Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mackinac Island State Park (Blog Hike #391)

Trails: (numerous)
Hike Location: Mackinac Island State Park
Geographic Location: Mackinac Island, in Lake Huron
Length: 8.5 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2012
Overview: A grand walking tour of a famous resort island.

Directions to the trailheadMackinac Island is only accessible by boat.  Commercial ferries run regular schedules from Mackinac City on the Lower Peninsula and St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula.  This hike starts at the commercial ferry dock on Mackinac Island.

The hike: Here’s a trivia question: what do Mackinac IslandMichigan and YellowstoneWyoming have in common?  Answer: they were the first two national parks in the United States.  Mackinac National Park lasted only a few years before the island was transferred to the state of Michigan in 1895 to form the first state park in Michigan and one of the first state parks in the country.  The story of Yellowstone National Park is the stuff of legends.
            The first man of European descent to discover Mackinac Island was Father Jacques Marquette when, in 1671, he established a mission to the Huron Indians on the island.  During the Revolutionary War, the island was a British stronghold.  The British built Fort Mackinac on the high bluff overlooking the island’s south harbor, and the position was so strong that the Americans never seriously threatened it.
After soldiers left the island, the fur trade, fishing, and tourism became the island’s main focus.  The Island House, opened in 1852, is Mackinac Island’s oldest continuously operating hotel.  In 1887, the luxurious Grand Hotel opened.  In 1898, automobiles were banned from the island, a ban that continues today.
As a result of the automobile ban, visitors today tour Mackinac Island via one of three means: bicycle, horse-drawn carriage, or walking.  At 3 miles long by 2 miles wide, the island is small enough so that all of the major sites can be seen by foot in a single day. The most popular route is SR 185 around the perimeter of the island, but only a small portion of the island can be seen that way.  To visit all points of interest, you will need to use a route through the island’s interior such as the one described here.  If you plan such a tour, I recommend taking an early morning ferry to the island so you can get out of the downtown area before the late morning crowds arrive.
Starting at the ferry docks in downtown Mackinac Island, turn right on Main Street and walk a couple of blocks to Fort Street, where you should turn left and begin the steep climb to historic Fort Mackinac.  For an additional fee, Fort Mackinac can be toured in just under an hour.  Take the tour if you wish, or continue straight on Fort Street to bypass.
Fort Mackinac, as seen from Main Street
            At the top of the hill, you pass the summer residence of the Governor of Michigan on the left.  A few hundred feet further, angle softly right at a signed intersection to begin Custer Road.  The entire island features a network of paved and gravel roads accessible to horses and bikes.  The horses frequently leave their droppings on the roads up here, reminding you that the age of the automobile is not entirely bad.
At 0.8 miles, you pass St. Ann’s Cemetery.  The cemetery itself dates to 1924, but some of the headstones in this area date to the 1800’s.  This area had an eerie calm feel when I hiked here on a warm, cloudy, summer morning.
Gate to St. Ann's Cemetery
            Just past the cemetery, Custer Road ends at Garrison Road, where you should angle softly left to continue north.  At 1.3 miles, you pass the main intersection for the middle of the island.  A large brown wooden sign gives distances in miles to other points of interest on the island.
Continuing straight, the road passes Mackinac Island Airport, the runway of which is visible across the field to the left.  Just past the airport, turn left onto gravel State Road at an unsigned intersection.  The next point of interest is Crack-in-the-Island, and the signed single-track dirt trail of the same name leading there exits to the left in 0.3 miles.
1.9 miles into the hike, you reach Crack-in-the-Island.  True to its name, Crack-in-the-Island is a large crack in the island’s bedrock.  Cracks such as these appear all over the island, but most of them are not as large or visible as this one.  A few thousand years ago, Lake Huron had a much higher water level than it does today, and these cracks result from ancient lake shorelines.  Interpretive signs explain the process.
Crack-in-the-Island
            Continuing around the Crack-in-the-Island Trail, the trail soon ends at a wide gravel trail, where you should turn right to return to State Road.  Turn left on State Road to head for British Landing, the next point of interest.  The gravel road heads downhill on a gradual to moderate grade while passing Wawashkamo Golf Course on the right.  Wildflowers of many varieties line the road here; bring a wildflower book if you wish to identify them.
