As soon as my wife, son and I stepped off the Shepler’s Ferry, one of only three ferry services to Mackinac Island, our connection to motorized transport ceased to exist. Since 1898, cars and nearly every other form of motorized, gas-guzzling transportation are illegal on this Michigan island. So, our adventure would be exclusively on foot, by bicycle, in a horse-drawn carriage, or on the back of a horse. Here, the police cruisers are bicycles.
The small island, covering only about 3.8 square miles, is surrounded by the shimmering waters of LakeHuron and to the west, in the distance, the Mackinac Bridge connects the lower and upper peninsula of Michigan. We stepped back to a time before the dominance of the automobile, with both the historical charm captured in the Victorian-style cottages and homes, plus the natural beauty, meticulously preserved.
A Bicycle Heaven
With Mackinac Island State Park comprising over 80 percent of the island, the popular paved Lake Shore Road, state highway M-185, allows bicyclists, hikers and runners to loop its eight mile circumference to witness nature that’s little changed in more than a century. The state park was originally Mackinac National Park (America’s second, after Yellowstone) before the State of Michigan took over its stewardship and management in 1895. Back then, soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac served as the first “park rangers.”
Numerous and hilly inland roads and trails cross-cross the island, connecting those on horseback, bicycle, horse-drawn carriage or foot to the island’s unique geological formations like Arch Rock and 75-foot-tall Sugar Loaf, or its many historic sites that are mostly confined to the bluffs along the southern side of the island.
“It’s a great family ride to loop the island on its perimeter,” says Carl Reddes, owner of the Mackinac Cycle Bicycle Rental. He set us up with their 21-speed Specialized Comfort Mountain Bikes, necessary if you’re headed to the hilly interior of the island like we were. “If you’re at all into biking, you need to get into the center of the island. That’s where you get to really know the place.” Darn great workout, too. Our favorite stretch was Leslie Avenue, once used as a logging road, now a twisty, ridge top trail that weaves through the lush forests.
To reach every nook, crook and hotspot on the island, pedal power is the way to go. With over 83 miles of paved, gravel or dirt trails wiggling through the island, a good island map is all that’s needed. On the perimeter ride, we cooled off with a dip in the lake near the northernmost tip of the island (another popular spot is at British Landing), and stopped more than once to add a pebble to the rock cairns that rise up from the shoreline, constructed by the island’s visitors.
Hoofing It: Touring Mackinac Island by Foot or by Horse
From the boardwalk that stretches along the western edge of the island to the more than 200 geocaching sites to the spectacular cottages on both the eastern and western bluffs — plus the immaculately preserved Fort Mackinac made famous by the War of 1812 — the island is perfect for hoofing it on foot. The immensely walkable and picturesque downtown area can be traversed from Mission Point Resort on one end to The Grand Hotel at the other in less than a half an hour.
To get around only slightly quicker, or tour some of the more unique natural wonders or historic sites without breaking a sweat, reserve a spot on a horse-drawn carriage tour. “Sometimes the radiator leaks and exhaust occasionally backfires,” laughs Rachel, our tour guide with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours as she led our team of horses up the steep hill by The Grand Hotel. Or you can saddle up at numerous liveries that offer guided or private rides, depending on your experience and skill level; private horse and buggies also available — if you want the horses to do all the work.
Plying the Waters: Mackinac Island Kayak Tours
The newest, non-motorized, way to experience the island’s beauty is from the water in a kayak from Great Turtle Kayak Tours. Guided by Kwame Jarrett, our small group of four paddled away, heading west out of the harbor for the three hour Sunset Tour.
Having kayaked through the mangroves in the Florida Keys, it didn’t take me long to settle in and get into the groove, enjoying the peace and quiet of our journey about two hundred feet off shore. We grabbed some spectacular photos of the western bluff (with a GoPro), then watched the sun drop behind the Mackinac Bridge before returning to the harbor at dusk, the bustling downtown lights shimmering off the water. Fitness, fresh air, adventure and fun sums up my kayak excursion perfectly.
“Everyone gets a quick taste of the unique and expansive perspective of our island and Lake Huron on the ferry boat ride over,” explains Paul Spata, owner of Great Turtle Kayak Tours. “That is simply not enough for most, and they crave a more personalized and immersive experience on the water.”
Other trips offered include a loop to view Arch Rock and the opportunity to glide over underwater limestonecaves or, with their Harbor Tour, a chance to come face to face with the resident otters that tend to congregate around the breaker rock protecting the harbor. Stand-up paddleboards are also available.
Should a time ever pass where the fuel pumps run dry, Mackinac Island offers a refreshingly positive perspective of an idyllic place where more than a million visitors arrive every year to enjoy nature and immerse themselves in history -- voluntarily leaving their beloved car behind. Next week, I’ll reveal how this island approaches hospitality.
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef, along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS. Ivanko writes and contributes photography to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, including most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living.” They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10-kW Bergey wind turbine. Their Inn Serendipity is a finalist for Green America’s People & Planet Award; your vote is welcomed by December 2.