Accessible Mackinac Island

My happy place is anywhere near water or trees. I usually take a deep breath, and feel suddenly more alive than I have in months. There’s something so therapeutic about forests and bodies of water–and Mackinac Island has plenty of both!

Our family recently took a trip to Mackinac over a long weekend, and I thought I would share some of what we discovered about the island’s most accessible sites and places to eat. While I didn’t need my wheelchair this time around, I kept my eyes peeled for the potential to use it there in the future. And, as always, I was on the lookout for ways to enjoy food with my celiac disease!

Getting Around

Mackinac Island is only accessible by ferry. Two ferry lines, Shepler’s and Star Line, operate out of two locations: St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. Both are comparable in terms of pricing and schedules, so it’s really just a matter of convenience in terms of departure points, or personal preference. We crossed with Star Line from Mackinaw City. I spoke with the ferry company ahead of time to make sure I would be able to access the ferry by wheelchair if needed. They assured me that the main level of all of their ferries would be easily accessed. I could ride in my wheelchair, or choose to transfer to a seat and a staff member would store my chair while we crossed. There was no additional fee if I brought my wheelchair along as a precaution, either, even if I was not currently using it. While I didn’t end up needing the wheelchair, they were true to their word in terms of accessibility! We boarded the ferry via a smooth ramp with easy access to main-level seating. Since it was their first time riding a ferry, my kids actually opted to ride on the upper level. A short set of narrow stairs lead to the upper deck, with amazing views across the sunny lake (and a little spray from the jets!). Many of the hotels offer ferry tickets with hotel reservations, so I would recommend booking a hotel before ferries.

Once on the island, everything is accessible on foot or wheels. No cars are allowed on the island, which is one of the things I love most about the island. It’s quiet and quaint (and I was almost sad to see cars on the roads when we crossed back over at the end of our trip!). There are pedestrians and bikes and horse-drawn carriages everywhere! If you would like to bring your own bike, the ferry companies allow you to transport a bike for a small fee. Otherwise, there are countless options for bike rentals around the island (more on that in a moment). Horse-drawn taxis are available to transport visitors to sites around the island. There is one carriage with ramp access for wheelchair users, which they recommend reserving in advance. Horse-drawn carriages are also available for rent to explore the island!

If you have not brought your own wheelchair, there are also a limited number of chairs and powered scooters available to rent through some of the bike rental sites. I would recommend taking a look at their websites for more information. Options are somewhat limited, so all of the businesses I looked at recommended reserving a chair or scooter as early as possible. Historic Fort Mackinac also has a limited number of wheelchairs available at their Avenue of Flags entrance (more on that below), for visitors exploring the fort.

Accommodation

Image of Mackinac House, with link to hotel's website.
The Mackinac House, a new hotel on Mackinac Island. A three story blue-sided building with large white balconies and front porch. Seating is arranged along the front porch, and white Adirondack chairs sit on the small lawn in front. Photo by Livable by Design.

My husband and I had visited Mackinac Island many years ago, before my illness, to celebrate our fifth anniversary. We absolutely fell in love with the place. That time we stayed at the Island House, one of the older hotels on the island. Our stay included a meal package, and we enjoyed fantastic dinners looking out over the harbor. The hotel was quaint, and definitely showed telltale signs of its age, but it was comfortable. As I said, though, that was many years ago before my mobility or celiac disease were even considerations. I remember taking a number of stair cases at different levels to reach our room, and eating a lot of breads and foods I could never touch now! As a hotel in the general sense, I would absolutely recommend it. However, if you have mobility or dietary issues, I would recommend doing some research as I can’t speak to either one personally.

This time, though, we stayed at a brand-new hotel. It’s unusual to have any new buildings on Mackinac Island, so we were excited about the idea. The owners of Doud’s Market, the only grocery store on the island, were offered the opportunity to purchase a house and its land on Market Street, just off the main thoroughfare through town. From what we heard, they moved the house that was originally there and in its place, built a stunning new hotel, The Mackinac House! It is absolutely beautiful. Everything about it feels boutique (although somehow still very comfortable for families), and in tune with its surroundings.

We booked our room almost a year ago, when I was in a period of remission. To be honest, my mobility was not even on our minds when we made our reservation. We booked a wonderful suite that easily accommodated my family of five (which is a challenge anywhere, including on the Island!) with a main living space with two pull-out couches, a small kitchen area, generous bathroom, bedroom with king size bed, and our own patio area overlooked by Fort Mackinac. It was ideal in a few ways: for one, simply the fact that it actually fit all of us. Second, it had a kitchen area, which meant I could bring foods and utensils to prepare meals that were safe for me (and reduce costs). Third, the outdoor space was a great place to unwind with a good book after our adventures. At night, we heard the bugles playing from the fort, and the cannon being fired at intervals during the day. It was idyllic.

