Mackinac Island is home to two historic forts: Fort Mackinac and Fort Holmes. A visit to these extraordinarily well-preserved sites is about as close to a marching order as you’ll get during your vacation to Mackinac Island. Also, explore Colonial Michilimackinac, an educational experience located across the Straits of Mackinac in Mackinaw City.
Visiting Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island is a trip back to the 18th-century colonial period in America. As with any Mackinac Island vacation, getting there is half the fun. Beat the day-tripper crowds by arriving early at the ferry docks, then sit back and watch Mackinac Island’s slim profile slowly emerge, growing ever larger, as your boat motors across the water.
Once you’ve landed on Mackinac Island, march up Fort Street to Fort Mackinac’s South Sally entrance and get ready to enter another era. Founded in 1780, Fort Mackinac sits on a limestone bluff overlooking the island’s tiny village and the wild waters of Lake Huron. Its sweeping views made it a strategic outpost for the British and United States armies for 115 years. Though the real action here ceased in 1885, the fort’s 14 original historic buildings still echo with the sounds of military pomp. Arrive early to watch local scout troops slowly raise the American flag to signal the fort’s opening. The wicked crack of a rifle breaks through the cool morning air—better quick-step to the parade grounds, where you’re likely to catch a cannon-firing demonstration or a court martial re-enactment.
Bagpipes, fifes, bugles and drums provide military-inspired background music as you make your way through the fort’s exhibits. A new exhibit at the Post Headquarters allows visitors to search a computer database containing birth dates, physical descriptions, marital status and other information about the American soldiers who served here. Visit the barracks to see the way soldiers lived, then head to the post hospital and follow a 19th-century physician on his rounds. Grab lunch at the Fort Mackinac Tea Room where historically accurate dishes like beef stew or baked pork and beans are paired with hearty slices of farm bread and butter—just the way they were served to soldiers stationed here more than 100 years ago.
Admission fees for Fort Mackinac are as follows: $12 for adults, $7 for children ages 5–12. Admission also includes The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum through October 11 and the Historic Downtown Mackinac buildings June 6 through August 22.
Fort Holmes was built by British soldiers in 1814 during the War of 1812 to protect Fort Mackinac against an attack. When United States soldiers peacefully reoccupied the island after the War of 1812 the fort was renamed Fort Holmes in honor of American Major Andrew Hunter Holmes who was killed in the 1814 battle of Mackinac Island. Fort Holmes was eventually abandoned and allowed to decay.
With funding secured for renovations, visitors of Mackinac Island can now visit the recently reconstructed fort, which can be found 1 mile north of downtown on Fort Holmes Road. Admission is free and the fort is open to the public during normal operating hours May through October.
A third fort that overlooks the Straits of Mackinac is located on the mainland in Mackinaw City. Like Fort Mackinac, Colonial Michilimackinac is an open-air museum filled with re-enactments, cannon fire and fun on the site of the 18th-century Fort Michilimackinac.
Admission fees for Colonial Michilimackinac are as follows: $11 for adults, $6.50 for children ages 5–12.
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Article contributors: Emily Bingham, Carly Simpson
Originally published on July 15, 2014