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The Best Time to Visit Mackinac Island by Season

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It’s been called the best island in the continental US. Sitting in Lake Huron between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw Island) is the jewel of the Great Lakes. Visitors flock to this unique vacation spot for its car-free streets, miles of hiking trails, world-famous fudge, and stunning sunsets.

One of the things I love about living in the Midwest is that it has four distinct seasons. You can practically set your watch by them, and you’re all but guaranteed a quintessential spring, summer, fall, and winter experience. Mackinac Island is no different and is a popular tourist destination year-round. But when is the best time to visit Mackinac Island?

It depends on what you’re looking for, your tolerance of crowds, your taste in events and festivals, and your ability to withstand colder temperatures!

In this article, we examine the seasonal highlights when visiting Mackinac Island, Michigan, and ultimately decide the best time to go.

When to Visit Mackinac Island – TL;DR

Spring

Best for couples, romantics, and keen astronomers.

Summer

Best for families with kids, cyclists, and watersports enthusiasts.

Fall

Best for leaf peepers, bargain hunters, Halloween fans, and marathon runners.

Winter

Best for intrepid travelers, hermits, and anyone with enochlophobia (fear of crowds).

Getting to Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island Bridge in Spring
Brad / Adobe Stock

A car-free island, Mackinac can only be accessed by ferry or air. Two ferry companies offer crossings from St. Ignace on Michigan’s upper peninsula and Mackinaw City on the lower peninsula. Overnight dockside parking is available at each departure point.

Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line Ferry (Mackinac Island Ferry Company) have ferry docks in both towns and offer a year-round schedule depending on the season. For tickets and timetables, go here for the Shepler’s Ferry and the Star Line Ferry equivalent.

Mackinac Island Airport can support light aircraft, and charter flights are available if you don’t happen to own a plane. Pellston Regional Airport and Chippewa County International are the closest for commercial flights. Check Skyscanner.com for options.

Don’t be confused by pictures of the Mackinac Bridge (above), which doesn’t go to Mackinac Island. An engineering masterpiece and the largest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere, it connects Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. Mackinac residents and visitors alike will surely be content that their island paradise remains blissfully car-free.

When to Visit Mackinac Island

Island House Hotel exterior and garden
Island House Hotel / Booking.com

From the ancient Anishinaabek people to the French missionaries in the 1600s. From a former military outpost to the present-day population.

Humans have always been drawn to Mackinac Island’s natural beauty, rich resources, and strategic position. Today, any one of its permanent residents might tell you a different time of year to visit.

Centuries of history and environmental effects have sculpted the island’s landscape and traditions. There is something to see and do when visiting Mackinac Island at any given moment throughout the calendar year. Which season will you choose? Read on to find out.

Spring

Many believe the best time to visit Mackinac Island is in the spring when the island “opens for business” in late April. Average temperatures range from 32-47 degrees Fahrenheit, which is just right for getting outside again.

Go here to book the Island House Hotel which is a delight through until October, but is especially charming as the colorful flowers start to bloom. Aside from the steadily warming air and budding plants, there are several advantages to a trip to this corner of Michigan in springtime.

Fewer People

One of the main advantages of visiting anywhere during a shoulder season is that it isn’t nearly as crowded. You won’t have to elbow through the throng as you visit museums, natural limestone features, and historical landmarks around the island.

Your pictures will look as if you had the entire island to yourself. Follow these travel photography tips to snap the best shots.

Plentiful Accommodations

You can still get caught up in the pre-season excitement as attractions and stores prepare for the summer bustle. Hotels and inns (the Grand Hotel pictured above) offer some of their best rates during this time, and accommodations are plentiful and easier to find. You also have the cream of vacation rentals to choose from, like this beautifully secluded house in the woods in Mackinac Island State Park.

Perfect Astrology Weather

Historic Fort Holmes is the island’s highest point and is perfect for a spot of stargazing. Watch meteor showers in the cool, clear, dark-blue night skies.

If you’re lucky, you might even glimpse the Northern Lights. April is considered to be one of the peak months for seeing this breathtaking celestial phenomenon across the UP.

Horse-drawn Carriage Rides

Hiring one of the island’s famous horse-drawn carriages is a great way to explore, and your driver will provide you with a detailed tour filled with facts and suggestions on how to spend your time. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours offers holidaymakers a relaxing and romantic way to enjoy their vacation.

If you’d prefer not to travel by this method, you can still enjoy seeing them trot around the island. There’s something romantic about watching the horse-drawn carriages making their early morning deliveries of supplies and food to the downtown hotels and restaurants.