The only downside was that our suite was on the third floor. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but in my period of remission I failed to look into access to the third floor. Unfortunately, it was stair access only. I was able to manage, but more than once I stayed in our room or in the lobby while the rest of the family ventured out for breakfast or came up to change clothes, rather than make extra trips up and down the flights of stairs. That being said, the hotel does offer first floor rooms that are fully accessible. While the main entrance via the front porch includes stairs, the secondary entrance (and the only entrance accessible to guests after 9 pm) to the right of the house is accessible via a level brick path and barrier-free entrance leading directly into the lobby area.

Breakfast is included for all guests, and served in the lobby for a couple of hours each morning (as well as snacks each afternoon!). I always assume breakfast will be a gluten-free nightmare and bring my own food. I wouldn’t have needed to, though! I’ve never seen a hotel cater better to gluten sensitivities! They had great options, including Udi’s gluten free bagels, individually packaged items, Bob’s Red Mill oatmeal cups, and a wide variety of fruits, yogurts, etc. What a gift for those of us with celiac restrictions!

Restaurants

Three slices of fudge–two chocolate, one white– on a rectangular white plate. A pink “Ryba’s Fudge Shop” box stands behind the plate. Blurred flowers seen in the background.

Mackinac Island is somewhat synonymous with fudge, so of course our trip needed to include this sweet treat! I did some homework before traveling to determine whether any of the shops sold gluten free, celiac-safe fudge. My go-to source for finding safe restaurants is the Find Me Gluten Free app, and I pay particularly close attention to reviews left by other individuals with celiac disease. By a long stretch, the shop that was rated safest and most celiac-friendly was Ryba’s Fudge Shop. In fact, the young woman working on the day we visited said that her mother also has celiac disease, and she was very knowledgeable about ingredients and cross-contamination. She recommended avoiding some of the candies and anything dipped in chocolate (as they sell chocolate-covered pretzels and similar products, and can’t guarantee the chocolate is not contaminated). I chose chocolate mint fudge, and salted caramel (which she verified was also celiac-safe–I usually avoid caramel unless I’m sure because it can be another celiac pitfall). I’ve had many types of fudge in my pre-gluten-free days, and I can honestly say this was the best fudge I’ve ever tasted! Not only was it safe, but it was smooth and creamy, and melted in my mouth! The caramel was thick and chewy, like a caramel candy, with flaky salt on the top. I probably could have eaten five pounds…

In addition to the fudge, the shop offered popcorn, various candies, and ice cream. The employee assured me their popcorn and most candies were also gluten free (as long as they weren’t dipped in chocolate). The ice cream itself might have been safe as well, but I usually avoid ice cream when scoops might have come into contact with cones that have gluten. Still, it was amazing to have some options for a sweet treat on the island! There are Ryba’s shops dotted all over the island, especially along the main stretch. The shop we stopped in was accessible from the sidewalk, with just a small lip in the doorway. Inside, the space was wide and uncluttered, and easy to navigate with my cane (and would have been accessible in my chair as well).

Between my dietary restrictions and our budget constraints, we didn’t eat many meals in restaurants. I packed most of our food (and, conveniently, used the kitchenette in our hotel room to pack picnics each day). We ate two meals at restaurants on the island, and our dinner at Yankee Rebel Tavern was a treat!

Like all restaurants on the island, prices were a little inflated to reflect both the environment, and the work to get ingredients onto the island. That being said, vacations are for the occasional splurge, and if you have dietary restrictions, this seems to be a safe place to make that splurge! I had read good reviews about this restaurant, and it didn’t disappoint! The server who took our drink orders had celiac disease himself, and walked me through menu options that would be safe for me. When our waiter arrived to take our food order, he noted that he’d been told there were food allergies at the table, and that their kitchen would go out of their way to take care in preparing our meals. I ordered the Island Cobb salad, which included a delicious assortment of vegetables, chicken, and shrimp. My meal was brought out separately from everyone else’s, and the server again explained that it had been prepared carefully, apart from any gluten-containing foods. I was completely at ease and free to enjoy a delicious dinner!

The restaurant was fairly accessible, as well. The entrance was sloped, making a somewhat uneven ramp that was easy to negotiate with a cane and would have been workable with a wheelchair as well. Our table, a booth with wrap-around bench, had one side open that would have easily accommodated a wheelchair. We intentionally ate dinner a little early to avoid the mealtime rush, so the restaurant was fairly empty and easy to navigate. During a busier time, when all the tables are full and chairs aren’t pushed in, I imagine the space would be challenging to navigate with a mobility device of any kind. But the staff were so accommodating, I truly believe they would work with any guest to get them seated safely and comfortably.

Our second meal out was a little less rewarding. I had read mixed reviews about the Watercolor Cafe, down near the water. The location was hard to beat, just off the yacht club marina and right on the sparkling water with full walls of windows. We arrived for a late lunch, around 1 pm, and there was a line out the door waiting to order. A compact courtyard full of people, a swinging hinged screen door, and several tiny tables in the small restaurant made the space more than a little challenging. I was not using the cane at the time, but saw another woman struggle with hers as she worked her way around the guests at the tables and held the door open to wait in line. I’m not sure a wheelchair could have maneuvered in the space, at least during peak hours.

The menu offered a handful of items with gluten free bread for an additional charge. I ordered a grilled cheese–which, in hindsight, was not a wise choice, as I didn’t confirm whether they had a separate gluten-free grill for cooking it. I let the employee taking my order know that I had celiac disease, and listed my usual requests for ways to eliminate cross-contamination. It was busy, and she simply nodded, but didn’t make any notes or notify anyone else of my requests, although she noted that I needed gluten free bread. When our food was brought out, my meal was stacked in an open paper tray at the bottom of my family’s orders–all of which were gluten-filled meals. I attempted to verify that my food had been prepared separately and was gluten-free, but the server simply said, “Yes, it’s gluten free bread.” I was incredibly uneasy, but also starving. I tried just a couple of bites of my sandwich (which was fairly tasty), and in the end opted not to risk the likely contamination and ruin the rest of the day as a result. My family split my meal, and I prepared my own lunch from food we’d packed when we got back to our room. In fairness to the restaurant, we were there at an extremely busy time. I ordered a meal, foolishly, that had high potential for cross-contamination. And the small bites I took didn’t make me sick. Still, I would use caution if you have dietary restrictions, be very clear about your needs, and potentially avoid the rush hour!

Attractions

Lilac Festival

The author, a Caucasian woman in grey sweater with black cane, holding a lilac to her nose and standing next to a lilac bush, with Fort Mackinac in the background. Photo by Livable by Design.

When we booked our hotel almost a year before our trip, we had no idea that our stay coincided with the annual Lilac Festival! My husband and kids actually discovered the fact just days before we traveled, and decided to keep it a secret from me. What a great surprise! I love lilacs, and living much farther south, our lilac season had already come and gone. It was wonderful to experience the flowers twice in one year!

Mackinac has a lilac festival with good reason: the island is covered in lilac bushes! Having visited later in the summer on our previous trip, I’d never noticed. Everywhere we went, there were fragrant bushes. And the whole island smelled like spring lilacs. If you love these little flowers as much as I do, I highly recommend visiting during the Lilac Festival, typically the first and second week of June. Just make sure you book well in advance, because the lilac obsession is apparently no secret to the rest of the world!

Fort Mackinac

Panoramic view of Fort Mackinac on a low hill. White stone walls surround the fort, and a long white rampart climbs the hill. A grassy park stretches out below the fort.

If you love history, Fort Mackinac is a must-see. The fort is small, but beautiful. It sits at the highest point on the island, overlooking the town. Throughout the day, they offer reenactments on the parade grounds at the center of the fort, as well as cannon fire demonstrations. Each of the buildings are filled with beautiful displays, artifacts, and photographs of the fort’s history. Fort ticket stubs also provide access to other historic buildings around the island, which are open during most days. And, of course, the view from the top can’t be beat!

A small crowd gathers at the top of the fort around an antique cannon. A man and woman in period dress stand by the cannon preparing to fire. Photo by Livable by Design.

The edge of the fort wall is seen in the foreground, with green parkland below, a long road, marina, and open lake. Photo by Livable by Design.

What impressed us most was actually the accessibility of the fort! The main entrance from the front of the fort is accessed via a long, steep rampart. At the top of the rampart, a flight of stairs leads into the fort. If you have mobility issues, this obviously will not be an option. However, a number of roads and trails lead up from town around to the back entrance to the fort (called the Avenue of Flags entrance), which is accessible without stairs. From there, you can explore the upper levels of the fort, and then take the elevator in the soldiers’ barracks building down to the main level and parade grounds.