At 3.1 miles, you reach British Landing.  British Landing marks the point where British troops arrived on Mackinac Island in the War of 1812.  From this point, they retraced much of the route you just hiked to take control of Fort Mackinac from the Americans. They would hold the fort for the rest of the war.  A concession stand with yummy treats and restrooms is located here during the summer months.  If you choose to have a snack, watch out for aggressive sea gulls that seek to steal your food.
Exit British Landing by picking up the single-track dirt British Landing Nature Trail (not to be confused with the paved British Landing Road), which starts to the right of the concession area.  Interpretive signs point out some of the plants along the trail.  The trail climbs very gradually and crosses two gravel roads to arrive at Friendship’s Altar.  Located at the base of a steep bluff, Friendship’s Altar is a stack of limestone slabs cemented together by calcium carbonate.  The stack stands about 10 feet high, so take a minute to admire the intricate formation.
Friendship's Altar
            The trail now climbs the bluff using a wooden staircase.  An observation tower at the top of the steps gives obstructed views of Lake Huron now roughly 100 feet below you.  Just past the tower, the British Landing Nature Trail reaches an intersection with the Tranquil Bluff Trail at 3.4 miles.  The Tranquil Bluff Trail is my favorite trail on the island, so turn left to begin this isolated trail.
For the next mile the Tranquil Bluff Trail curves right to follow the top of the island’s main bluff line and pass through nice white pine forest.  No other trails enter or exit here.  Of all the trails on the island, this is the one you are most likely to have to yourself.  At 4.6 miles, the Swamp Trail exits to the right.  The Swamp Trail is designated as a horse jumping trail, meaning that wooden barriers have been constructed on the trail that horses must jump over.  Continue straight to remain on the Tranquil Bluff Trail.
Tranquil  Bluff Trail
4.7 miles into the hike, you cross paved Scott’s Cave Road, where you must angle slightly left to remain on the Tranquil Bluff Trail.  The trail now becomes more rugged with some brief but steep ups and downs.  The bluff drops steeply to the left here, and vertical cliffs lie between you and Lake Huron, so take care not to fall down the bluff.  On the bright side, some nice blufftop views of Lake Huron open up to the left.
The next point of interest is Sugarloaf Rock.  To get there, leave the Tranquil Bluff Trail on any of the connecting trails that exit right to reach paved Leslie Avenue.  Continue south on Leslie Avenue to its intersection with the North Bicycle Trail.  Turn sharply right to begin the North Bicycle Trail.  The trail climbs gradually as a couple more horse jumping trails exit right and left.
At 6.6 miles, you reach Sugarloaf Rock.  Sugarloaf Rock is another stack of breccia limestone like Friendship’s Altar, but this one stands 75 feet tall and is the tallest such formation on the island.  A clearing around the rock allows good views from every angle.
Sugarloaf Rock
            The next point of interest is Arch Rock, and you can head toward it by picking up the east arm of Sugar Loaf Road to the left of Sugarloaf Rock.  The paved road heads gradually downhill to intersect Rifle Range Road, where you should turn left.  7.2 miles into the hike, you reach Arch Rock.
Arch Rock may be the most scenic site on the island.   Located 146 feet above Lake Huron, wind and water carved the 50-foot wide limestone arch out of the bluff.  Even better, from this vantage point high atop the bluff you can look down through the arch and see the Lake Huron shore as if it were framed in a picture.  Every bicycle or horse-drawn carriage tour seems to stop here, so you will not be alone at this overlook.
Lake Huron, as seen through Arch Rock
            To get away from the horse-drawn carriages and bicycles, I recommend taking the Manitou Trail to exit the Arch Rock area, heading south.  The narrow Manitou Trail stays close to the bluff on the left while passing a couple of private residences on the right.  At 7.6 miles, you reach a nice overlook at the southeast corner of the blufftop area.  From here, you can see some of the historic structures in downtown Mackinac Island and some of the lighthouse structures you passed on the ferry ride to the island.
View of downtown Mackinac Island from southeast blufftop
            Curving right at the overlook, the Manitou Trail soon reaches its end at paved Huron Road, where you need to turn softly left.  The road passes southward views on the left and private residences on the right as it heads west along the East Bluff.  At 7.9 miles, take a sharp left onto Trescott Street to descend the bluff.
At the base of the bluff, you reenter the developed area of the island and quickly arrive at a junction with Main Street.  To head for the ferry docks, turn right on Main Street.  On the way back to the downtown area, you will pass the Butterfly Conservatory, the Island House Hotel mentioned earlier, and the Mackinac Art Museum.  Enjoy a well-earned meal or dessert (Mackinac Island is famous for fudge) before catching the ferry back to the mainland to complete your day on the island.

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