The post I’ve been waiting on…. the top of all of our travels this Summer, the crème de la crème as it were…The Upper Peninsula. Where have we been so far? Well, we started in Niagara, Ontario, then headed over to Detroit, Michigan, before heading up North to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan…. a real gem of a spot. We spent two days (three nights) here and visited the not so hidden (but still kind of hidden) gem of Mackinac Island. Easily my favorite place of the entire trip. But more on that in the post.
Before we begin, I want to say something really quickly (this seems to be how it always goes…). We visited three “cities”: St. Ignace, Mackinaw City, and Mackinac Island. Because the region is so close together (in a way, obviously all three are separated by water) most of the history of the cities are intertwined. In fact, there is quite a bit of movement and overlap in each town’s history. I’ll begin by talking about the shared history of the “region” and then narrow in as we visit each spot together.
I also want to say- we stayed in St. Ignace at a Holiday Inn right on the lake. First off, I highly recommend St. Ignace as a “home base” of sorts. It’s less populated and much quieter. The ferry was a bit emptier (both ways) as not as many people are coming/going from that city. We also really liked our hotel. I know it’s a pricey region, but I recommend checking out St. Ignace as a place to stay.
So, this region is vastly claimed by the Anishinaabe people, made up of the Ottawa (Odawa), Ojibwe (Chippewa), and Potawatomi. These three tribes made what is known as The Council of Three Fires and they ruled the region they called Michilimackinac. There is actually quite a fascinating history that we learned about more tribes beyond those when we were in St. Ignace, to include Seneca, Mishinemacki, Huron, Iroquois and more. The first Europeans traveled to the region in the 1630’s, with a Catholic Mission and a priest by the name of Claude Dablon. The mission started on the island of Michilimackinac (Ojibwe “Big Turtle”) but was moved to St. Ignace in 1671 and then turned over to Jacques Marquette. The mission remained active in St. Ignace until 1705 when it was abandoned. In 1679 the first “official” fur trading post, Fort de Baude, was created by Louis Hannepin and it was active until it closed and moved to Fort Detroit in 1697. In 1715 we see the first European settlement in Mackinaw City, Fort Michilimackinac, which is actually moved to Mackinac Island in 1781.
There’s a “basic” overview of the early beginnings of the region. So much history in some of these places!
Our first day in the area we rose bright and early to catch one of the first ferries from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island to spend a day on the island. Before I get even into more history and what we did/saw/explored, I CANNOT stress enough that this is a place that HAS TO BE VISITED. You HAVE to explore the island and see it all. It’s incredible. Easily one of my top/favorite spots. Seriously. I will never not share about it; I will never shut up about it. Just incredible. Beautiful.
So, the Anishinaabe people thought the island itself looked like a Big Turtle, which is a good creature in their history, so they named the island “Mitchimakinak” meaning…Big Turtle. When the French arrived in the 1630’s they turned the name into “Michilimackinac” and then the British (in 1780) shortened it to what we now know as Mackinac. During the French & Indian War the British took control of the Island and Fort, creating Fort Mackinac (remember- they moved Fort Michilimackinac from Mackinaw City). At the end of the War, the Island was given to the USA with the Treaty of Paris, but British continued to keep forces there until 1794. During the War of 1812, the British took back control of the War and held on to it through another battle before relinquishing it back to the US with the Treaty of Ghent in 1815.
Around the mid 19th century, when the fur trade was starting to decline and sport fishing started to rise, Mackinac Island started to see a rise in tourism. Hotels started to be built (including the famed Grand Hotel) as well as summer “cottages”. Soon after stores and restaurants started to pop up on the main street to meet the demands. However, most of the island was still owned by the Federal Government and in 1875, thanks to lobbying by hometown senator Thomas Ferry, they declared that portion to become the second National Park (after Yellowstone). It only stayed a national park for 20 years when the land was transferred from Federal Ownership to State Ownership, and it became Michigan’s first state park. In 1898, after complaints by local residents over concerns to health and safety, all motor vehicles were BANNED from the island except for emergency services and snowmobiles. Only one other exception has been made, and that was Vice President Mike Pence’s motorcade.
The island itself has a circumference of 4.35 miles and it’s about an 8-mile perimeter. You are able to walk or bike or hire a horse drawn carriage and explore the entire perimeter of the island on the M-185- the only state highway with no motor vehicles. The entire Island is designated a National Historic Landmark (as of 1960), but there are also 9 sites within the island that have the National Register of Historic Places designation.
