Who says history has to be boring?
Fort Mackinac’s history can be traced back to the American Revolution, when the British decided that Fort Michilimackinac—originally built by the French in what is now Mackinaw City—would be better guarded on Mackinac Island.
In 1780, the British moved their post across the Straits. And news must have traveled slowly, for they held the island fort until 1796, 13 years after Mackinac Island became the property of the US government.
And still, the fort would switch hands a couple of times more before the US assumed final control following the War of 1812. Fort Mackinac remained active until 1895, when Mackinac Island became a state park.
Today, the fort operates in an entirely different capacity—an unmistakable living artifact in the island’s day-to-day operation and welcoming of new faces.
The fort is open through Sept. 3,2023, from 9:30 a.m.-7 p.m. and with more limited hours afterward. Adults get in for $15.50, and children 5-12 get in for $9.25.
Here’s what to do and what to see at Fort Mackinac. And if you exhaust this list, take a trip across the straits and back in time to Fort Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City, the preserved predecessor to Fort Mackinac, still set in 1780.
See Live Demonstrations
If you’re going to the fort, you should plan your trip to stop in when there’s a live demonstration or reenactment. These well-rehearsed history lessons cover rifle and cannon firings, and parades on the ground. They’re also quite true to how the fort used to function centuries ago. Find a schedule of events here.
Witness the Morning Cannon Firing, or Set It Off Yourself
Some towns wake to the rooster’s crow. When staying on Mackinac Island, your alarm clock is more likely to be a cannon blast.
You can visit and witness the opening round of the day. Or you can fire off the cannon yourself, with the help of staff. Firing off the cannon costs $75 and includes the price of admission.
Find more info on firing the cannon, including times for the first shot here.
Experience the Soldiers’ Barracks
The soldiers’ barracks is located at the center of the fort and is also the center of many attractions at Fort Mackinac. The second floor features a special exhibit about the region’s history, and the first floor features a movie about the island’s heritage. You’ll also find bathrooms here and a rustic porch to relax on; this is also where you’ll want to head for the live demonstration.
Grab Some Tea and
Sit outside if you can, and enjoy a cup of tea. The Fort Mackinac Tea Room is located on the lowest level of the Officers’ Stone Quarters and provides an uninterrupted gaze toward downtown and Mackinac Bridge. (The tea is delicious and served in china as well.) The price point isn’t bad considering the view and the location, and the lunch offerings pack a punch as well.
Immerse Yourself in History
On July 17, 1812, the British surrounded Fort Mackinac before the American soldiers occupying it were even aware that a new war had broken out. Today, the north blockhouse walls feature a video exhibit that imagines the conundrum of Porter Hanks, the American lieutenant who waved the white flag before any bloodshed ensued. The short video presentation begs the question: What would you have done in Hanks’ shoes?
Visit Vintage Homes
For all its military history, Fort Mackinac is as much a time capsule that has preserved life in the mid-19th century. Visit the officers’ quarters, and you’ll see the happy and sad times of military couples stationed at Fort Mackinac and raising their children here. Their bedrooms, kitchens, and living spaces are recreated in excellent vintage, leaving you to imagine their morning views in the mid-to-late 1800s.
Play Games at the Kids’ Quarters
The kids’ quarters offer a nice break from the stoicism of history for the whole family. You’ll find fun mannequins and interactive exhibits here that are lively and engaging.
This exhibit is located within the officers’ stone quarters, the oldest surviving building in Michigan. Stop by before or after the tea room.
Enjoy the Views
Bring your camera or binoculars and enjoy the views. Fort Mackinac may be barricaded in by spiked wooden posts, but you’ll still find blockhouses and posts. Perfect for the guards bearing rifles of days past—or tourists armed with smartphone cameras of today. The southwestern corner and cannon outcropping offer the best vistas, but you can’t go wrong with any view of Mackinac Island.
Stop by the Reading Room, Medical Quarters, and Post Guardhouse
Fort Mackinac is a place where visitors can beef up on their history. The reading room has preserved copies of rare books and 1880s newspapers, while the post guardhouse allows you to explore criminal justice on the island—where there were some pretty interesting cases.
Visit Nearby Attractions
If you’re at Fort Mackinac, you’re only a short walk from several of the island’s other gems—the “Somewhere in Time” gazebo, an iconic movie setting where Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour famously stood, and Anne’s Tablet, a sculpture honoring author Constance Fenimore Woolson. Stop by!
If you’re looking for something to do the rest of the day, your ticket to Fort Mackinac is also good for admission to Historic Downtown Mackinac, which includes the Biddle House and Native American Museum.
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