Discover a secret season on a Mackinac Island fall vacation, when autumn color and quietude prevail (and so do deals galore).

Check our fall color map every week to find out where peak foliage is.

We’ve climbed about 1,000 feet as we fly above the first of a LEGO set’s worth of Mackinac Island landmarks. There’s the Grand Hotel to our left, sized from this view like a white, green-roofed version of a Lilliputian hotel, plopped onto a scenic hillside.

Straight below, the Round Island lighthouse also looks toylike, tiny and perfect on this autumn afternoon. The picturesque lighthouse sits at the base of an island shaped like a thought bubble from a cartoon strip, but instead of containing words, the bubble encircles a fall color landscape surrounded by a sea of deep blue.

Minutes later, our pilot glides past the Mission Point Resort, notable for its red roofs and prime position on a forested curve of shore near Arch Rock. Flying above Fort Mackinac, we can imagine tiny Army men on patrol, not far from cliff-side homes, which from this vantage point resemble Victorian dollhouses of a young girl’s dream. And it’s all set amid a vast forest of evergreens punctuated by the reds, oranges and golds of deciduous trees vibrant in fall color.

As I stare out the little plane’s window, I can’t help it, I am completely enthralled by this Mackinac Island color tour from a bird’s-eye view.

Round Island, photo by Kim Schneider

Round Island

One easy way to get up high is in a Cessna or Piper Cherokee, operated by Great Lakes Air. A 20-minute color tour runs $45 a person (half price for kids 3 to 12). An even better deal if you’ve brought along a group is the hour-long rental option: $210 for up to five passengers.

But you don’t have to go high enough to render your favorite island spots in miniature to experience the island’s best color. Earning some elevation by foot—or better yet, bike—by climbing an island summit is another way to experience the island from on high. From Fort Holmes, you can sit at 325 feet above the Straits, the island’s tallest point, and gaze over autumn foliage toward Michigan’s favorite landmark, the Mackinac Bridge, so stately amid the cobalt blue of an October Great Lake. Fort Holmes also offers my favorite view of the towering 75-foot rock known as Sugar Loaf. Native Americans are said to believe Sugar Loaf is home to Gitche Manitou, the Great Spirit or Creator.

Cooler fall days make for pleasant exploration, which is a good thing, because the best color, it turns out, can be found near some of the island’s more remote (but worthy) attractions, which require a little effort to reach. Near Fort Holmes, island cemeteries glow with the oranges of massive shade trees. Smaller autumn crowds here mean the chance to explore in silence the gravestones of one-time island families or casualties of the War of 1812, often marked simply “U.S. Soldier.” The reverence you feel isn’t broken but is instead somehow elevated when the occasional horse-drawn carriage (your ride back to town perhaps?) clip-clops by.

Photo by Andrejka Hirschegger

Celebrate Fall, Mackinac Island-Style

On your island ferry ride, just take it in stride when you notice the fellow next to you is decked out in a top hat, sports a pocket watch in his vest, and his companion wears a corseted dress that hasn’t been in style since, say, 1912. You haven’t fallen into the Twilight Zone. They’re likely just en route to the Grand Hotel’s annual Somewhere in Time weekend, a chance for fans of the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour film to mingle with some of the original actors, listen to experts on the social mores of the Victorian era, even reenact scenes from the island-filmed cult romance. And that’s just one of several October events that showcase the island at its romantic—and sometimes quirky—best.

The Grand alone offers October weekends themed around ballroom dancing, murder mysteries, girlfriend getaways, even its seasonal closing. The Close the Grand special is notable for its reduced price, more casual “rules” and surprises. Example: guests feast buffet-style on whatever the chef whips up from the remaining kitchen and pantry stock.

Shopping’s become a true October “sport” too, with the Great Turtle Shopping Week, going into its second year it’s a festival of steep bargains, music, treats and giveaways. Locals head first to Astor’s Salon at the Grand Hotel, knowing the Aveda products will sell at a fraction of the original price, says Mary McGuire Slevin, executive director of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau. Original art is popular too, carried at shops like Mackinac’s Little Gallery, also known for equestrian-themed works, and Little Luxuries, featuring organic gifts and regional art. Hit Somewear on Mackinac for fashion finds.

The Great Turtle Shopping Week event “surprised a lot of people,” McGuire Slevin says. “People had no idea we had so many cool shops, and they got a deal. Everybody else’s prices are going up this time of year, but here, everybody’s trying to get rid of their inventory.”

Pure fun is the theme for the Halloween bash at which trick-or-treating and pub-based revelry begins with a Celtic-inspired stone toss, with a wish. For the sports minded, there’s the Great Turtle Half Marathon and 5.7-mile run/walk.

Photo by Todd Zawistowski

Mackinac Island Fall Travel Tips

Fort Mackinac closes for the season October 9, so book early in the month if fully interpreted history is what you’re looking for. The rest of the month, make your first stop the Island Bookstore, grab one of their many island history tales, then take a self-guided history tour.

Because of the tempering effect of water, color changes later on the island than the mainland. Wait until peak season has passed elsewhere, then use an island getaway as your color encore.

Cooler temperatures mean peppier horses, making this a great time to explore via horseback or carriage. Cindy’s Riding Stable offers horseback rides, self-guided or with a group. Or opt for the rare chance to drive your own carriage at Jack’s Livery Stable, where at least a little past experience with horses is recommended.

Bringing your bike along is the way to go if you plan to explore the inner island for even a half day. The extra $8 cost on your round-trip ferry ticket is roughly the equivalent of renting a bike on the island for an hour.

Fall offers double the reason to take a carriage ride up to Wawashkamo Golf Club—a one-time battlefield turned golf course in the island’s center. Some of the most colorful parts of the island are on British Landing Road, near the course, and the fall rates are steeply discounted.


Mackinac Island Lodging Deals

Lodging deals are reason enough to visit come fall. Almost all island hotels offer a tiered calendar with October rates at peak discount. At Mission Point Resort, for example, a mid-week Straits View room goes for almost half the standard July and August rates. Even better, weekends planned around such varied themes as romance and ghost hunting require a two-night stay, but toss in specialty tours, bike rentals and some meals with the rate.

Similarly great deals are offered at downtown’s popular Chippewa Hotel, with main street rooms and suites overlooking the harbor and popular Pink Pony Lounge also steeply discounted.

Those who’ve always wanted to try the Lighthouse Suite at Hotel Iroquois but didn’t want to spring for the rate might want to head there October 14–19, when the room’s offered at half off. For more:

This article was published in the October 2012 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

Northern Michigan Fall Color Tour Ideas

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski