwrecks. The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum provides more area history.
McGulpin Point Lighthouse, located 2 miles west of downtown Mackinaw City, offers unique views of the Mackinac Bridge and fall’s colorful show. The lighthouse, built from Cream City brick, features a Norman Gothic style marked by buttressed corners and an octagonal tower. Unfortunately, the McGulpin lighthouse was decommissioned by 1892.
Pro Tip: Tower tours of the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse are offered. Be aware. The tower is a four stories-climb up 51 narrow steps. Then, you need to climb an 11-rung, 8-foot ladder through a narrow passageway.
Stargaze At Headlands International Dark Sky Park
By design, Headlands International Dark Sky Park is very dark at night. So on your first visit, arrive while there is still daylight to get an idea of its layout and parking facilities. Each season, the sky showcases a different group of stars. So, even if you’ve been at Headlands International Dark Sky Park previously, you’ll likely notice something new. At the right time of year, you might even get lucky and catch a glimpse of the northern lights.
Pro Tip: To preserve the viewing experience, don’t use white light, including cell phones. Bring red-filtered flashlights only. You can make a red-filtered flashlight by using red plastic wrap.
Take A Cruise
Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry offers ferry service to Mackinac Island and provides various lighthouse and night sky cruises. The service features six versions of lighthouse cruises, including eastbound, westbound, and extended versions of both. It also has a night lighthouse cruise and one of Les Cheneaux lighthouses. Members of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association narrate the lighthouse cruises.
A dark sky expert narrates the night sky cruises, where you have several choices throughout the summer. On these cruises, you’re dependent upon the weather, where clear nights provide the best viewing. I took the True Blue Moon Eve cruise and learned a lot about the night sky.
My favorite way to get to Mackinac Island is on Shepler’s ferry, where the right departure takes a detour under the Mackinac Bridge. See its website for the current schedule.
Pro Tip: If you have a particular cruise in mind, check out the cruise schedule before planning your visit, as it offers different cruises at different times throughout the summer.
Cross The Mackinac Bridge
The Mackinac Bridge is a 5-mile suspension bridge linking Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, two of the Great Lakes, meet. The Labor Day Walk, which concludes by noon, is the only day of the year when pedestrians can cross the bridge.
The Mackinac Bridge Museum upstairs at Mama Mia’s is an excellent place to investigate while you’re waiting for a table. You’ll learn how steelworkers built the bridge.
Pro Tip: The bridge service offers drivers if you’re timid about driving across the bridge due to its height and the water below. Additionally, since it is a non-pedestrian bridge, hikers can also get a ride from the bridge service for a fee.
Best Restaurants In Mackinaw City
While you’re in Mackinaw City, you’ll want to try some of Michigan’s specialties. Fish from the Great Lakes are abundant on local menus and include whitefish, walleye, and perch. Famous for cherries, the area restaurants feature them in many preparations — dried cherries on salads and fresh cherries in pies and turnovers.
Darrow’s Family Restaurant
One of the local favorites from Darrow’s Family Restaurant is the Midwest-style hot sandwiches. I grew up in Michigan and vividly remember my parents ordering hot beef sandwiches in northern Michigan while on vacation. Darrow’s, known for its pies, has every type from strawberry rhubarb to chocolate, and of course, two kinds of cherry pies — double crust and Dutch, which features a crumb topping.
Audie’s offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner from its scratch kitchen. The restaurant grinds its meats for burgers and sausages, features homemade soups and bread with its sandwiches, and French toast. They also make all desserts from scratch. Fish from the Great Lakes is a regional specialty, and it offers whitefish prepared seven different ways. Walleye and perch are also on the menu. Landlubbers will enjoy its award-winning barbecue ribs and steaks.
While waiting for your meal, explore the pictorial story and artifacts that tell the story of building the Mackinac Bridge.
Since 1887, Murdick’s Famous Fudge has been a family-owned business. The family started with real butter, fresh cream, and 100 percent Belgium chocolate, and transforms the ingredients into fudge. I enjoy taking it home to extend my memories of Mackinaw City just a bit longer. If you’re not a chocolate lover, the store also offers flavors that don’t include chocolate, like the Michigan cherry fudge.
Best Hotels In Mackinaw City
Mackinaw City has a variety of national chain hotels. I usually stay at the Holiday Inn Express, close to downtown and across the street from Darrow’s, making it easy to stop by for some of its pie. However, if you’re looking for a more unusual stay, try the private apartment on the grounds of the McGulpin Point Lighthouse. Located next to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, the apartment sleeps four and has a complete kitchen. Note, Headlands International Dark Sky Park does not allow camping.
For those who enjoy camping, located 11 miles west of Mackinaw City is Wilderness State Park. Whether your idea of camping is a simple tent or pulling in your luxury RV, the park has various camping options, from backcountry camping to rustic cabins.
Pro Tip: If you take a side trip to Mackinac Island, be aware that camping isn’t allowed on the Island. While you’re in the area, cross the Mackinac Bridge and visit St. Ignace. Mackinaw City also makes a great jumping-off point to visit Mackinac Island.
Check out some of these articles that will provide more tips on the region: