Northern Michigan Events: The 105th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac Island is a freshwater boating tradition like no other. Hundreds of boats and thousands of crewmembers are set to take off from the Chicago Lighthouse starting line Friday through Saturday afternoon. Because of the various boat sizes and their speeds (larger boats are generally faster), you’ll be able to see the competition pan out throughout the weekend. Boats come into Mackinac Island as early as Sunday afternoon and as late as Wednesday; therefore, from Saturday night through Tuesday handsome sailboats will be ornamenting the Northern Michigan coastline. There is not a single route that boats take, but traditionally, most hover around the historic Rhumb Line that hugs Michigan’s West coast. Most boats do however converge at the Manitou Passage, along the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

But how, you wonder, will you know when to grab the binoculars? In addition to Facebook updates (like their page: Chicago Yacht Club-Race to Mackinac), live tracking on the race website, and a play-by-play commentator, this year you can use your smartphone or tablet to track the fleet. The Race Committee is offering free subscriptions to the race on the Yellow Brick Tracking Device (also free). After downloading this app, you can locate either individual vessels or determine when a substantial portion of the field will be passing through your area.

Here are some Northern Michigan spots along the way for spectating bliss:

Empire Bluffs

Only a 1.5 mile round-trip hike, a post-supper sunset hike is a summer must, especially during “The Mac”. High above the waters of Lake Michigan, the bluff-side overlook has incomparable views of the Manitou’s, South Bar Lake, and, this weekend, sailboats steadily gliding northward.

The trailhead is just south of Empire on Wilco Road.

Glen Haven Beach

Have your binoculars handy as you lounge at one of Sleeping Bear’s prime beach spots. This sandy stretch only a few miles south of Glen Arbor has some of the best views of South and North Manitou in Leelanau County. A lull in the sailing action? Pop into Glen Haven’s old-fashioned general store for penny candy or, fittingly, learn about Great Lakes maritime history in the beachside museum.

Pyramid Point

Follow the curves of Port Oneida Road (just north of Glen Arbor) until you reach the dirt drive to Pyramid Point’s trailhead. It’s less than a mile climb to the top, where hundreds of feet below Lake Michigan’s bright blue waves lap at the dune’s base. On a clear day, you can usually make out the famous Crib bobbing in the water and the crumpled shapes of the Manitou Islands. After watching some of the boats pass by, take a detour on your hike down through the shady forest trail (a bit longer, but it eventually wraps around back to the parking lot.)

Manitou Islands

Arguably one of the better viewing spots along the race route, the Manitou Islands are literally in the center of the action. Make sure to plan ahead and book reservations with Manitou Transit (, the Leland-based boating service that ferries visitors to both South and North Manitou. Climb the 200 or so stairs up to South Manitou’s lighthouse for top-of-the-world views or pack a picnic for a makeshift lakeside tailgate.

Leland Harbor

Historically, Leland’s Lake Michigan harbor is one of the only “safe harbors” for boats on the state’s Northwest coast. Hopefully 2013's racing boats won’t have to stop here, but Leland’s shore is still a superb viewing location. Make a day of it by renting paddleboards or kayaks from local Harbor House Trading Company, paddling on the water as the sailboats fly by. 

Peterson Park in Northport

One of the best sunset picnic spots in the North, Northport’s Peterson Park entices with a picnic area, kid’s playground set, and stairs down to a Petoskey-stone peppered beach. Take a sunset stroll along the Lake Michigan beach or simply set out chairs for front-row seats as the race approaches the top of Leelanau Peninsula.

Mackinac Island

What better way to watch the race than see the sailor’s relieved faces and the colorful sails finally landing in Mackinac’s harbor? Post-race parties on the Grand Hotel’s Front Porch, crowds gathering at the finish, and boats filling Mackinac’s docks elevate Mackinac Island beyond its usual summertime perfection. Looking for a place to spend a night or two? Besides the always-memorable Grand Hotel, try Lake Michigan-facing Iroquis only a few steps away.

For the complete 2013 Guide to the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac Island, click here!

Photo(s) by Michelle Almeida