You spot them before the ferry even docks. Hundreds upon hundreds of bicycles, handlebars twinkling in the sunshine. There are adult bikes, kids’ bikes, tandems. Attachments and Burley trailers. There are some 5,700 registered bikes in all — which for a place with just 500 residents equates to 11.4 per person.
But that’s just the way it is on Mackinac.
Mackinac Island — pronounce it Mackinaw, or the locals will quickly correct you — is a small plot of land sitting in Lake Huron, just east of the impressive Mackinac suspension bridge that links Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. A popular resort area, it’s famous for being home to the sprawling, stately Grand Hotel, a National Historic Landmark built in 1887. It’s also famous for the fact that cars are banned.
It’s nothing personal. But from the time the first American Indian settlement was established here in the 17th century, and throughout the next 200 years when the Europeans moved in, the only way of getting around the island was on foot or by horse. So when tourists began arriving in the late 1800s with their sputtering horseless carriages, the locals did not like it. Not one little bit.
The cars were noisy, and belched stinky fumes. They also scared the horses. So in 1898 and 1901, the town enacted bans on motor vehicles to protect everyone’s health and safety. After a few decades, the bans became a charming quirk.
Today, vehicles are still verboten on the island, with minor exceptions. Construction vehicles are allowed, for example. And for safety reasons, there are police and emergency vehicles, too.
A biking primer
If you’re planning a trip to Mackinac and know you’ll want to bike around, the first thing to consider is whether you want to bring your own bicycle or rent one. Two ferry companies service the island, Shepler’s and Star Line. Both charge $26 for a round-trip ticket, plus $10 per bike. The $10 fee includes a tag that serves as a bike license in case yours gets stolen or is lost. So it’s not too pricey to bring your own wheels, although a Shepler’s spokesperson said only about 10 percent of its passengers do so.
There are five main rental shops on the island: Mackinac Bike Barn, Mackinac Cycle, Mackinac Island Bike Shop, Mackinac Wheels and Ryba’s Bicycle Rentals. All of the shops offer a wide array of bikes, including kids’ bikes; single-, three- and seven-speed cruisers; single-, seven- and 21-speed tandems; 21- and 24-speed mountain bikes; fat bikes, trailer cycles and adult trikes. Burley and Weehoo trailers are also available. Hourly rental rates range from $5 to $13 for bikes, and $5 to $8 for trailers and tagalongs.
The shops try to differentiate themselves by the amenities they offer and whether they require a deposit. Ryba’s is the only shop requiring a deposit, and only includes helmets if available. The other four shops do not require deposits, and include helmets, baskets and trail maps. Mackinac Wheels and Mackinac Bike Barn, owned by the same person, also offer a free bottle of water with every rental.
No shops include bike locks with their rentals, which seems unnerving. Especially when the practice is to leave your bike in the street, tucked against the curb, when you stop to enter a store or walk around. But shop employees say bike thefts are minimal, mainly because it’s pretty hard to sneak a rental bike onto a ferry.
“No one really takes rental bikes,” said McKyle Danahy, an employee at Ryba’s. “I did have my own bike taken last year at bar time, but it was just someone on a drunken joy ride.” He later found his abandoned wheels.
Such “borrowing” of rental bikes does sometimes occur, shop employees say. Especially if someone is heading to catch a ferry and fears he’ll be too late.
“We get about three to six reports of bike larceny each week in the summer,” an island police offer said. “But with thousands of bikes on the island, that’s a small number. And a lot of times the people [who report stolen bikes] subsequently find them.”
Where to ride
Bike shops are bustling from dawn to dusk in the summer tourist season. Lines are almost guaranteed. But don’t worry, even if the queues stretch down the block. “The lines always move quickly,” said Trevor Searls, a Mackinac Bike Shop employee. “The longest you’ll wait is 10 minutes.” If you don’t want to wait, he said to be at a shop when it opens.
The most popular cycling route is pedaling around the island’s 8.2-mile perimeter. This is a great choice for casual cyclists and families with young children, as the path is largely flat and offers plenty of spots to stop and rest. Some of these spots are near historical markers, while others offer benches and even picnic tables.
Danahy recommends heading west around the island, the less-trafficked route. Rich Lind, a former bike rental employee at the Grand Hotel, encourages visitors to bike the island in both directions. “The scenery comes at you differently each way,” he said.
Those who want a more adventurous experience should head into the island’s interior. Some 70 miles of natural and paved trails are interlaced here. The interior is also very hilly, so you’ll definitely get a workout. But besides busting your quads, pedaling around the island’s heart offers a few other perks.
You can select a route that passes some of the island’s large, impressive homes, which are fun to gawk at. You can also investigate gems such as Fort Holmes, a wood and earthen structure sitting on the island’s highest point. Built by British soldiers in 1814 to protect against an American attack, it was recently reconstructed.
If you find Garrison Road near the island’s airport and point your bike south, you’ll glide nearly a mile without pedaling, Lind said. And Leslie Road offers a woodsy, scenic route. “So many visitors never find Leslie Road,” he said. “In fact, the only people you’ll meet there are others guests that I’ve sent.”
Mackinac is also lovely in the fall. Some of the bike shops sell off their inventory then to get ready for the next season, so you might end up going home with a new bike.
If you go
For more information contact the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau at 1-906-847-3783 or see mackinacisland.org/visit.
Melanie Radzicki McManus wrote “Thousand Miler,” about hiking Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail. She lives near Madison, Wis.