Mackinac Island Is Especially Stunning by Air

This popular vacation spot offers a lot for travelers in and around Michigan.

The final approach to Mackinac Island Airport in Michigan. [Stephen Yeates]

After months of trying, we finally made our way to Michigan’s Mackinac Island just as the tourist season was winding down. People say the island is open from May to October. Or did they say “through October?” It depends on where you seek your information, but we have found you can rely only on the period beginning with the Memorial Day weekend and ending with Labor Day for having the most tourist amenities available.

The good news is that there is a lot to do on Mackinac during the summer. And while there is far less going on during the offseason months, the place becomes a true escape from the daily grind. A handful of hotels and one or two restaurants stay open year-round, and whenever you choose to visit, general aviation is the best way to get there. With our suggestions, you can make your plans for the coming season.

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Getting There

I usually make destination flights like this one in Annie, my Commander 114B, but it’s more than 500 nm from my home base at Sussex Airport (KFWN) in northern New Jersey to Mackinac Island Airport (KMCD). Because poor weather on the island and along the route had kept me from flying there earlier, I started looking for a professional pilot familiar with the area to take me there.

A friend recommended Nick Sanderson of Hangar9 Aviation, a Part 135 charter operation based at Padgham Field (K35D) in Allegan, Michigan. Sanderson and his partner, Colin West, have flown passengers to Mackinac many times in their Cessna 414A, so we booked passage with them. Like many vacation trips that involve ferries, travelers typically have to set aside a day at the beginning and end for travel. Even though the ferry ride is fairly short, the island’s remote location near the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and the southern tip of the Upper Peninsula means a long drive to the boat for most people. Those who live a state or two away are ideal candidates for GA, which speeds the trip along considerably.

Driving from Chicago to the island takes about seven hours or more, depending on ferry schedules. Flying there from Chicago Executive Airport (KPWK) would take less than two hours in Annie or less than 90 minutes in the 414A. Part of the driving time is the result of having to get around Lake Michigan in a car or across it in another ferry—but with proper planning you can safely cross the lake easily in a light GA aircraft.

The Airport

Pilots and passengers will enjoy a dramatic approach over Lake Huron to Runway 8/26 at KMCD, but you will not be over water for long, though, because the island’s airport lies just a few miles offshore. You can spot other airports nearby even as you fly the traffic pattern, including Bois Blanc Island (6Y1) 8.1 nm southeast, Mackinac County (83D) 5 nm west northwest, and Cheboygan County 14 nm south.

Views from the air are stunning, especially for September through October, as the foliage is changing colors. The island’s winter semi-hibernation seems to wait until the end of this natural show, which typically forms its last big attraction of the season.

The field is nontowered, with a 3,501-foot runway that is 75 feet wide—same as my home airport. This is not a big challenge, though breezy conditions will generally guarantee that it will not be the easiest landing you make this year. West was flying into a headwind of about 15 knots and probably could have made it with a runway less than half as long. The 414 coasted gently to a turnoff about two-thirds down the strip. A Beechcraft King Air arrived a few minutes after us, but most visitors that day arrived in piston singles. Jets with good short-field performance occasionally stop by, airport staff told us, but we did not see any during our stay. The airport averages 30 operations per day.

With no avgas on Mackinac Island, you’ll need to stop elsewhere if needed. [Stephen Yeates]

Thing to Do

The island is tiny, covering 3.8 square miles, but offers plenty of sights and activities. The downtown area is packed with hotels, restaurants, gift shops and purveyors of fudge, a signature island product. There are also a lot of horse-drawn carriages on the streets, but no cars. They are not allowed. Indeed, M-185, the 8.2-mile road around the island’s perimeter, is said to be the only state highway in the U.S. that forbids motor vehicles. There are, however, 600 horses on the island during peak season, mostly for pulling carriages. Much of the island is covered by Mackinac Island State Park, which means there is a lot of quiet, uncrowded space available, including more than 70 miles of trails in the park that take visitors past caves, rock formations, and cemeteries dating back 200 years.

People like to recite impressive numbers when talking about the island, from the 500 year-round residents, 1,489 bicycles for rent, and 24 restaurants with outdoor seating to the famous Grand Hotel’s 660-foot front porch, which they say is the longest in the world. There are also between 120 and 140 geocaches hidden on the island for modern sleuths to find.


The island was a sacred place for Indigenous peoples long before European colonists arrived, particularly for the Anishinaabek (Odawa, Ojibway, and Potawatomi). Mackinac became a bone of contention between U.S. and British forces during the War of 1812, when British, Canadian, and Native American soldiers captured Fort Mackinac from the small garrison based there. The taking of Mackinac was among the first engagements of the war and began more than two years of fighting between the U.S. and Britain for control of Michigan and the Great Lakes. Both sides sought control of the Great Lakes fur trade, and the conflict came to a head in 1814 when seven U.S. warships and about 1,000 soldiers arrived on a mission to recapture the island. They clashed with British forces on August 4, in a battle that the U.S. lost. It took the Treaty of Ghent to return peace to Mackinac, with U.S. soldiers taking possession of Fort Mackinac in July 1815.

You might wonder why cars are forbidden here. When the auto industry started in the late 1800s, horse-drawn carriages were the standard for transport on the island and had been operating there for decades. They also played a part in the island’s transformation to a destination and, for many, reflected the unique culture. As cars gained popularity among the well-to-do families that could afford them, they also began to roll off ferries onto the island. Carriage operators petitioned local officials to prohibit what they called the “dangerous horseless carriages” that frightened their horses and fouled the air. The village enacted a ban on cars in 1898. Today the lack of cars makes the island different and a true escape from the noise, congestion, and pace of everyday life.

Aircraft, on the other hand, have become key to island commerce. Many would hesitate to visit without the option of flying, and air tours are also a popular attraction. Airplanes might be most important in the cold months: When the lake freezes and Mackinac becomes what some consider a true winter wonderland, an airplane might be the only way to get there.

CODA: Be Weather Mindful

Rapidly changing weather is always a consideration when flying in Michigan and the surrounding area. While I thoroughly enjoyed my time, I knew I could not rely on forecasts. Flight planning in this area means picking more alternates than usual, as our return would prove. About halfway through the flight to Allegan, the broken cloud layers converged from about 3,000 feet to above 10,000.

It was not nighttime yet, but the skies darkened enough that I could look through the engine cover vents and see the orange glow of turbochargers on the 414’s Continental TSIO-520s. The situation became increasingly dramatic as the sounds of rain, then freezing rain followed by hail rang through the cabin. The airplane felt solid, Sanderson and West were cool and professional, but there was absolutely no reason to stay in that storm.

We diverted to West Michigan Regional (KBIV) in Holland. Safely on the ground, we heard support for the decision to divert in the form of extremely heavy rain pounding the FBO roof. Lightning flashed. More aircraft arrived on the ramp, fleeing the deluge. Pilots and passengers entered the FBO, jackets drenched from the short walk.

The scene made a great case for ride-sharing. We called Uber for the 30-minute final leg to Allegan.

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island features a 660-foot front porch, which they say is the longest in the world. [Stephen Yeates]

Mackinac Island Airport (KMCD)

Location: Mackinac Island, Michigan

Airport elevation: 729 ft. msl

Airspace: Nontowered, Class E/G

Runways: 8/26, 3,501 ft.

Lighted: Yes, no fuel

Pattern altitude: 1,900 ft. msl

This column first appeared in the November 2023/Issue 943 of FLYING’s print edition.

Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanWelsh4

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