You may know that Mackinac Island is home to historic Fort Mackinac, the Colonial-era military base that the British, French and Americans fought over in the 18th and early 19th centuries. But did you know that as the political significance of Mackinac declined and the island evolved into a popular vacation destination, it became the country’s second national park?
Shortly after Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872, Mackinac National Park was created.
Fort Mackinac continued to house federal troops until just before the 20th century, when the fort was decommissioned. At that time, Mackinac National Park was turned over to Michigan and became the first state park.
Still today, Mackinac Island State Park makes up more than 80 percent of the island. Though you might think first of horse-drawn carriages and world-famous fudge when Mackinac comes to mind, most of the island is characterized by forested hiking and biking trails and extraordinary natural amenities.
If you’ve never been to Michigan’s original national park, here are six things to check out when you get here:
Don’t worry. Mackinac isn’t about to split in two. But there is a literal crack in the island’s limestone foundation. It’s big enough for a child – and some adults! – to wiggle into and take a memorable selfie. The crack is located right off State Road between the Mackinac Island Airport and Wawashkamo Golf Club. The crack is also right by the Cave of the Woods, a hollow in the island’s limestone that was carved out by waves crashing on the shoreline eons ago when water covered most of Mackinac.
Speaking of caves, Eagle Point Cave is tucked away near the northern tip of Mackinac off the stunning Tranquil Bluff Trail that runs above Lake Huron. You can reach the cave from above or below, and either path you take makes for a beautiful journey through the island’s rugged, breathtaking interior full of untouched forest.
More than 200 years ago, British troops sneaked onto Mackinac and approached Fort Mackinac from behind, surprising the Americans during the War of 1812 and forcing them to surrender. The place the redcoats landed is known today, of course, as British Landing. It’s a popular spot for beach weddings with a view of the Mackinac Bridge and a rest stop on a bike ride around the outer rim of the island, but it’s also a starting point for several great hiking trails that run through the state park to landmarks such as Friendship Altar and Croghan Water.
After the British landed in 1812, they marched up to the highest point on the island and from there were able to capture Fort Mackinac without a fight. The stronghold that they established was built into the smaller Fort Holmes that recently was restored to its original design. You can go inside the block house and learn about the fort’s history or enjoy a picnic outside and soak in the breathtaking sights more than 300 feet above the water. A trek to Fort Holmes passes by several other Mackinac sites on the way including Anne’s Tablet, Skull Cave and the Fort Mackinac Post Cemetery.
From Fort Holmes, it’s a short walk to Point Lookout which offers a beautiful vantage point to see the green forest of Mackinac set against the blue waters beyond. It’s also the best place to get a look at Sugar Loaf, a limestone stack that rises 75 feet out of the middle of the island.
Of course, any list of attractions in Mackinac State Park would be incomplete without Fort Mackinac itself. The fort blasts a cannon to begin its season of tours and reenactments in early May.
But the state park is open year-round for hiking, biking and, in the winter, cross-country skiing.