The most popular tourist destination in the Great Lakes becomes a have-it-to-yourself secret snow sports destination come winter. Fat tires, XC skis, snowshoes and you—you’re welcome! Go on a Mackinac Island winter vacation and discover the intimate side of this summer isle.
This story is featured in the December 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!
Reaching back into my memory bank I recognize that, for me, the things that end up being truly lasting and exciting all start in the same way—as an image. Figurative or literal, imagery is a huge motivator for me—big surprise since I’m a photographer, right? My desire to experience Mackinac Island started out this way, too.
I should admit that I have not been to Mackinac Island since a grade-school field trip. I often pass by popular tourist areas on my way to some far-flung or hard-to-reach locale. I am a wilderness junkie, I am stubborn, and I thoroughly enjoy traveling to places that are hard to reach. Mackinac Island, Michigan’s most renowned tourist destination, has not been on my radar. This I discovered, is unfortunate.
A photography scouting trip brought me to Mackinaw City. I found myself strolling the streets long after sunset, with a fall chill in the September air. Totally unprepared for cold, I strolled from shop to shop hunting for a new sweater. After much hunting and now comfy in my new sweater, I did something I don’t usually do: I walked toward the busiest parts of this bustling town. Alone, I sat and people-watched, and to my surprise, I had a wonderful time. As the crowds thinned, I too moved on. Finding a vantage point just west of town I began to photograph the Mighty Mac.
Warm in my sale-rack sweater, I sat on the brisk shoreline feeling pleased and warm. Looking past the bridge I noticed the flickering lights of the Grand Hotel floating above the horizon. I wondered if there were people looking at that same bridge from that small little rock. Thinking back to my childhood trip to the isle, I couldn’t remember what the bridge looked like from that distant shore. This single thought was enough to get me to purchase a ferry ticket the next day.
Being back on Mackinac Island surprised me. A warm fall breeze was filtering through the streets and there were not the bustling, fudge-fueled kids and families I had remembered. Instead they had been replaced by smiling couples and small groups of friends hiking and exploring this unique island treasure. A bike seemed like the obvious method of transportation to try, and a quick stop at a bike rental shop had me pedaling around the island on my own set of wheels. Traveling by bike, I was able to move quickly and hit several scenic sites. I enjoyed traveling by highway along the water with such a wonderful view. I even stopped to enjoy some food and libations.
Contently fat and sassy, I hopped back on to my bike to cruise in the evening air. This little island felt far different from what I’d expected. I even allowed my wilderness-seeking self to admit it felt very special. After returning the bike, I strolled to the ferry dock in time to hop aboard the last boat. The sun set as we motored slowly out of the marina and around the last jetty. I was sad to leave after such a short respite. I couldn’t wait to return. I mulled this experience over in my head for some time. I liked the remoteness and the simplicity of the island, something my backcountry-badass attitude made me blind to earlier. This is what surprised me.
Just then a silly thought popped into my head: the island would be perfect for me in the winter! I remembered some pictures a buddy had shared with me of an ice road that led from St. Ignace to the island during cold winters. My friend Tyler and his wife, Lindsay, had ridden fat-tire bikes across the frozen road one extra-bright and beautiful winter morning.
As I roamed the island with the fall chill in the air, I became nearly ecstatic over the thought of returning to the island in winter, hopefully by fat bike as icing on the cake! I called Tyler to learn more details. By the time the first flakes were falling, we had a group and a rough plan to explore the wilds of Mackinac Island in one of the most wonderful seasons Michigan has to offer.
Fortunate to be the first of the group to head to the island, I woke to single-digit temperatures outside. Despite this fact, there was little ice between where I was standing on the mainland ferry dock and the island. So little ice was on the lake that the ferries were running almost unfettered. Aboard the ferry we made a slight deviation to the western shore of the island to avoid an ice floe that could be an issue near the entrance of the island marina. The ferry ride was amazing, however, the sun just breaking the horizon and bathing everything in amber. Moving in and out of the sun’s warmth brought chills to my body.
If there’s too much ice for the ferries, here’s how to fly to Mackinac Island.
Approaching the island’s west side, the blanket of snow made it look surreal and undisturbed. Due to some floe ice, we headed north around the island and had the chance to view Arch Rock from the water, an added and unexpected treat. Past Arch Rock the centuries-old churches edged into view. I was unsure if this ride had taken me to Mackinac Island or if I had ended up in some kind of snow globe fairytale. From the ferry, my eyes scanned the streets, and I noticed a sleigh pulled by horses, no reindeer. That is still a pretty fantastic sight.
When the door drops at the dock, carpenters in cold-weather work clothes walk off the boat and disperse to all corners of the town. Not a tourist in sight. I hoist my gear and head off into the streets. My first impression: It seemed that every bike from summer had been replaced by a snowmobile. Most of the brightly colored shops are boarded and under repair, worn from the rigors of island weather and tourist traffic. All construction and renovation happens all at once in the most brutal of months here. Looking up I see roofers shingling. I shake my head and zip my coat tighter. These people are tough!
I meet up with our hostess from Mission Point Resort, Liz Ware, who is holding her snowmobile helmet under the arm of her Carhartt snowsuit. She conveys a spirit that is as hardy as the workers’ and she is also insanely friendly and welcoming. Mission Point is not open in the winter, but she had graciously offered to set up my posse and me in the inn’s Straits Lodge. She asks me to forgive “the mess” being created by a 100-room renovation project. We head back to the docks to greet my friends as they disembark from the next couple of boats, take time to get settled in our rooms and head for dinner.
For the indecisive, Mackinac Island is a wonderful place in wintertime. One grocery store, one taxi service, two restaurants. We catch word that it is trivia night at Cawthorne’s Village Inn, and the decision about evening activity is sealed. After a couple rounds of beer and questions, “the fudgies” (that’d be us) are holding their own against the locals.
I walk up to the bar to snag the next round of beverages and start chatting with an older gentlemen who asks if we are the ones doing a story about the island in winter. Word travels fast in small communities. I bumble through some explanation with an apology for being a tourist in the island’s off season. He laughs and says, “No, this time of year you are not a tourist, you’re a guest.” He ends this comment with a very genuine smile, which I return.
For transportation, aside from walking and horse-drawn taxi rides, we had snowshoes, and cross-country skis available from Cawthorne’s (no longer open in winter—bring your own), and fat-tire Mountain Bikes from Mackinac Wheels (call ahead to reserve). The island’s wintertime outdoor activity potential, we were fast discovering, was vast! We chose fat bikes and set off to explore some of the groomed trails we had heard the local residents talking about.
The day was gray but beautiful in its own middle-of-the–Great Lakes way. In the woods, the light spilled in. There was an energy in the air that suggested snow was about to erupt and pour from the sky to blanket the forest. The fun-factor was high as we explored all the island favorites.
All the sites you are used to seeing in summer—rocky features like Sugar Loaf, Arch Rock, cliffs and caves—and historical relics—like Fort Mackinac, Fort Holmes, churches and Victorian houses—take on a whole new life covered in the shimmering white. Best part, we had these places and all that outstanding riding to ourselves. Unbelievably, fat bikes have not caught on here—despite the snow, lack of cars and good riding along the shore and inland trails. Thankfully there are some island diehards who love their skiing, and there are miles of trails groomed for cross-country skiing, and as long as we were respectful, we were met with only smiles when pedaling on the groomed skate-skiing trails that parallel the classic tracks.
Seeing the ribbons of trail winding through miles of forest boosted our anticipation to boot up and get on our XC skis the following day. We skied up to East Bluff for a view of the marina and village in winter white. We snowshoed to the Crack in the Island. We saw no people, well, two skiers, once, all weekend.
In total we spent three amazing days on the island. We all stayed as long we could manage, catching our last possible ferry rides before being forced back into “the real world.” On my journey across the Straits to the mainland, I was not shy at breaking liquid bread with some construction workers who offered me a very cold Pabst. After all, It was after five and they had certainly earned it. Maybe I had too? These gentlemen were curious what the heck this techy-clothed geek was doing on the island. I certainly stood out. I explained my surprise, surprise in the wholesome, small town feel. My surprise in the potential for wintertime activities. Finishing my beer I did reflect back, I did feel lucky to have rediscovered this special chunk of rock, to be able to share it with good people and I truly did feel like a guest not just a tourist.
Erik Olsen shoots active lifestyle and commercial photography from Traverse City. [email protected]
Mackinac Island Ferries, Lodging + Events
Mackinac Island Tree Lighting // December 1
Mackinac Island Christmas Bazaar // December 2–4 (activities, rummage sale fundraiser)
New Year’s Eve // December 31 (celebrate at Mustang Lounge and Seabiscuit)
Mackinac Island Winter Festival // February 3–4, 2018
Sainte Anne Catholic Church // Service at 10:30 a.m., Sundays.
Mackinac Island Bible Church // Service at 10:30 a.m., Sundays. (Meet at the church office building, 6688 Main Street.)
Bogan Lane Inn // Open all winter, but closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Day, and March 30 thru April 1. From $100. 906.847.3439.
Cottage Inn // Open December 1–21 and December 27–31. Rooms from $110. 906.847.4000.
Lilac Tree Suites and Spa // Open December 1–2 and December 29–31. From $229. 866.847.6575.
Pontiac Lodge and Village Inn Suites // Open all winter, but closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and day, and Easter. From $100. 906.847.3364.
Great Lakes Air // Mackinac County Airport, St. Ignace, 906.643.7165.
Mustang Lounge // 906.847.9916
Seabiscuit Café // 906.847.3611
Mackinac Wheels for bikes // 517.575.8585; call to reserve
fat tire bikes. Bring your own snowshoes and cross-country skis.