When someone mentions islands, the first thing that comes to mind is the tropical Caribbean islands. However, add in the inland lakes and rivers to four of the five Great Lakes surrounding Michigan, and you’ll find hundreds of islands. Some inhabited, some not.
Many Michigan islands, like Isle Royale and the Manitou Islands, provide an opportunity to get off the grid and disconnect. Others, such as Belle Isle, offer educational attractions and a chance to connect with nature.
Here are seven of my favorite Michigan islands, in no particular order. Then, I discuss where they are and some things to do once you arrive.
1. Belle Isle
Situated in the Detroit River’s international waters between the United States and Canada, Belle Isle Park is an island state park that offers a mix of back-to-nature activities and city attractions. Nature lovers enjoy paddle sports on Belle Isle’s three lakes. The Belle Isle Nature Center is another way to connect with nature.
Visit the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
It doesn’t matter what types of plants you enjoy. The 13-acre Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory offers something you’ll like. They highlight five environments — the desert with the Cactus House, the Tropical Garden, the Palm House, a sunken Fernery, and Show Houses that feature rotating flowering plants. Of course, photographers will want to bring their cameras along.
Explore Belle Isle Aquarium
The Belle Isle Aquarium, the oldest in the United States, features an arched, green-tiled ceiling, an original detail designed to make you feel like you’re underwater. Schedule an hour at the aquarium to enjoy all of the newly renovated tanks.
Discover Dossin Great Lakes Museum
The Dossin Great Lakes Museum tells the story of southeast Michigan’s maritime history, including the Great Lakes and the Detroit River. You’ll also find models of types of boats that chronicles the history of Michigan’s essential waterways.
Pro Tip: A bridge provides access to Belle Isle, and even though it’s a large area, you’ll find parking adjacent to the attractions. Typically, you won’t need to walk far. Additionally, the park offers a complimentary track chair to aid those who need it.
2. Beaver Island
Beaver Island is Lake Michigan’s largest island and one of eight islands in the Beaver Archipelago. With a history of Irish families who fled Ireland in the 1840s, it has earned the nickname Emerald Isle. Beaver Island’s unique history comes from James Jesse Strang, a Mormon, and his followers, who arrived in the winter of 1848 to set up his kingdom. He continued as the self-proclaimed king of Beaver Island until two men assassinated him in 1856.
Take The Beaver Island Tour
As a first-time visitor to Beaver Island, I went to the island for the day. The Beaver Island Boat Company offers a 90-minute guided tour showing the island’s highlights and history. Their guide takes you in their van to the northern parts of the island, including Donegal Bay, the Whiskey Point Lighthouse, and St. James village.
Visit The Beaver Island Print Shop Museum
In 1850, King Strang built the Print Shop. Today, the Print Shop is the Beaver Island Historical Society’s Museum. In addition to exhibiting Strang’s story, it features exhibits on early Irish life, the island’s musicians, women on the island, and a display called “Then and Now.”
Discover Beaver Island’s Marine Museum
The Marine Museum tells the story of Beaver Island’s harbor. In addition to fishing, shipping lumber was an important activity. Some exhibits recall the island’s disasters involving ships and how the Coast Guard responded to those in need. The museum features exhibits on shipbuilding and how the vessels have served the island and diving activities. In addition, you’ll find information about the other islands in the archipelago.
Pro Tip: The two-hour ferry ride gets you to the island at around 10:30 a.m. The first tour leaves at 11:00 a.m. and returns by 12:30 p.m. After lunch, you’ll still have time to explore on your own before arriving at the boat dock around 4:50 p.m. for a 5:20 p.m. return to the mainland.
3. South Manitou Island
South Manitou Island is a component of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which showcases natural landscapes, including pebble beaches, dunes, and dense wilderness.
Take A Tractor-Pulled Wagon Tour
With mobility challenges, I was concerned about seeing the island. Thankfully, the Manitou Island Transit offers two different tractor-pulled wagon tours. One tour features the farm and schoolhouse, while the other highlights the cedars and shipwreck. The tour periodically stops so you can get out and explore. The guide narrates the tour with the island’s historical information. If you’re on the island for a day trip, you will only have time for one tour.
Check-In At The Visitor’s Center
We began the day at the visitor’s center, a great spot to receive an island orientation. Located in the island’s former general store, in the museum section, you’ll see artifacts and photos describing life from the logging days. I discovered the visitor’s center was the perfect place to finalize the plans for our day trip.