Spring Festivals & Events

Runners will be interested in the Fort2Fort race which takes place every May, and Mackinac Island is a great place to celebrate the spring holidays of Easter and Mother’s Day. You can make a reservation easily at one of the island’s restaurants without worrying about getting a table. Pink Pony is considered one of the best, conveniently located at Chippewa Hotel Waterfront.

Summer

Mackinac Island Ferry going into the harbor.

During the high season, thousands of visitors arrive via a ferry ride that docks every 15 minutes. With the kids out of school, this is when families flock to these shores. The island has previously been voted one of the best summer destinations in the US.

The average high temperature from July through August is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and it never gets unbearably hot. Still, you should pack some lightweight travel clothing to stay comfortable when enjoying these activities and events.

Hiking, Biking, and Horse Riding

Summer is arguably the best time for a spot of cycling. Bike rental shops are everywhere, so it’s easy to get started. Try Mackinac Wheels to get you rolling.

The island’s state highway, M-185, is an eight-mile loop that hugs the shoreline. Without cars and other motor vehicles, it’s a cyclist’s dream. Don’t miss a trip to Arch Rock, a 4000-year-old natural limestone formation on the East coast of the island.

If biking isn’t your thing, walking is just as fun, and exploring Mackinac Island State Park on your own two feet is a joy. There are over 70 miles of trails to discover, which you can also do on horseback.

Try Cindy’s Riding Stables for some Equidae encounters. Whether you’re walking, cycling, or riding, be sure to keep an eye out for horse droppings!

Swimming

Mackinac Island Sails

While Mackinac Island does have several beautiful bays, you wouldn’t necessarily consider them to be up there with the best beaches in the US. More rocky shingles than sand, water shoes are highly advised.

Swimming is possible, but the water can be chilly even in summer. Most hotels and resorts have swimming pools on-site if you would rather not take a dip in one of the Great Lakes.

Watersports

One thing you’ll notice when visiting Mackinac Island (or any island, for that matter) is that it’s surrounded by water. That means watersports are king in summer. Rent a kayak and explore the shoreline, or take a Great Turtle Kayak Tour of the best spots. Paddleboarding, sailing, paragliding, and boat cruises are also available. Anglers can enjoy fishing charters to catch salmon, lake trout, and carp.

Golf

If you’re a fan of the links, Mackinac Island might surprise you. There are two unique nine-hole courses available, an excellent 18-hole natural grass putting green, and a challenging miniature golf layout at the Grand Hotel. The Jewel is the island’s premier course, with a horse-drawn carriage ride between the final holes included.

Wawashkamo Golf Club is laid out over a former battlefield, while the Greens at Mission Point Resort is the ideal setup to work on your short game. Get yourself a good travel golf bag, and you’re all set.

Visit Fort Mackinac

Established during the American Revolution, Fort Mackinac was occupied by both British and American forces between 1780 and 1895. It was the scene of a key battle in the War of 1812 when the British, Canadian, and Native American forces seized the fort from the Americans that summer.

For an entrance fee, you can explore the fort and discover what life there was like for soldiers, officers, and their families. Watch demonstrations and hear stories from costumed guides.

You can even pay to fire the cannon when visiting Fort Mackinac, which is a unique and special experience for a lucky individual. This single shot takes place every morning from early May to mid-October, so be sure to book ahead.

Summer Festivals & Events

The largest and most popular peak season event in these parts is the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival. Taking place over ten days in June every year, the festival attracts folks from across the US and beyond.

See the crowning of the festival queen, enjoy lilac walking tours, and attend live music concerts. The festival culminates in the Grand Parade, where the whole island comes out to play for the finale.

Other Mackinac Island summer events include the famous W.T. Rabe Stone Skipping Contest, the July 4th fireworks, and the delectable Mackinac Island Fudge Festival. Mackinac is renowned for its fudge-making, and this event promises to cater to the sweetest of teeth. Of all the fudge shops on the island, don’t miss Joann’s Fudge for the very best treats.

Fall

Cottages on the Shore on Mackinac Island in Fall
ostrows1 / Adobe Stock

Some of the best weather on Mackinac Island occurs during late September and early October. Expect temperatures to be around 53 degrees, with clear weather conditions and crisp air.

Life on the island returns to a slower pace, as the peak tourist season subsides. Grab yourself a caramel apple and enjoy the autumnal sales at the delightful Main Street shops.

No Summer Crowds

Much like in the spring, perhaps the best time to go to Mackinac Island is when there are fewer crowds. Enjoy the quiet of Marquette Park adjacent to downtown and the wonderful restaurants without the wait you’d experience in the summer months.

Leaf Peeping

The fall foliage colors that Mackinac Island offers are breathtaking sights to behold. The towering trees are ablaze with golden yellows, vibrant reds, and fiery oranges.

