Mackinac Island, Michigan is a truly unique place…and seeing it by bike is the best way to experience it!
First, let’s get the pronunciation right. It’s “MackiNAW” not “MackiNACK” despite its spelling. (I knew that because I a few years of my childhood in Michigan just an hour south of the Island.)
It’s in the Straits of Mackinac, the 3.5-mile stretch of water that connects Lakes Michigan and Huron, and divides Upper and Lower Michigan.
My sister, Lisa, and I visited the Island in August of 2020—our first time since our 6th grade class trip there. It’s a place you’ll want to visit, too.
No Motor Vehicles Allowed
Highway M-185 that circumnavigates Mackinac Island is the only state highway in the country on which motor vehicles aren’t allowed.
The ban was enacted into Island law in 1898 with the arrival of the “horseless carriage” and has never been rescinded. It’s part of what makes this place so unique! For more history on this, click here.
Only bicycle and foot traffic are allowed—foot traffic including the 4-footed hoofed kind. In fact, horses are the main mode of transportation for work (like garbage pickup) and groups (like tourists). And therefore you do need to watch your step!
Bring Your Own Bike or Rent One Easily
Biking your way around Mackinac Island is the best experience because it’s the best way to cover the most ground in the shortest amount of time.
You’re welcome to bring your own bike on the ferry, for a moderate charge. Or there are many bike rental shops on the Island once you get there.
Since my sister and I were on a road trip without our bikes, we paid the $40 or so to rent one for about 4 hours. I had, of course (being me), checked out the options ahead of time and knew which company to go with. We could rent by the half-day or hour rather than a full day, which is what we wanted.
The rental bikes usually come with a front basket. Beyond looking quaint, the baskets were very handy to carry our day bags, as well as the outer layers that came off as the temps grew warmer.
There are bike racks at every public place of interest on the Island. We didn’t worry about locking them, as no one else did either. You’ll want to take any valuables with you, but we left water bottles and clothes in the baskets without a problem.
I read somewhere that if you plan to stay overnight on the Island, check with your lodging place. Some of them rent bikes to their guests, and you might get a better deal going through them.
Bike the 8.2-Mile Perimeter
Highway M-185, otherwise known as Lake Shore Drive, is an 8.2 mile loop around the Island. It’s almost all flat, as its right on the shoreline, and easy to bike.
Some of the highlights of this loop include:
- Some historical sites, including areas of skirmish between British and American troops from the late 1700s and early 1800s.
- The beautiful white pebble beaches—take your time to see them!
- Views of the Mackinac Bridge that connect Upper and Lower Michigan over the Straits.
- Constant views of beautiful Lake Huron
- Easy access to the Island’s most famous natural feature, Arch Rock. You’ll also see it from the road if you look up!
Bike the Inland (Hilly!) Roads & Trails
There are also several roads that criss-cross the Island you can bike. Most of these are either uphill or downhill! We had to walk our bikes up a couple of the biggest, longest hills.
It’s worth getting into the interior, though. Here are some highlights:
- Gorgeous neighborhoods and flowers
- Fort Mackinac, a British stronghold back in the day. There’s a moderate charge to go inside the Fort.
- Mackinac Island State Park, which has a network of hiking trails. The park covers 80% of the Island, actually.
- Fort Holmes—a replica of a small fort on the Island’s highest point with amazing views. No charge for this one.
- Cemeteries with graves dating back to the early 1800s. I have a thing about old cemeteries. I like to imagine what life might’ve been like for them. There are three of them on the Island, one military and two civilian for residents of the Island.
Be Sure to Visit Grand Hotel
One of the world’s most famous hotels and its largest summer hotel, Grand Hotel is a sight to behold. The building itself, with its 660-foot front porch, is impressive and can be seen from miles away. But the grounds—oh my goodness!
The flowers in summer at Grand Hotel are absolutely gorgeous. Not just the cultivated flower beds and boxes along the drive and next to the building. Those are stunning. But there are plenty of flowering trees and shrubs, and an acre or two of wildflowers included in the landscape design.
It’s delightful to walk the grounds and enjoy the beauty, the elegance and the view.
We didn’t choose to go inside for High Tea or lunch, but for quite a lot of money, you can! If you’d like the experience of staying at this marvelous place, room rates start at $395 a night…per person. Their best 400-square foot suites with private balconies with views of the Mackinac Bridge can run $2,800 a night, depending on the season!
Tips for a Better Mackinac Island Bike Experience
Here are a few tips based on our biking experience on Mackinac Island:
Get There Early
We caught the ferry from St. Ignace at about 8:30 on an overcast and cool August morning. If I remember right, it was a Friday. When we got to the Island there were just a handful of other tourists that early.
There were no lines at the bike rental places yet, and hardly any “traffic” in town. The first 3/4 of our bike tour around the Island was with very limited traffic.
By the time we got back to the main part of town again in mid-day, congestion on the main street and in the shops was in full swing.
Make Your Bike Easy to Find
Because most people rent bikes, and they all look somewhat alike, we found it was helpful to keep brightly colored items in our baskets so our bikes were easy to find among the masses. For example, I kept my red flannel shirt in my basket.
It’s not as important at the less-traveled spots like British Landing. But in the bike racks across the street from Grand Hotel you’ll have to distinguish yours from several hundred others! Make it easy to find.
Take Your Time and Enjoy Your Day
We couldn’t spend the whole day on the Island because we still had to drive from St. Ignace to Iron Mountain later that afternoon.
But plan to spend at least half a day with your bike to get a good immersion experience. A whole day would be even better, especially if you want to take time to tour some of the sites or do other activities.
Don’t Forget the Famous Fudge
Mackinac Island is famous for its fudge, and you can smell it along the main street! In some of the fudge shops you can watch them make it.
There are dozens of varieties to choose from, and the shops are very accommodating in letting you choose small amounts of several flavors to bring home.
Other Active Ways to Enjoy Mackinac Island
There are other ways to be active on Mackinac Island if you have the time. I’d love to go back someday for #2 and #3 especially!
- There are 70+ miles of hiking trails on the Island, most of which are inside the state park—which is most of the Island 🙂 Access the trailheads by bike, then get off and hike for awhile for a change of pace. We did this at Arch Rock.
- There’s a kayak outfitter on the Island if you want to see it from the water and enjoy crystal clear Lake Huron. Of course this is weather-dependent. The day we were there would’ve been a perfect day for it, but we didn’t have the time, unfortunately.
- You can see parts of the Island by horseback if you choose. There are a couple stables where you can ride in a group with a guide and pay by the hour. Sure, the horse does most of the work…but what a relaxing and fun way to go!
How to Get There
Make your way to either the relaxed little seaside town of St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula or bustling, touristy Mackinaw City in the Lower Peninsula (they must’ve gotten tired of correcting peoples’ pronunciation! haha).
Two companies offer ferries to the Island from both these towns every 20 minutes or so, from the end of May to the end of October. Sheplers and Star Line have their own prices, packages and schedules, so see which works best for you.
Mackinac Island offers a super combo of outdoor activity, history and charming small town. Yes, it’s very touristy, but it has its out-of-the-way places, too. Put it on your To Go list!
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Sharon is the founder and publisher of Active Outdoor Women. She loves getting outside in beautiful places to hike, paddle, camp, snowshoe, ski, ride—and encouraging others to come along! Besides maintaining AOW and her other website, Twin Cities Outdoors, Sharon writes and designs websites, newsletters, blogs, emails, books and other marketing tools for clients.