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. Before you head over to the island, make sure to also explore Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City.

This article was featured in the 2021 Traverse Magazine Vacation Guide. Download your free digital issue today to experience the full guide for yourself.

Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island

Founded in 1780, Fort Mackinac sits on a limestone bluff overlooking the island’s downtown and the wild waters of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. 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 thanks to costumed interpreters. Hear the wicked crack of a rifle fired by a 19th-century American soldier and quick-step to the parade grounds, where you’re likely to catch a cannon-firing demonstration or a court-martial reenactment.

Bagpipes, fifes, bugles and drums play in the background as you make your way through the fort’s exhibits. Grab lunch at the Fort Mackinac Tea Room, which is run by Grand Hotel.

Fire the Fort Mackinac Cannon | Reserve (at least three days in advance) your chance to clean, load and fire the fort cannon. The experience is open to one person every morning. 

More About Fort Mackinac

Visiting Fort Mackinac is like taking a trip back in time to the 18th century. 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 the island’s slim profile slowly emerge as your boat motors across the water. Once you’ve landed, march up Fort Street to Fort Mackinac’s South Sally entrance and get ready to enter another era. Arrive early to watch local scout troops slowly raise the American flag to signal the fort’s opening.

Photo by Kelly Rewa

Photo by Kelly Rewa

At the Post Headquarters, visitors can 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 hospital and follow a 19th-century physician on his rounds.

Admission fees for Fort Mackinac are as follows: $13.50 for adults, $8 for children ages 5–12. Admission also includes The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum and the Historic Downtown Mackinac buildings.

Fort Holmes on Mackinac Island

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.

Visitors on Mackinac Island can now visit the recently reconstructed fort, which can be found one 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.

The fort sits at the highest point on Mackinac Island—the views of neighboring Round Island and the Straits are absolutely incredible.

Photo by Kelly Rewa

Fort Mackinac + Missionary Bark Chapel can be accessed off Fort Street. 

Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City

It’s called Colonial Michilimackinac, but this hub of Great Lakes history (tucked on the Straits of Mackinac in the shadow of the Mackinac Bridge) is all about Fort Michilimackinac. Constructed in 1715 by French soldiers and fur traders, the fort fell into British hands in 1761. It was abandoned during the American Revolution when British troops built and occupied Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island.

Nowadays, the grounds within the stockades are abuzz with costumed interpreters. See British soldiers giving rifle demonstrations, firing the fort cannon and other costumed interpreters offering craft and wood-fire cooking demonstrations. Visitors can even watch the ongoing archeological dig that goes on each summer within the fort walls.

Guns Across the Straits | In this special program, visitors at least 13 years old can reserve a chance to fire two kinds of muskets, a mortar and the fort cannon. The experience is only open to one person a day and costs $115.

More About Colonial Michilimackinac

Located on the mainland in Mackinaw City, this third fort overlooks the Straits of Mackinac. Like Fort Mackinac, Colonial Michilimackinac is an open-air museum where you’ll find riveting re-enactments, interactive displays and knowledgeable interpreters.

The fort has been reconstructed based on historic maps and more than 50 years of archaeological excavations, which still continue today. Admission fees to Colonial Michilimackinac: $12.50 for adults, $7.50 for children ages 5–12.

Fun facts to share with kids about Mackinac Island forts and Colonial Michilimackinac.

Photo by Kelly Rewa

Find this article and more in the 2021 issue of the Traverse Magazine Vacation Guide. If you’re not subscribed to Traverse Magazine, you can download the Vacation Guide for free.

Photo(s) by Kelly Rewa