Halloween marked the end of the main travel season on Mackinac Island. Tourist traffic has slowed, and ferry schedules have been scaled back.
But, of course, just because Mackinac Island is one of America’s best little summer beach towns doesn’t mean it’s not a great place to visit in the winter, too.
Even though Mackinac Island residents like to say the place belongs to tourists in the summer and “in the winter it’s all ours,” they’re still happy to have a few guests during the offseason.
Things are very casual on Mackinac Island in the winter and, if you can believe it, the pace of life is even more peaceful and relaxing. While Mackinac Island is one of America’s most tourist-friendly cities in spring, summer and fall, the focus in the winter is on the islanders themselves. It’s actually one of the things that attracts people to Mackinac Island.
“I think folks like to feel that they’re part of the community here when they come up,” said Trish Martin, owner of Bogan Lane Inn, one of a few places to stay that remains open to guests all winter.
How about you? There are tons of unique experiences of Mackinac Island that you can only have in the winter. For starters, here are five things you can do when visiting Mackinac Island in December:
Cross-country skiing – Cars are prohibited on Mackinac Island, which leaves snowmobiles as a primary mode of transportation. But even snowmobiles aren’t allowed to travel parts of the island. That makes the east half of Mackinac Island a paradise for cross-country skiers, with many miles of groomed tracks high above Lake Huron in Mackinac Island State Park. Check out this trail map. You can rent skis on Mackinac Island, or bring your own on the ferry. And if you prefer to be on wheels, fat tire biking is another popular activity on Mackinac Island in the winter. You can rent mountain bikes and fat tire bikes in town.
Shopping – Yes, some downtown stores open at times during December. For example, some fudge shops are staffed to fill out-of-town holiday orders anyway, so they open their doors for a few hours a day, too. Another great place to shop is at the annual Mackinac Island Christmas Bazaar. You can find quilts and knitted wear, soaps, hand-painted ornaments and other unique, homemade gifts. Plus, the bazaar includes live and silent auctions of donated items and services. Once an event almost exclusively for year-round Mackinac Island residents, the fundraising sale now attracts an increasing number of tourists each year to experience an old-fashioned slice of classic Americana.
Christmas – Speaking of old-fashioned, the Christmas Bazaar is paired with the annual Mackinac Island Tree Lighting and singalong. As the community illuminates a Christmas tree in the middle of Main Street, Martin leads Christmas carols. The weekend also brings an appearance of Santa Claus!
Snowmobiling – There are no snowmobile rentals on Mackinac Island, but you can win one in the Mackinac Island Christmas Bazaar raffle. Or, you can bring your own snowmobile on the ferry boat for an additional fee – at least until boats stop running early in the new year due to ice buildup. When there’s too much ice for ferry boats to make it from the mainland to Mackinac Island, many snowmobilers come over on the Ice Bridge (although this is not recommended. Please contact the U.S. Coast Guard Station in St. Ignace about traveling on the ice in the Straits of Mackinac). On Mackinac Island, snowmobiling is a way of life.
New Year’s – Hiking through the snowy woods and up to the high points of Mackinac Island is a beautiful experience in December, and a popular activity for people seeking respite between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It’s the complete opposite of a crowded ball drop at midnight on New Year’s Eve! Ringing in the New Year on Mackinac Island is an extraordinary experience. A handful of hotels are open during that week to accommodate visitors, as are some shops and restaurants.