Hike To The Lighthouse
Starting at the visitor’s center, hike to the South Manitou Island Light. Then, climb the spiral staircase, but be aware it has 117 steps, with landings about every 20. At the top, the reward is stunning views of the Manitou Passage and Sleeping Bear Point on the mainland.
4. Mackinac Island
Mackinac (pronounced MACK-in-awe) Island hosts over a million visitors every year. You can arrive via ferry or plane. Nicknamed the “Jewel of the Great Lakes,” Mackinac Island is a car-free destination and national landmark.
Visit Fort Mackinac
Fort Mackinac features a fort containing 14 restored buildings. Costumed interpreters offer tours and demonstrations daily. More than a military outpost, the fort was home to soldiers and their families, including children. You’ll see rifle firings and cannon demonstrations, a drill program, and a program that tells the story of how the fort has evolved.
Sample The Fudge
Try fudge from one of the island’s 13 fudge shops, or why stop at one? You could even check out all 13 to compare and contrast. Mackinac Island’s tastiest summer weekend, the annual three-day Fudge Festival, kicks off on Friday, August 26, 2022!
While you can sample fudge every day on Mackinac Island, the summer Fudge Festival celebrates fudge’s rich history and how the island became the fudge capital of the world. No matter whether you’re a tourist or live on the island, you’re sure to enjoy fabulous fudge.
Sit On The Grand Hotel’s Front Porch
After my first stay at the Grand Hotel, a National Historic Landmark and four-star resort, became my go-to place to stay on the island. However, while the island offers a full itinerary of activities, once you sit on a rocking chair on the hotel’s front porch, you’re likely to stay there rather than explore the island.
The Grand Hotel rests on a bluff overlooking the Straits of Mackinac. You’ll see stunning views of the Mackinac Bridge from the porch, and everything is peaceful as your tensions melt away.
Pro Tip: While they don’t allow motorized vehicles on Mackinac Island, standard modes of transportation are horse-drawn carriages, horseback riding, bicycles, or walking. Even the taxis are horse-drawn carriages.
5. Isle Royale
Best known as one of Michigan’s five national parks, Isle Royale National Park is one of those national parks with the most repeat visitors.
Visit Rock Harbor Light
Constructed in 1855, the brick and stone Rock Harbor Light has a white and black lantern. The lighthouse opens daily for self-guided tours in the summer.
Hike The Backcountry Trails
Isle Royale features 165 miles of backcountry trails. You can establish a base camp to explore and return to each evening. However, be aware that the terrain is uneven and rough.
Listen To A Ranger Talk
One of the main goals of National Parks is visitor education. The park rangers at Isle Royale offer talks on wildlife management and conservation. One of my favorite topics is information on the local wolf and moose populations.
Pro Tip: Pets aren’t allowed on Isle Royale to avoid transmitting diseases and parasites into the wildlife population.
6. Drummond Island
Located at the east end of the Upper Peninsula, Drummond Island, also known as the “Gem of the Huron,” has a natural beauty and offers lots of outdoor activities.
Discover The Saltwater Fossil Ledges
On Drummond Island’s north coast, you will find saltwater fossil ledges. The fossilized remains of a saltwater coral bed make up the ledges. Finding the area can be challenging, so prepare for some off-roading. For specific directions to the ledges, follow this link.
Hunt For Morel Mushrooms
Morel mushrooms are a Michigan delicacy. You find these mushrooms in the spring and are often on farm-to-table local restaurant menus. Unfortunately, the mushrooms are easily confused with other non-edible mushrooms, so if you’re hunting for them the first time, take an experienced morel hunter with you.
7. Les Cheneaux Islands
Situated in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, about 30 miles northeast of the Mackinac Bridge, Les Cheneaux Islands are an archipelago of 36 small islands. The nearest towns are Hessel and Cedarville.
Visit The Antique Wooden Boat Show
Growing up, my parents had a cottage in the area, and one of the fun nostalgic activities was the Les Cheneaux Wooden Boat Show. Les Cheneaux has the world’s largest antique wooden boat show annually in August.
Do A Tasting At Les Cheneaux Distillery
Les Cheneaux Distillery is a small-batch micro-distillery. The Straits label produces whiskey, gin, rum, and vodka. Check out their tasting room in Cedarville for a fun cocktail menu.
To learn more details about Michigan’s many islands, check out these articles: