Mackinac Island, Mich., is almost too good to be true. This little, car-free island has been named by TripAdvisor the No. 1 summer destination and, at one point, one of the top islands to visit in the world. Imagine horse-drawn carriages, beautifully restored building, and spectacular views of Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and the Mackinac Bridge. (Heads up: It’s all pronounced Mack-in-naw)
Mackinac Island was actually the inspiration for this summer’s epic Michigan road trip. We planned one full day to explore the island as a family. This itinerary includes a bike ride, plenty of fudge, exploring Grand Hotel, and breath-taking views.
Disclosure: My visit was hosted by Grand Hotel and Mackinac State Parks. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.
24 hours on Mackinac Island with kids
First off, 24 hours is not long enough, even though the island is roughly 3.7 square miles. However, if budget is a concern, one day here will do. I’d recommend staying overnight on the island, if at all possible, to see what it’s like once the day-trippers head back to the mainland.
Ferries drop you off at the main hub of activity, where you will find bicycle rentals, souvenir shops, restaurants and fudge shops. It’s as touristy as it gets, and chaotic, but the charm of the island is inescapable: As you soak in the scenery of colorful bicycles, horse-drawn carriage taxis and hotel shuttles, and then there’s that smell of fudge.
Once you’re done shopping and sampling fudge, get out of that tourist area to explore the rest of the island. There are a few ways to see the full island, including carriage tours, but I recommend getting bicycles if you’re able. If you are traveling with young kids, I have a section below that details what to expect if you’re going to bike around the island with them.
As beautiful as the architecture is at the port, the natural scenery on the rest of the island is truly remarkable. There is a paved bike trail that takes you past some of the key sights, like the British Landing and Arch Rock, plus the route is flat.
My kids love hands-on activities, so two places on Mackinac Island to go for that are Fort Mackinac and the Mackinac Art Museum. Both are managed by Mackinac State Park. Fort Mackinac will take a few hours if you plan on touring. There is a kids area for dress up and activities to learn more about what life was like at the fort more than 100 years ago. There are re-enactors at the fort, and you’ll likely get to watch them fire guns and hear the cannon fire.
If your kid is older than 13, he or she can fire the first cannon at Fort Mackinac for an additional fee and reservation. I tried it out, and my little kids could help prep the cannon. I’ll be writing about it soon.
The art museum is small and in a historic building. My kids headed straight for the kids studio in the basement, so I didn’t get to see much of the art. There is a fee to enter the museum, but once you’re in, the activities in the studio are included. This is a great rainy-day activity.
We stopped at the Stuart House Museum, as well. My son loves history, so he enjoyed it the most.
Biking Mackinac Island with kids
My kids wanted to take a horse-drawn carriage and ride bikes. Since our shuttle to the hotel was a carriage, we checked one thing off the list right away.
We decided to take a self-guided tour of the island by bike. You can rent bikes by the ferry drop-offs, but we opted to rent them at our hotel, the Grand Hotel. The fees were comparable.
Our 8-year-old biked on his own, while our 6-year-old was seated in a tag-along. The route around the should probably take you about 2 hours if you’re with young kids, but plan more time if there’s a chance you’ll hike a trail or two. And how could you not? It’s beautiful here.
The bike path takes you by the Devil’s Kitchen, a little burnt-out looking cave; the British Landing site, a historically significant spot on the island; and Arch Rock, which you’ll need to get off the bike and hike a bit if you want a good view.
There aren’t many hills to worry about and the main route around the lakeshore of the island is strictly bike, so it’s great for families. However, if you’re doing a full loop, you will have to pass through the main street of tourist activity. There are carriages everywhere, walkers who are not looking, and other bicyclists. Still, my kiddo did fine navigating around things.
Staying the Grand Hotel with kids
This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip that I’d been dreaming about for 15 years, so I had to stay at Grand Hotel. This gorgeous, historic hotel is open to visitors for a $10 fee if you want to explore it but not stay there. But staying here? It’s an experience all its own.
First thing’s first, check out the pool with the kids. It is a walk from the hotel, but this large pool area is going to be a highlight for your kids. There are pool toys, two hot tubs, and complimentary sno cones. We hit the pool after our bike ride.
There are lawn activities for free, and things like foot golf for a fee. There are also drop-off kids programs that we totally would have taken advantage of if we were staying another day or two. They looked fun, and would’ve provided a little bit of a date night for me and Mr. Wonderful.
