Things to Do in the Straits of Mackinac Area
Whether Mackinac Island or the bridge is the reason you’re in town – or you’re just passing through and are looking for a reason to stop – the surrounding region also has so much for visitors to discover.
To this day, the Straits of Mackinac continue to be an important waterway connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, as well as the point of crossing between the Upper and Lower peninsulas. Each year, approximately 4 million vehicles cross the Mackinac Bridge, and more than a million guests visit Mackinac Island from May through October.
“The Straits of Mackinac is a wonderful destination for people who want to come to Northern Michigan to have a wonderful historical experience…There is so much to do, and so much to see. And a lot of that happens in our parks,” said Phil Porter, director emeritus of Mackinac State Historic Parks.
If you haven’t done more than eat wings at the Keyhole Bar & Grill in Mackinaw City or grabbed a burger at Clyde’s Drive-In in St. Ignace (both must dos, by the way), here are a few places to visit on your next trip to the Straits of Mackinac.
Mackinaw City / The Lower Peninsula
Built in 1715 by the French to protect their interest in the fur trade, this fort was eventually moved to Mackinac Island and became Fort Mackinac. But what stands today is a reconstructed fort that harkens back to what life was like in the 1770s. Managed by the Mackinac State Historic Parks, you’ll find lush gardens, an active archeological site, artifacts on display, interpretive events and more. “People come in expecting to stay an hour and pretty soon they’ve been here for 3, 4 or 5 hours,” said Dominick Miller, chief of marketing for Mackinac State Historic Parks. Please note that the fort is closed in the winter.
It’s educational, and it's fun! Where else can you scale the five-story Treetop Discovery Tower, check out a reconstructed sawmill and then fly down a 425-foot Eagle’s Flight Zip Line? Complete your visit with live educational programs and tours to fully immerse yourself in the history of the park. Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park is open from early June to early September each year.
This beautiful structure was built in 1892 and protected ships from the southern shores of the Straits of Mackinac for more than 60 years. Today, the lighthouse is a historical site that offers tours where visitors can climb five stories of stairs for a breathtaking view of the Straits and iconic Mackinac Bridge. “It’s almost like you’re looking down at the bridge,” Porter said. It’s no wonder they call it the “Castle of the Straits.” Guests can also check out the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum. Open early June through early October.
Open 24/7, 365 days a year, guests can come out and explore a true dark sky experience along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The park is home to nature trails and special events each summer, and you can also reserve a guest house. Camping is not allowed, but you’re only a couple of miles away from downtown Mackinaw City and several campgrounds in the area.
St. Ignace / The Upper Peninsula
Scheduled to reopen in 2024, the Fort de Buade Museum is operated by the Michilimackinac Historical Society and has been working diligently to “preserve, record and maintain the historical information of the area between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas, known as Michilimackinac.” The Straits Cultural Center aims to bring it all together. A gift shop is currently open.
It’s a moving display of history and culture, offering both indoor and outdoor exhibits that invite guests to learn about the Ojibwa culture and the lifestyles of the Huron. As you walk the grounds, make sure to soak it all in. The area was once home to the French Jesuit Mission and the final resting place of Father Jacques Marquette. Admission to the museum is by donation.
With a gift shop where you can find a little bit of everything – including a birch bark ceiling carved by the Indigenous community in the 1950s – Castle Rock offers spectacular views of the Straits nearly 200 feet above water. This natural rock formation is considered one of the oldest lookout points in the area, and today visitors can take a look through viewing binoculars at the top for an even better glimpse of the Straits natural beauty. While you’re there you can hang out with the large sculptures of Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox. Open early May through mid-October.
About the Author: John Gonzalez is a Michigan journalist with more than 30 years of experience. He is a member of the Central Michigan University Journalism Hall of Fame. He is originally from Capac and based in Grand Rapids.