Fall Escape to Mackinac
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Autumn on the straits
After Labor Day, crowds at this Michigan hot spot melt into a trickle of a few hundred daily visitors. Northern days get chilly here—sweatshirts and shorts weather, really. But they reveal a quieter version of the area's famed lakes, bike trails, historic parks and restaurants. Value adds up this time of year, too, with hotel rates dropping 15 percent or more.
Browse our slideshow to view some of the fall activities awaiting visitors to Mackinac Island (left) and the areas just north and south of the 5-mile bridge across the Straits of Mackinac. More detailed information to help you plan your trip starts on slide 15.
Do the drives
Thanks to the insulating effects of the Great Lakes, the color show near Mackinac often starts in late September and stretches into late October.
Some of the most beautiful fall color is west of Mackinaw City. The Tunnel of Trees (left) is a popular 20-mile stretch of State-199 from Cross Village to Harbor Springs. Nearby Wilderness State Park, along 26 miles of Lake Michigan shore, has a two-lane road that seems to change its mind as it twists toward the park: one mile, the road winds along shoreline dunes. The next mile, it turns inland through meadows of red poppies, purple asters and yellow goldenrod, making for an idyllic drive.
Glimpse local history
Perhaps the area's most impressive history lesson awaits in Mackinaw City, where visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac State Park (left) slip through the garrisoned entry and into the 1700s. French, then British, occupied these military barracks on Lake Michigan to protect the riches of the fur trade. In fall, visitors get front-row seats at colonial cooking demonstrations and musket firings—and, ultimately, a better sense of what it was like to live here 300 years ago.
Sample North Woods charm
South of Wilderness State Park along Lake Michigan, Cross Village's Legs Inn has built a reputation for North Woods charm (left). Come for the eccentric folk architecture, but stay for the authentic Polish food, including pierogi (dumplings) and szarlotka (berry crumble cake).
Walk in the treetops
Visitors ready to get out of the car and strap on a harness head for Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park (3 miles south of Mackinaw City), where a new park with a rock-climbing wall, zip line and canopy bridge (left) awaits against a backdrop of tangled cedar, aspen and pine. Still, the park holds on to its history; a waterwheel churns as it did more than 200 years ago, when a sawmill here supplied lumber to the fur trade.
Ride a bike
Cycling is the best way to explore auto-free Mackinac Island. Come September, riders can pedal downtown without brushing another tourist's tires and admire the softball-size dahlias and drifts of black-eyed Susans at the Grand Hotel. An 8-mile paved trail circles Mackinac. Inland, 140 miles of carriage roads, bike trails and footpaths knit through a hilly and wooded landscape, past limestone outcrops. Scott's Road and the Tranquil Bluff Trail trace the eastern shore, where red, brown and golden leaves drift down from a canopy of red oak, beech and maple.
Explore a park
Mackinac Island State Park (left) surprises visitors with its faraway-woods feel, despite being a few hundred yards from downtown. More than 80 percent of Mackinac Island is within the state park. Hike, bike or ride a horse through forests, past geological formations and along limestone bluffs.
60-Second Video: Mackinac Island
Its peaceful park and long history give Mackinac Island a soul-reviving atmosphere. Immerse yourself in the mood at some of our favorite attractions, including the Grand Hotel, Fort Mackinac and Joann’s Fudge.
See a lighthouse
Marvel at the bridge
The "Mighty Mac" suspension bridge, an engineering wonder, stretches 5 miles across the Straits of Mackinac. At Bridge View Park in St. Ignace, you can get terrific Mackinac Island bridge views with paths, picnic areas and interpretive center.
Learn about native culture
The Museum of Ojibwa Culture in St. Ignace (left) offers a thoughtful look at Ojibwa life, including family networks and seasonal migrations, explaining how the Ojibwa adapted to the seasons -- from "shining leaves month" (September) to "crusty snow month" (February).
Glide on the water
Northeast of the Mackinac bridge, a chain of 36 islands and narrow channels known as Les Cheneaux offers plenty of places for hiking, fishing and exploring. Strip malls and souvenir shops never got a foothold here. Instead, visitors admire wildlife from boats and kayaks.
The fish continue to bite near Hessel Bay Sunset Cabins north of the bridge (left). On warmer fall days, the air is clear, waters are calm, and shorelines glow in a rich patina of copper and gold. Visitors (and local residents) know to enjoy autumn's hues while they can. Come November, a north wind will shake the last color from the maples, and a skin of ice will begin to thick on the Straits.
Your getaway: Mackinac region
The 5-mile "Mighty Mac" spans the Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Michigan and Huron merge. Islands scatter to the east and west, from small, uninhabited limestone outcrops to well-known Mackinac Island. The Straits also divide Michigan into its disparate halves: the Upper Peninsula, where small waterfront towns give way to wilderness, and the more populated Lower Peninsula, with Mackinaw City at its tip.
Your getaway: Where to start
Mackinac Island: Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau. (906) 847-3783; mackinacisland.org
South of the bridge: Mackinaw Area Visitors Bureau. (800) 666-0160; mackinawcity.com
Pictured: Carriage rides are a leisurely way to explore Mackinac Island.
