Beyond Main Street

Ready for some action on Mackinac Island? Summertime options for exploring the getaway include fun times on land and in the water


Mackinac Island Stone skipping
Mackinc Island’s shoreline contains stones ideal for skipping. The island hosts an annual stone-skipping contest every July 4 that’s open to both amateurs and pros, who often record more than 20 skips.
Photos by Sara Wright

Nowhere does it seem more crowded in the summer than downtown Mackinac Island, where visitors pilot bikes as they wobble between carriages and passersby clog the sidewalks to watch fudge-makers at work.  

As an island regular and a guide for Great Turtle Kayak Tours, I’ve experienced many facets of this beautiful escape. The following suggestions will get your heart pumping and help you avoid the crowds, even in the midst of the busiest days. 

Runner Delights

If you like to run, Mackinac Island offers plenty of places to counter the congestion by venturing into the trees nearly anywhere just beyond the east or west bluffs, which face the Straits of Mackinac. 

There are two track-like stretches I recommend. One is near the airport and the other is a bit deeper into the island, where you’ll find plenty of single-track options and your only companions are birds, squirrels, and maybe a white-tail deer. Early spring means a carpet of delicate trillium or lady slippers, while autumn turns the leaves into a palette of vibrant harvest colors. 

If you like your runs organized, check out the events coordinated by Gault Race Management, with options from May through October ranging from the five-mile-long Fort2Fort and the Great Turtle Half Marathon. While these events tend to traverse mostly paved roads, you’ll still enjoy scenes from interior woodlands views to wide-angle Great Lakes vistas. 

Mark Ware, vice president at Mission Point Resort, loves running on Mackinac Island and uses the organized events to prepare for Iron Man competitions. He says Mackinac Island’s trail system provides great training options, and he also appreciates how runners and joggers can take even unfamiliar turns without worrying about getting lost.

“The best part is that you’re never too far away and can feel free to explore paths knowing that eventually you’ll wind up along the shore or a main road that will lead you back to town. You can run an easy 5K or a challenging 17-miler or anything in between,” Ware says.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, try paddling beyond the harbor breakwalls into the Straits of Mackinac, toward uninhabited Round Island.

Island Freewheeling

If you prefer pedaling to plodding, there are many possibilities beyond the main streets. Rent a bike or take your own uphill a bit to Fort Holmes Road, above the cemeteries, to discover vistas of Lake Huron and the Straits of Mackinac. From there you can sweep your gaze from the Les Cheneaux Islands in the north and back to the Mackinac Bridge in the west. Directly across the straits from the island’s highest point, the Round Island lighthouse, about a mile away, looks close enough to reach out and touch. 

Jim Fisher, owner of the Mackinac Wheels bike shop, says the island’s interior is a great escape from the crowds. “When you’re out on the trails you rarely run into anyone,” he says. “It’s peaceful and relaxing, no matter what kind of riding you want to do.”

With more than 30 miles of single-track paths, adventurous bikers can snake alongside swamps or traverse limestone ledges before angling beneath towering evergreens. On the island’s northwest side, facing St. Ignace, your likeliest trailside companions might be barred owls or pileated woodpeckers. 

Those looking for paddleboard adventures can find routes from the marina to Arch Rock, or on quiet sections of the lake beyond downtown’s traffic.

Getting Wet

With a little effort, visitors can discover plenty of good swimming spots, but be forewarned that the beaches are mostly rocky. Those wanting to wade into the surf can easily find pockets of privacy at places like Brown’s Brook or Point Aux Pines. While Petoskey stones are rare finds on island beaches, rocks that look custom-made for skipping are plentiful. 

More swimmers also are discovering Mackinac Island’s organized events, including the ÖTILLÖ’s SwimRun relay and Mackinac Island Swim’s shoreline loop, both of which take place in August.  

Jon Vos says what brings people to the Mackinac Island Swim is the combination of conditions and location. “The crystal-clear water is really what draws everyone,” he says, adding that it isn’t only swimmers who enjoy the event. “It’s probably one of the most spectator-friendly swim events. You can have your whole family come out and see you swim the entire length of the event.”

The annual Lilac Festival Run and Walk, this year on June 8, is an energizing way to take in the island’s beauty during the event’s morning activities.

Paddle Pleasures

If you’d rather be on the water, you can opt for a kayak or a paddleboard. Popular routes might find you threading through the marina toward Arch Rock, where you can leave the ferry boat traffic behind. If you’re feeling more adventurous, try paddling beyond the breakwalls into the Straits of Mackinac toward uninhabited Round Island, no more than a mile south. Early morning paddlers can follow the sunrise, and often share the water with chattering otters or ghost-like herons.

Never paddle alone and be prepared for any possibility, says Anthony Arabie, longtime manager and guide at Great Turtle Kayak Tours, who knows how the conditions can change quickly. “Depending on the wind and currents,” he explains, “the lake can be as calm as a small pond or as roaring as an ocean.”  

Whatever your preference, from running to paddling and more in between, Mackinac Island offers wonderful woods and the water to counter the crowds — even during the busy summer season. 

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