The fort is comprised of several separate buildings, most accessed by short staircases. For all of these, a ramp is available to the side or back of the building for wheelchair access. In the largest building, the soldiers’ barracks, an elevator provides access to the upper floors of the building and the upper levels of the fort. Most of the area is comprised of level boardwalks that are easy to navigate. Only a few exhibits are truly difficult to access, such as the cannon firing demonstration. An area is available at the bottom of the stairs leading to this exhibit with benches and a television screen that provides a video feed of the cannon firing demonstration. For being a small fort and an historic site, we were quite impressed with the effort to make the fort as accessible as possible for every visitor!

Arch Rock

Black and white image of Arch Rock, a natural arched rock formation with views of the lake beyond through the arch. Photo by Livable by Design.

Possibly the most famous site on Mackinac Island is Arch Rock. This amazing rock formation is so unique! It’s best viewed from the top, meaning access can be a bit challenging. The same trails that lead to the back entrance of Fort Mackinac, atop the hill, eventually lead to the Arch Rock viewing area also. This is probably the easiest access, as the trails are fairly level and smooth (although everything at the top of Mackinac is steep!). To see the rock itself, there are some steps leading to an observation deck.

The rock can also be seen from below from the trail that circles the island and runs alongside the water. This trail is level and smooth, with no steps at all. If you decide to get a closer look from this point on the island, you can brave the 217 steps up to Arch Rock (I did it, although I was reliant on my cane for the rest of the day after that exertion!).

A winding set of wooden stairs follows the steep slope of a wooded hill. The author is seen from behind climbing the stairs. Photo by Livable by Design.

Hiking Trails

A gravel path leads through a forest, with several walkers seen from behind along the trail. Photo by Livable by Design.

As I mentioned, the top of the island is crisscrossed with wonderful trails. Some of these are paved, and some are covered with crushed gravel. They are mostly level and easily managed on foot, bike, or in a sturdy wheelchair. I do recommend watching the road, though, as the horses have access to many of these roads too!

The town streets tend to be full of people and the noise of bikes, horses, and tourists. I personally love escaping to the peace and quiet of the hiking trails and drinking in the natural beauty of Mackinac. In addition to Arch Rock, there are some great sites to explore, including Skull Rock, the cemetery, and the Soldier’s Garden trail.

Mini Golf

A young golfer is seen on a putting green at sunset, with the lake visible beyond. Photo by Livable by Design.

My family loves to play mini golf, so we were excited to play at the Greens of Mackinac at Mission Point Resort. The course wasn’t too challenging, but the views couldn’t be beat! The greens were well-maintained (and real turf!), and it was a fun way to spend our evening hours. After dark, the course offered “Glow Golf,” with light-up balls and special lights along the course. We were too tired after a day of exploring to wait until dark to play!

Bike Tour

A red tandem bike and three single bikes are parked in a stony area off a paved trail, with a wooded hillside in the background. Photo by Livable by Design.

As I’ve said before, I absolutely love to ride a bike! There’s something exhilarating about the feeling of freedom as the wind whips your hair. Mackinac is made for bike riders, so one of my favorite ways to see the island is on bike. As I mentioned, there are many options for bike rental around the island. We chose to rent through the Island House, where they offered a variety of options. Because we’d done a lot of walking and hiking already, my husband and I opted for a tandem bike that would allow me to rest a little when needed, while our kids rode single bikes. Each bike was adjusted to us before we rode, and they even offered baskets to carry our things.

Most of the island is accessible by bike, but I recommend at least riding Lakeshore Boulevard around the perimeter of the island. This is a smooth, paved roadway that runs 8.2 miles along the water’s edge. There are places at intervals along the route to pull over and enjoy the views from the rocky shoreline, explore sites such as Arch Rock, or rest on benches in wooded areas. It’s a beautiful, peaceful way to spend a morning or evening.

Shopping

The main street on Mackinac is seen with various storefronts lining a wide street. Cyclists and horse-drawn carriages are seen in the roadway. A wooded hill and Fort Mackinac stand above the town.

If you love perusing little shops as much as my family does, you will love the variety of stores on Mackinac Island. From fudge shops to clothing stores to toy stores, the island has a lot to offer! My kids recommend Great Turtle Toys, a fun little toy shop set back in an arcade (and check out the bookstore next to it!).

There are wide sidewalks in front of most of the stores, with varying accessibility to the stores themselves. Some have a small step, while others offer barrier-free entrance. There are also benches in many places along the sidewalk that offer a place to rest between shops.

There are so many more attractions and fun things to do on Mackinac Island! Even if we had stayed for a week, I’m not sure we would have seen everything. I would love to hear about your favorite sites int he comments below!

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