What to do: Mackinac Island
Bike rentals: Available throughout downtown; no reservations necessary.
Passenger ferries: Several travel daily to the island May-October from St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. Among them: Arnold Mackinac Island Ferry (800) 542-8528; arnoldline.com; Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry (800) 828-6157; sheplersferry.com; and Star Line Mackinac Island Hydro-Jet Ferry. (800) 638-9892; mackinacferry.com
Shepler's Lighthouse Cruises: Three-hour cruises June through mid-September. (231) 436-5023; sheplersferry.com
Mackinac Island Butterfly House: An indoor tropical garden exhibit with hundreds of live butterflies. (906) 847-3972; originalbutterflyhouse.com
Bois Blanc Island: A quiet wooded island in the Straits. bois-blanc.com
Mackinac parks: Mackinac Island State Park, Fort Mackinac (pictured at left), and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. (231) 436-4100; mackinacparks.com
What to do: North of the bridge
Bridge View Park: Mackinac Island bridge views (left) with paths, picnic areas and interpretive center, in St. Ignace. stignace.com
Dream Seaker Sport Fishing Charters: Fish Les Cheneaux's and Lake Huron's famed walleye waters. (888) 634-3419; dreamseaker.com
Fort de Buade Museum: An unlikely souvenir-shop facade belies a treasure trove of Native American, colonial French and British artifacts, in St. Ignace. (906) 643-6627; stignace.com
Museum of Ojibwa Culture: A fascinating look at Ojibwa life; open daily Memorial Day weekend until early October, in St. Ignace. (906) 643-9161; museumofojibwaculture.net
Up North Studio: Features local oils, etched glass and antique wooden-boat-themed art, in Hessel. (906) 322-2886; lescheneauxislandsartgallery.com
Woods and Water Ecotours: Two-hour to multiday kayak trips; biking and hiking tours also available. (906) 484-4157; woodswaterecotours.com
What to do: South of the bridge
Colonial Michilimackinac: A reconstructed wood fort in Mackinaw City; open from early May through mid-October. (231) 436-4100; mackinacparks.com
Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park (left): History and outdoor adventure, including a rock-climbing wall, zip line and canopy bridge; open from early May through mid-October. (231) 436-4100; mackinacparks.com
Icebreaker Mackinaw: Tour the Coast Guard's steel-hulled workhorse that kept Great Lakes shipping lanes free of ice from 1944 to 2006. Open seasonally; in Mackinaw City. (231) 436-9825; themackinaw.org
Wilderness State Park: Camping and rustic cabins, plus hiking and scenic drives. (231) 436-5381; michigandnr.com
Your getaway: Where to stay
-- Grand Hotel: Relax on the 660-foot front porch of this glorious Victorian era landmark (left). Check for fall specials. (800) 578-0354; grandhotel.com
-- Hotel Iroquois: Lovely century-old hotel, with lush gardens, lakefront dining and ample water views. (906) 847-3321; iroquoishotel.com
-- Insel Haus Bed and Breakfast: A rambling home on Bois Blanc Island with a remote, laid-back setting. (248) 921-2890; inselhausbandb.com
-- Mission Point Resort: Comprehensive resort, with four restaurants, tower museum, spa, fitness center and more. (800) 833-7711; missionpoint.com
North of the bridge
-- Hessel Bay Sunset Cabins: Well-maintained housekeeping cabins on expansive waterfront property in Hessel. (906) 484-3913; hesselbaysunsetcabins.com
-- Spring Lodge: A vintage cabin resort on Snows Channel in Cedarville. (906) 484-2282; springlodge.com
South of the bridge
-- Clarion Hotel Beachfront: With beach and indoor pool. (231) 436-5539; clarionhotel.com
-- Mackinaw City: A wide variety of hotels and motels, with many right on the lakeshore; check rates and availability with the chamber of tourism. (800) 577-3113; mackinaw-city.com
Your getaway: Where to eat
-- Yankee Rebel Tavern: Great homemade soups and sandwiches, plus unforgettable slow-cooked pot roast. (906) 847-6249; yankeerebeltavern.com
-- Sea Biscuit Cafe and Grog: Casual pub-style restaurant with hearty options that include whitefish Reubens and Indian corn chowder. (906) 847-3611; seabiscuitcafe.com
-- Mary's Bistro: Spit-fired chicken, roasted over local seasoned hardwoods, is the signature dish; fish of the day also is grilled over wood. (906) 847-9911; mackinacmarysbistro.com
North of the bridge
-- Mackinac Grille: Some of the best fresh fish in the Straits region, including lake perch and whitefish (pictured at left). In St. Ignace. (906) 643-7482
South of the bridge
-- Bluewater Grill and Bar: Features all manner of seafood, including fresh local fish and homemade clam chowder; at the south end of the Mackinaw City strip. (231) 436-7818
-- Audie's Chippewa Room: A locals' favorite for fresh, well-prepared local whitefish, lake perch and steaks in a historic up-north atmosphere. In Mackinaw City. (231) 436-5744; audies.com
-- Legs Inn: Eccentric folk architecture and authentic Polish food, including pierogi (dumplings) and szarlotka (berry crumble cake). In Cross Village. (231) 526-2281; legsinn.com
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2009.)