Mackinac Island in winter is not the Mackinac Island you know. The cold bites. The wind scrapes. Downtown sleeps. Snowmobiles rule. But those who have experienced it, even just for a weekend, know: Winter is the best season of all.

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“Don’t let go,” I repeat to myself, gripping the icy railing of the rolling ferry. Winter Storm Olive is raging as we cross the Straits of Mackinac, its path extending 1,600 miles, wreaking havoc from Montana to Maine with heavy snows and freezing rain. More than 1,000 flights have been canceled. In Michigan alone, 700,000 homes and businesses are without power.

The 150-ton steel-hulled Huron is the only ferry that makes the trip between Mackinac Island and the St. Ignace mainland in winter—when the ice allows. Islanders depend on it to bring supplies over, as do commuting workers who only have a few precious months during the off season to complete construction projects and repairs at shops and hotels. Her nickname, “Mighty Huron,” is well earned.

I’m depending on her, too, to get me across. On this February day, the temperature hovers around 17 degrees. With the wind chill, it feels a heck of a lot colder. Visibility is low. An endless expanse of white engulfs the Huron as she battles 30-mph gusts shrieking across stretches of ice. As we get farther out, the chunks of ice start to recede, giving way to churning slate-gray waves.

No wonder I’m laughing uncontrollably, my expression varying from glee to fear and back again. I probably look like a maniac—but fortunately, no one else is outside on the deck to see me. The tradespeople—aka the “Carhartt Army”—on this morning’s trip have made the crossing countless times before. They’re seasoned pros seated in the heated cabin. But the windows are frosted, and I want to see the island the moment she comes into view. I’ve missed her.

I’ve taken ferries to Mackinac Island dozens of times, but only ever during the rush of summer. In college, I worked at Fort Mackinac and The Island Bookstore. I crisscrossed the island’s interior on my days off, hiking trails with names like Tranquil Bluff, Trillium and Morning Snack (don’t mind if I do). I biked M-185 at night, a flashlight strapped to my handlebars. I ducked under swooping bats that found their way into employee housing hallways. I watched the Perseids flash above Arch Rock. I made friends, crushed on dockporters and, like many, fell deeply in love with this place.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

This trip is a little gift to myself. I’ve never seen Mackinac tucked in for winter, when downtown businesses are closed up tight against relentless winds and the throngs of summer visitors, and bikes and carriage tours give way to a tight-knit group of residents. Parents pick their children up after school via snowmobile. The community theater company puts on productions like Little Shop of Horrors, and Saturday night karaoke fills every seat at the Kingston—hotel employees preparing for the season to come; a table of firefighters who spent the day training at Mission Point Resort; locals who live year-round on Mackinac and islanders whose family ties go back for generations.

The quiet transforms this familiar place into something entirely new.

I want to walk my favorite trails now hidden under thick blankets of snow. I want to follow the headlights of a snowmobile to the glow of a bar. I want to watch the sun rise over sparkling ice on Lake Huron. I want to experience the hush of Mackinac.

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo by Allison Jarrell

What’s Open During Winter on Mackinac Island

A handful of hardy businesses remain open for travelers year-round. Explore lodging, dining and transportation options below.

Mackinac Island Winter Lodging

Above Mackinac Condos | 906.847.3614
Pontiac Lodge | 906.847.3364
Village Inn Suites | 906.847.8077

Mackinac Island Winter Dining

Doud’s Market & Deli | 906.847.3444
Island Slice Pizzeria | 906.847.8100
Mustang Lounge | 906.847.9916
Kingston Kitchen | 906.847.3542

Mackinac Island Winter Transportation

Fresh Air Aviation |  Reservations required: 231.237.9482
Mackinac Island Ferry Company | Until the route freezes over: 906.643.7635
Taxi Service | Reservations required: 906.847.3323

Photo by Allison Jarrell

Photo(s) by Allison Jarrell