On Michigan’s pristine Mackinac Island, your carriage is waiting on the dock for you. That’s because there are no motor vehicles (other than fire engines or ambulances) on this little 4-mile-long island in Lake Huron. And it’s been that way for more than 125 years.
Once you leave the ferry and arrive on Mackinac, you have three choices how to get anywhere: Walk, ride a bike, or let a horse take you. We know which one you’ll pick.
Mackinac (pronounced “MACK-in-awe”) holds the honor of being one of the last places where you can be around real working horses in an authentic and scenic setting, without the distraction of cars and trucks. Horses aren’t pets or pasture ornaments here; they own the roads and know their way around.
If you have any doubt how indispensable horses are, ask to see the horse-drawn trash wagon as it rolls through town.
The horses seem to know that the tourists “ooh” and “ahh” over them as much as over the spectacular scenery and views. Some horses have even learned to pose for photos—ears up on command!
Painters come here to paint horses. Sculptors come to sculpt horses. And everyone comes to roll along the scenic streets and trails behind a team and have their picture taken hugging, kissing, and patting the horse of their choice.
Day-trippers can wander through a town full of fun shops and restaurants or travel further afield to enjoy sparkling lake vistas and a craggy coastline. But scenery here takes many forms, so your selfie options are endless. Who wouldn’t want their photo taken with the spectacular Arch Rock in the background?
You won’t find any chain hotels or motels on Mackinac Island, but you will find a long list of charming guest houses and inns. Your innkeeper will be your best source for information, weather forecasts, and how to find cell signals and free Wi-Fi around the island.
If you prefer a more luxurious experience, the opulent Grand Hotel boasts the longest porch in the world, plus a pristine antique carriage and sleigh museum. (The museum and Grand Stables are open to all, even if you’re not staying overnight.)
Carriages pull up at the door, teamsters in top-hat livery make deliveries, and guests fall asleep and wake up to the sound of hoofbeats on the drive, or a whinny from a nearby field. By the way, that might be one of the hotel’s many celebrity guests rocking in the chair next to you.
Also be sure to check the Mackinac Horseman’s Association website to see if they are hosting a show or other horse event while you’re on the island.
History and Horses
Given its location on the Canadian border, Mackinac has played important roles in American history over the centuries, but is now predominantly a fun, friendly, and interesting destination. Mackinac is a gem for summer visitors.
In winter, this is one of the most northern points in the USA—with weather to match. In older times, sleds had to cross the frozen lake from the mainland in winter to bring hay for the horses.
Horses are the biggest import to the island: 500 of them, to be precise. Mostly draft horses, they are ferried across the lake each spring to go to work moving things and people around the island once the ice in the lake melts. The day they arrive is quite a sight!
It’s OK if you don’t know your “gee” from your “haw” in driving lingo. Not all the horses on the island are harnessed. It’s also fun to pick out the resident saddle horses. You might see colorful Paints and Appaloosas, as well as a great selection of breeds in pastures and on bridle paths or tied to one of the horse-head hitching posts.
This is also one of the few places where you can see Hackney Ponies pulling carriages.
Riding on Mackinac Island
To answer your question—yes, you can go for a ride. You’ll find several options. You might want to bring your own helmet, but don’t expect your companions to be experienced equestrians (unless you’re lucky). People come to Mackinac to be around horses, and it will be fun for you to watch new friends fall in love with your favorite animal!
Horses may be the biggest import to the island each year, but there’s no contest about the biggest export. The island is famous for its fudge, and visitors take home lots of it. There’s even a fudge festival each summer, as well as a spectacular lilac festival each June. Nature puts on a spectacular foliage display each fall for those who enjoy brisk air.
Top 5 Tips For Mackinac Island Visitors
1. Book the guest house or inn of your dreams well in advance.
2. Pack smart: Bring comfortable walking shoes, a hat, sunscreen, windbreaker for the ferry ride, and a backpack-type bag for stowing your lunch while hiking, biking or riding.
3. Do your homework. Study up on the Native American history of the Great Lakes region, U.S. relations with British Canada after the Revolutionary War, and why the fur trade was so important in earlier days.
4. Bring a map with you and learn how to call a taxi (horse-drawn, of course). There is no Uber! Just remember, it could take a while for the cab horses to reach you. If you’re not spending the night, remember that the ferry won’t wait.
5. Cell service and Wi-Fi are not guaranteed, nor are electrical outlets for charging your phone or camera. Be prepared!
Mackinac Island is horse heaven in the middle of the Great Lakes. It’s not close to anywhere, except to the hearts of all who have visited and hope to return.