Fall Escape to Mackinac
If you've only been to Michigan's Mackinac region during the summer (or never been there at all), you owe yourself a fall trip. You'll find the best seats on ferries, prime lakeside restaurant tables, wonderfully deserted hiking trails and bargain hotel rates.
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 and the areas just north and south of the 5-mile bridge across the Straits of Mackinac.
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 (pictured) 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 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. 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 park with a rock-climbing wall, zip line and canopy bridge 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 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.
See a lighthouse
Century-old lighthouses in the Mackinac region continue to pique visitors' curiosity. One way to enjoy them: Shepler's Lighthouse Cruises, three-hour narrated cruises, offered June to mid-September, that pass at least five lights. Visitors to Mackinaw City can also tour Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse (pictured).
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 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.