On check-in, kids receive activity cards. If they complete at least five items on the list — things like trying a new food, biking, playing over-sized chess, or swimming in the pool — they receive a free (huge) scoop of ice cream at Sadie’s Ice Cream Shop in the hotel. It’s a great, free program for kids, and really motivated my kids to fit in a lot of things during our short stay.
Dining on Mackinac Island with kids
I’m biased since I’ve been dreaming about the Grand Hotel for years, but our dining experience at the hotel-ran restaurants were better than what we tried in the touristy strip of restaurants.
Most hotel plans include breakfast, the Grand Luncheon Buffet and dinner at the Grand Hotel. I highly recommend not skipping the dinner; it’s quite the experience, with live music, five courses for the adults, and a beautiful view if you get near the windows.
While there is a dress code for dinner, my kids were absolutely delighted to play dress up for the night. For dinner, kids can order off a kids menu or get a buffet with things like deep fried mac and cheese, barbecue, and fresh fruit (not to mention an abundance of desserts). Don’t miss your chance to order their famous Grand Pecan Ball for dessert.
Breakfast was similar, though this time, kids could order off the adult menu or get the buffet. My daughter? She got the buffet and returned to the table with a box of Fruit Loops. I kid you not.
The other memorable spot for food is the Fort Mackinac Tea Room located inside fort (so you will have to pay the park’s entrance fee). The Tea Room is managed by Grand Hotel, and it has arguably the best view of the island. We just had coffee and hot cocoa, so I can’t vouch for the food. But the views? Unforgettable.
By the ports, you’ll find a lot of restaurants. There will be a wait at most meal times. We went to one facing the marina and the food was okay, the prices were expectedly high, and the service was a little sullen. On our way out of town, we grabbed picnic food to-go from Dowd’s, which claims to be America’s oldest family-owned grocery store. While the prices are higher than Omaha’s (it is an island, after all), the food I grabbed was fresh and satisfying.
If you’re looking for fudge, I’m pretty sure you can’t go wrong with any shop along the tourist strip. You’ll also likely see employees making the fudge. We bought some fudge at Murdick’s and received complimentary fudge from Grand Hotel. I loved the chocolate fudge from Grand Hotel, but everyone else in my family loved the caramel-y fudge we picked out at Murdick’s. Ask for samples, of course.
Itinerary for Mackinac Island with kids
Now that you’ve read the details, here’s how we fit all of that into 24 hours on Mackinac Island:
9:30 a.m. – Star Line Ferry from Mackinaw City, with pass under the Mackinac Bridge
10 a.m. – Walk around Main Street and visit Stuart House Museum
12 p.m. – Lunch at Mary’s Bistro
1 p.m. – Horse-drawn carriage shuttle to Grand Hotel; explore hotel
2 p.m. – Rent bikes
5 p.m. – Swim at Grand Hotel pool
7 p.m. – Dinner at Grand Hotel
8 a.m. – Breakfast at Grand Hotel
9:30 a.m. – Fort Mackinac to fire cannon
10 a.m. – Coffee and hot cocoa at Fort Mackinac Tea Room
12 p.m. – Ice cream at Sadie’s Ice Cream Shop
1 p.m. – Mackinac Art Museum
1:30 p.m. – Lunch to-go from Dowd’s
2:45 p.m. – Ferry back to Mackinaw City
OK, that was a little more than 24 hours. But, you get the idea.
Getting to Mackanic Island
To get to the island, you need to take a ferry (or perhaps you own a boat or small plane). Star Line Ferries ran almost every 15 to 30 minutes at the peak of summer when we traveled. We left fairly early in the morning and lucked out with the ferry making a pass under the Mackinac Bridge. Check the schedule to time your trip to the island to include that! Ferry rides take about 20 minutes, and for small kids, the ride itself is pretty exciting.
You will have to leave your car on the mainland, of course. We took Star Line, which offered a couple of levels for parking, including a free one. The most convenient is the valet parking, which seemed like a pretty good deal so we took. It was $14, included a secured lot, and they’d deliver the car to the ferry when we returned.
If you’re staying at a hotel on the island, there’s a good chance there’s a porter who will pick up your luggage from the ferry and deliver it to your room. The Grand Hotel did, and the convenience is much appreciated.
Read more about Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island inspired an entire road trip through Michigan (more on that to come). To plan your own awesome road trip through Michigan, I’ll be sharing a road trip recap soon featuring restaurant highlights, sights to see, and where to stay. You can start planning now with this ultimate Michigan Bucket List.
For Mackinac Island highlights, read these posts:
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