Ok, let’s talk logistics here…
We rented bikes to see the island. It only felt right- rent a couple bikes (plus a bike trailer for the boys) and just ride off into the sunset (except not really it was morning). There are several bike rental shops right off the ferry docks and they are all within the same, reasonable, price range. The real difference we saw was whether they included a bottle of water or other amenities or not. So, we picked our bikes up straight off the ferry and headed down Main Street. It is truly something to see- this whole village and not a single car of any sort. Sure, there was a golf cart or two transporting luggage or supplies from the dock to a hotel, but by and large you walked, took a horse taxi, or biked.
We biked the perimeter, stopping a couple times to read the signs that tell the history of the island, or to climb up to Arch Rock, or dip down to the water and enjoy the view and peaceful moments. It really just felt so peaceful and incredible, even on Main Street or in the picnic area, which is packed with people. Once we finished our perimeter we stopped for a quick bite, then took our bikes up the mountain and to the interior of the island. Stopping to see the exterior of the Grand Hotel, the Carriage House, and then up and onward to the highest point on the island. It was a total of 13.6 miles by bike and just one of the best days. We were so happy and tired and overjoyed by the end of it that I just knew it was a special place. The pictures don’t even do it justice, you just need to go. I promise it is worth it.
So, day 2 in the Upper Peninsula region we started off by walking through St. Ignace. I’ve touched on the history of the city originally, but it is very much steeped in the French Catholic Missionaries coming to try and convert the Native Americans who lived here at the time. We visited the Museum of the Ojibwa Culture, which highlighted the history of the people and the region, as well as the problem with the missionaries AND touched on the history of residential schools- which were such a big part of the region and the cultures history. We went from there down along the water just taking in the beauty of walking along the water.
Once we finished up, we hopped in the car and headed across the bridge to the northern tip of the “Lower Peninsula”, Mackinaw City. Fun fact, Mackinaw City serves as the terminus for the following: Dixie Highway, Mackinaw Trail, East Michigan Pike AND West Michigan Pike. Again, I’ve touched on some of the history, so let’s talk about the main attraction we visited, Fort Michilimackinac. After everything in the region (in terms of European colonization) disappeared in 1705, the French decided to reestablish a presence in 1713. They decided a fort was the right way to go and in 1715 Fort Michilimackinac was opened. They had a good fur trade, worked well with the tribes in the region, HOWEVER in 1761, after a loss in the French and Indian War, the British took control of the fort. The British kept the fort in place, but they stopped visiting and distributing gifts to the local tribes as the French had done. This led to the local tribes becoming resentful and angry at the British. Tensions rose until a full-on battle was waged called Pontiac’s War. Fort Michilimackinac had a small part to play in this war as there was a battle in June of 1763 in which a group of Ojibwe staged a game of baaga’adowe as a way to get into the fort, kill troops and take control. They succeeded and held the fort for almost a year before the British regained control (and kept it after starting to distribute gifts to the tribes once again). After the British decided to move the Fort to Mackinac Island, they moved several of the buildings that they wanted and then burned the rest of the fort to the ground.
These days most of the buildings on the fort are reconstructions, though through them you can also see portions of the buildings as they stood. The entire fort is an excavation and archeological site- considered one of the most extensively excavated sites in the U.S. It was pretty incredible to walk through the fort and learn the history- we could pinpoint where skirmishes and battles occurred and what led to them. The fort also did the really cool thing and highlighted a very important person…Ezekiel Solomon was one of the most active fur traders in the regions, but he was also the first Jewish Settler in Michigan. Originally from Berlin and having served in the British Army, he arrived at Fort Michilimackinac in 1761. He was in the fort during the battle with the Ojibwe in 1763, only narrowly missing execution. He often traveled to Montreal as part of the fur trade and became a member of Canada’s first Jewish Congregation before dying in 1808. Such a neat little historical fact and was really fun to not only learn about his life but see a recreation of his home!
And that really wrapped up our time in the Upper Peninsula! This was easily probably my favorite stop of our entire vacation (with Niagara a close second) as it was just so gorgeous. I highly, highly recommend it (if you couldn’t tell by now). It’s one of the most popular, prettiest areas for a reason.