Mackinac Island, located in the straits between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, is a hiker’s paradise. More than 70 miles of trails are ready to meet the tread of your hiking shoes as you explore this nature lover’s playground. Best known for fudge, forts, horses and lack of cars, its hidden secret is that 80 percent of the island is a state park with limestone bluffs, gorgeous vistas and thriving woodlands. In fact, Mackinac Island was named the second National Park in 1875, a few years after Yellowstone. It became the first Michigan State Park 20 years later.

As Michigan natives we’d been to the island numerous times, but until recently hadn’t explored beyond downtown’s hub of shops, restaurants and pubs. To discover its natural side we set out to see just how much average, novice hikers could accomplish in a day. What we learned is that trails vary in difficulty from easy to strenuous, some are paved while others are little more than dirt paths, and all of them can be navigated—some by carriage, horseback and bicycle—as well as on foot.

Leaving the hustle and bustle of Main Street we headed to Marquette Park where, tucked in the far back corner, we located a wooden staircase and the start of our hiking adventure. Around the island you’ll find these staircases for access between the bluff and the shore. Some take you to lookouts, others to historic spots or geological formations. (It’s pretty much a good bet when you come across one, to dig deep and climb the staircases to see where they lead. Our legs may have ached and we may have been a bit out of breath, but we were never disappointed by what we discovered.)

We ascended the stairs and found ourselves in a vibrant, green forest. The sounds of Main Street faded away, save the occasional clip- clop of horse hooves on the distant pavement.

Hiking the trails to large stacked limestone formations doesn’t sound very exciting until you see them. Arch Rock, the most popular of the breccia stacks, frames a stunning water view about 150 feet above Lake Huron. The 75-foot-tall, freestanding Sugar Loaf is an easy hike away. Friendship’s Altar is located a good distance to the north side of the island off Tranquil Bluff Trail. You can pick up the route at Arch Rock and enjoy a scenic hike as it curves along the bluff to near British Landing.

A number of caves exist on the island, but leave your spelunking gear at home, as they are small and shallow. The most popular is Skull Cave, located near Fort Holmes and Arch Rock. It’s an interesting feature with a Native American story that’s told on an interpretive panel.

You’ll find the Crack in the Island adjacent to Cave of the Woods. This hidden gem is exactly what it says. A crack in the limestone, once thought to be bottomless, is now a shallow rut that, while deep enough to stand in, can easily be jumped across.

One of the many great things about hiking the island trails is they always lead to stunning overlooks, interesting formations or historic landmarks. Along the way you’ll enjoy a vibrant woodland resplendent with colorful wildflowers, scampering small wildlife and songful birds.

After spending the day exploring and climbing one too many staircases, we dragged our weary bodies back to town to refuel. The excitement of seeing another side of Mackinac Island had us in good spirits, and we now understood why it recently made Condé Nast Traveler’s list of the 10 Best Islands in the U.S.

Lace Up Your Boots

It’s worth the $2 fee for the Mackinac State Historic Park visitor’s guide with its background information, detailed trail maps and seven themed tour itineraries for exploring its 3.8 square miles.

Mackinac Island highlights to check off:

  • Skull Cave
  • Cave of the Woods
  • Eagles Point Cave
  • Devil’s Kitchen
  • Arch Rock
  • Sugar Loaf
  • Friendship’s Altar
  • Sunset Rock
  • Point Lookout
  • Fort Holmes
  • Anne’s Tablet
  • British Landing
  • Fort Holmes
  • Battlefield of 1814
  • Lime Kiln Ruins

Photos by Kath Usitalo (left) and Deb Thompson (top and bottom right)

This article originally appeared in the 2019 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


Deb Thompson shares tales of girlfriend getaways, solo travel and wine and culinary experiences. She creates travel content at and is the co-owner of Social Influencer Media.

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