Hiking, biking, and even helicopter tours are excellent ways to view the colors. But for me, horseback riding during the fall is extra special. Check out this article for some of the best places for fall foliage in the US.

Autumnal Shopping

Many shops offer discounted rates in the fall season on Mackinac Island, and it’s a great time to pick up a bargain. The quaint Main Street is filled with one-of-a-kind boutiques, galleries, and curiosity shops, and they mark down their wares in autumn before the season is over.

Don’t miss Doud’s Market, America’s oldest grocery store and one of the few island shops that remains open during winter. And if you’re a keen bargain-hunter, take a look at this list of the cheapest shopping destinations in the world.

Fall Festivals & Events

Of all the Mackinac Island hotels, the Grand Hotel is the most famous. Having hosted many guests of note since it opened in 1887, it is perhaps most well-known as the filming location of the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time. In October, this historic hotel celebrates its involvement in this cult classic with special fan events.

Mackinac Island Halloween Weekend is another hugely popular fall event, with trick-or-treating around the shops, and costume contests for adults in Mackinac bars. The weekend also marks the official close of the season, and it’s the last chance to enjoy the island’s full complement of hotels, restaurants, and businesses before they shut their doors for winter.

Winter

Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Winter
David Arment / Adobe Stock

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just poor preparation. Or unsuitable clothing.

Whatever the adage is, it’s certainly true when visiting northern Michigan during the frozen wastes of winter. Mackinac Island’s average low temperature will be around 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are still plenty of activities to warm you up from November to April, but note that open facilities and services will be down to a minimum. Attractions like the Butterfly House and Fort Mackinac are closed.

Mingle with the Locals

Visiting the best tourist destinations in the off-season can be richly rewarding, as you get to experience what life is genuinely like there behind the curtain. It’s the perfect time to rub shoulders with the residents, and Mackinac offers community activities throughout the winter.

Attend basketball games at the high school, go ice fishing, test your useless knowledge at pub trivia, or get a full house on bingo night. Mackinac Island natives are a friendly bunch, so go and make some new friends.

Hiking and Fat Tire Biking

Even with the snow heavy on the ground, Mackinac Island can be a dream to explore in a good pair of hiking boots. The trails stay open year-round, and providing you wrap-up warm, trekking around this winter wonderland with barely a person in sight is serene. You can also rent fat tire bikes outfitted with treads ready to tackle any terrain you come across.

Two People Cross Country Skiing on Mackinac Island

Skiing and Snowshoeing

Getting around Mackinac Island when it’s covered in ice and snow can be a challenging, rewarding, and fun experience. Depending on snowfall, well-groomed trails will start appearing in December. Note there are no ski or snowshoe rental shops on the island, and you must bring your own gear.

The Mackinac Island Twilight Turtle Trek takes place throughout the season. This charming lantern-lit cross-country skiing experience explores two miles of groomed trails in a sociable atmosphere.

Christmas Markets

The annual Christmas tree lighting on December 1st kicks off Mackinac Island’s Christmas markets and bazaars. From the 1st until the 3rd, the annual Christmas bazaar raises money for the island’s medical center. While not quite as spectacular as the best European Christmas markets, Mackinac Island still does the season proud.

See Related: Best Christmas Markets In Germany

Winter Festivals & Events

Unlike Midwest snowfall, winter events on Mackinac Island are a little light on the ground. Watch the freighters break through the ice as they pass under Mackinac Bridge.

For New Year’s Eve, the island celebrates the end of the year with sleigh rides, special dinners, and the downtown Annual Turtle Drop at midnight. Revelers gather outside the Lilac Tree Hotel to experience this uniquely Mackinac tradition at the stroke of 12.

FAQs

Horses in Front of Wedding Cake Cottage in Mackinac Island
csterken / Adobe Stock

When’s the best time to visit Mackinac Island?

The best time to cross the Straits of Mackinac depends on personal preference. Each season has its advantages and disadvantages when visiting Mackinac Island.

I would choose the shoulder seasons of spring or fall. But most action happens in the summer, and winter can be cozy and ideal for retreating away from the crowds.

Can you visit Mackinac Island in Winter?

You can, but you need to be aware of some key information. The island generally shuts down at the end of October, and only a few hotels, restaurants, shops, and facilities remain open.

Public toilets are closed, and the ferry only operates if it can break through the ice. Snowmobile rental isn’t available, and if you’re bringing your own you’ll need a DNR snowmobile pass.

How many days should you spend on Mackinac Island?

You can have a wonderful experience when you visit Mackinac Island for a day, a weekend, a week, or more. Day-tripping from nearby St. Ignace or Mackinaw City is popular, but I think you should stay longer to really get the most out of your stay. Two days should be enough to see everything, but if you want to indulge in the island’s slow pace, I highly recommend booking for longer.

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