Less than a day away, Mackinaw Island & the Soo Locks offer a great getaway with something to do for the entire family. Whether it's a relaxing time along the lake, a stroll back in time on the Island or an interesting trip through the locks, there's plenty to do in this Upper Michigan area. And it's easy to get to... simply go north on I-75 and when you see the big bridge, you are there.
This summer marked the fiftieth anniversary of the completion of the Mackinac Bridge. At one time the bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Today, it is still the longest bridge over fresh water. To celebrate the bridge's birthday, there were several boat trips under the 550+ foot tall structure. You really can't imagine the size of it until you are at water's level looking up nearly 200 feet to the bridge's deck.
Mackinaw City offers plenty to do while you are visiting there. The area is probably best known for its fudge; during the busy summer season, it is estimated that, on average, five TONS of fudge are sold in the city and on the island daily! But there's more than just fudge. The area offers plenty of souvenir shopping with plenty of postcards, T-shirts, and other gift items for the folks back home. One also has many dining options from the quick sandwich in a small sandwich shop to a complete meal served at one of the area's many restaurants.
Lakes Michigan and Huron were connected to each other by the Straits of Mackinaw. These straits were treacherous for the early sailors and there are several shipwrecks at the bottom of the Straits to prove the point. So, in order to protect the shipping and the sailors, a series of lighthouses was constructed along the Straits. But unlike many lighthouses in other areas, these didn't have to be so tall because there were several of them. The Mackinaw Light is located at the point, just east of the south end of the bridge. Be sure to take the tour and speak with the lighthouse keeper for more interesting stories of lighthouses & shipping along the Straits.
Many of the nation's large motel & hotel chains offer comfortable lodging in the area. You can also choose from many smaller, privately owned motels or even choose one of the several bed & breakfasts in the area. Wherever you decide to stay, there will be plenty for you to do and you won't be too far from all that the area has to offer.
A short drive east and south of Mackinaw City takes you to Mill Creek State Park. Here, you can see a demonstration of wood cutting from days gone by. First, the presenters show how logs were cut by hand using a two-man saw. Then, the water powered mill is used to demonstrate how the tedious and labor intensive task was made much quicker. The area also offers several hiking trails and exhibits for those interested in the natural aspects of the area.
But the big attraction in the area is the island itself. The boat trip to the island from any of the three ferry lines that serves the area takes about 15-20 minutes. Once there, you take a bit of a step back in time as there are no motorized vehicles on the Island. The only exception to this rule is for emergency vehicles which are kept well out of site unless they are needed. Instead, people either walk, ride one of hundreds of bicycles on the island or tour in horse-drawn carriages. Again, food and accommodations on the island go from the plain & simple all the way up to the five-star level. Be sure to see the Grand Hotel which is the world's largest seasonal hotel and also has one of the longest continuous porches. But keep in mind that if you plan to stay there, rooms start at $250 per night.
Any of the carriage rides offered by the Michigan State Parks will take you to many of the interesting places on the Island. Arch Rock is a popular stop on these tours but may not be much longer. According to our tour guide, geologists have noticed a slow but steady deterioration of the arch over the years. At first, efforts were made to patch it to try to preserve it a little longer. While the concrete did hold, the exposed areas continued to erode due to natural causes. So, it is estimated that in as little as another fifty or sixty years, Arch Rock will simply crumble and cease to exist. But it is a must see in the meantime.
The carriage rides end at old Fort Mackinaw. From here, soldiers (and today's tourists) have a commanding view of the town below and the Straits of Mackinaw. The fort has a rather long & colorful history. This history is shared by many of the reinactors who are stationed there. During the day, you may witness a variety of "soldiering" activities including a parade grounds drill, musket firing, cannon firing and even a court martial. But soldiers aren't the only people stationed at the fort. There are also ladies decked in period dresses who are willing to be a part of your picture taking.
The island is also home to a large number of Boy Scouts who are invited to work there by the Governor of the State of Michigan. These scouts assist the fort's staff and do a lot to make the many guests & visitors feel welcome. Interestingly, one of the first scouts to work at the fort on Mackinaw Island was Gerald R. Ford who went on to become the 38th President of the United States.
While Arch Rock and Old Fort Mackinaw were highlights of our carriage tour, perhaps the most interesting part of it was our stop at the Butterfly Conservatory. If you have never visited one, it is a lot of fun for the entire family. We went into a greenhouse that was filled with exotic plants and... butterflies! They were free to flit around and land on most anything anywhere they desired. They particularly liked my straw hat and my daughter's flowered blouse. We were told that new butterflies had to be constantly released in the area as they only lived for 3-10 days. While the visit was an "add on" to our tour, it was well worth the money.
About 45 miles north of Mackinaw City & the Mackinac Bridge is Sault St. Marie, Michigan. This is home to the Soo Locks. The difference in water levels between Lake Superior and Lake Huron is approximately 21 feet. The Soo Locks were built to allow ships to pass safely through the area and avoid the rapids. Without the locks, there would be no shipping from Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes.
A visit to the Soo Locks is not complete without taking a boat tour around and through the locks. The trip lasts about two hours and offers a unique perspective of how the locks work as you actually pass through them just like the large lake freighters do. The tour also includes a close-up inspection of the Algoma Steel Corporation's plant from the water. A ride back through the Canadian locks completes the tour.
While Upper Michigan is too far away to be considered as a "day trip," the area is certainly close enough for a 4- or 5-day quick getaway. And with the variety of things to do there, no one will be bored for long.
Enjoy your visit!
By Dan Merkel, electronic sales representative