National Parks in Michigan: Mackinac Island was the first

Published on May 6th, 2020

Last updated on October 27th, 2020



They don’t all go by the name ‘National Park,’ but there are five public spaces in Michigan that are official National Park Service properties: Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historic Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, River Raisin National Battlefield Park and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Interestingly, if you go back 125 years, Michigan had only one national park. And it wasn’t one of the five national parks in the state today.

Ever hear of Mackinac National Park?

Maybe you’ve even been there because it still exists to this day! We now know it as Mackinac Island State Park, which makes up more than 80 percent of Michigan’s beloved Mackinac Island.

It was 125 years ago that Mackinac Island State Park was established as Michigan’s first state park – the first “state park” in the entire country, in fact. But for two decades before that, the majority of Mackinac Island was known as Mackinac National Park. It was the second national park in the United States, created just three years after Yellowstone National Park.

Want to know what Mackinac National Park looked like? Well, it looked a lot like Mackinac Island State Park looks today! So, if you wish you could go back in time and visit Mackinac National Park, basically you can.

Take a look below at what the popular landmarks of Mackinac National Park looked like in the late 1800s, and how Mackinac Island State Park looks today. Thanks to Mackinac State Historic Parks for the old photos!

During the Mackinac National Park era in the late 1800s, Arch Rock was a great spot for photos high above Lake Huron.Just like during the Mackinac National Park era, Arch Rock remains a great spot for photos high above Lake Huron.

  • Arch Rock

The iconic Arch Rock offered an unparalleled photo backdrop during the Mackinac National Park era (left), just as it does today.

During the Mackinac National Park era in the late 1800s, towering Sugar Loaf attracted visitors to the middle of Mackinac Island.Just like during the Mackinac National Park era, towering Sugar Loaf remains an attraction in the middle of Mackinac Island.

  • Sugar Loaf

Sugar Loaf, as seen from below during the Mackinac National Park era (left) and from up above at Point Lookout, is every bit as much of a geological oddity today as it was then.

During the Mackinac National Park era in the late 1800s, Fort Mackinac overlooked downtown Mackinac Island.Just like during the Mackinac National Park era, Fort Mackinac overlooks downtown Mackinac Island.

 

  • Fort Mackinac

 

Fort Mackinac today (right) still overlooks downtown from high above the bluffs of Mackinac Island just as it did in 1880 and, in fact, 1780 when the British moved the fort to the island.

During the Mackinac National Park era in the late 1800s, Fort Holmes featured an observation tower.Just like during the Mackinac National Park era, Fort Holmes offers a stunning vista from the highest point of Mackinac Island.

 

  • Fort Holmes

 

An observation tower no longer stands at Fort Holmes (left) on the highest point of Mackinac Island, but you still can get a beautiful view of the Mackinac Bridge and the entire Straits of Mackinac from way up there.

During the Mackinac National Park era in the late 1800s, the Mission Church on Mackinac Island was already 65 years old.The Mission Church inside Mackinac Island State Park looks a lot like it did during the Mackinac National Park era.

 

  • Mission Church

 

The oldest-surviving church building in all of Michigan, the Mission Church on Mackinac Island (right), is open daily for tours in season and is also a popular wedding venue. By the Mackinac National Park era (left), the Mission Church was already 65 years old!

During the Mackinac National Park era in the late 1800s, visitors enjoyed traveling around the outer rim of Mackinac Island. Unlike during the Mackinac National Park era, the road around the outer rim of Mackinac Island is now paved.

 

  • M-185

 

Even before a road was paved 8.2 miles all the way around the outer rim of Mackinac Island, people enjoyed getting out into Mackinac National Park to see the sights (left). These days, the road – the only state highway in the country that prohibits automobiles – makes it possible to circle the entire Mackinac Island State Park by bicycle in just over an hour at a leisurely pace.

During the Mackinac National Park era, horse-drawn carriage tours of Mackinac Island were as popular as they are today.Just like during the Mackinac National Park era, horse-drawn carriage tours remain a popular way to see Mackinac Island.

 

  • Horse-drawn Carriage Tours

 

Just like during the Mackinac National Park era, a horse-drawn carriage tour of Mackinac Island remains one of the most popular ways to take in the sights of historic and natural wonders.

Mackinac National Park existed from 1875 to 1895, with soldiers at Fort Mackinac serving as park rangers. But when the military decided to close the fort, the state of Michigan stepped up to take care of the national park – which then became known as Mackinac Island State Park.

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the state park, Mackinac State Historic Parks has scheduled 125 special events this year with activities tentatively set to begin and attractions tentatively set to open in mid-June.


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