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Mackinaw City, Michigan, is Filled with Great Lakes History & Family Adventures

While many may believe the best attractions are on neighboring Mackinac Island that is not necessarily the case. Often lost in the spotlight is Mackinaw* City's Colonial Michilimackinac, located on Lake Michigan. The original Fort Mackinac began on the mainland as Fort St. Philippe de Michilimackinac in the early 1700s and was later moved by the British (across the ice) to the island. Today the reconstructed fort pays tribute to Native Americans and the area's French heritage, as well as the British occupation. Because of archaeological excavations dating back to 1959 and continuing each summer since, the 1770's complex is historically accurate. According to park representatives, it is one of the longest ongoing projects of its kind in the nation.

Access Colonial Michilimackinac by following the signs on Interstate 75 (I-75) north and exit just before the Mackinac Bridge. Tucked neatly below the span, find the Mackinac State Historical Parks visitors center. While the bridge itself is breathtaking, the two massive bodies of water at the center's back door are awe-inspiring. To the right is Lake Huron and to the left is Lake Michigan; this body is known as the Straits of Mackinac. Be amazed at the magnificent turquoise color. The darker shade, just off the shore, is said to be more than 500-feet deep and the temperature quite brisk.

After paying admission to Colonial Michilimackinac, watch the video presentation that offers details on this experience, as well as other nearby attractions. It's a brief walk to the fort and late mornings it's not usual to find baggataway being played outside the gate. There's an ironic twist to this lacrosse-like activity because in 1763 Chief Pontiac devised a strategy to seize the fort from the British while engaged in this game. This Native American leader suspected, rightly so, that the British intended to take away land in the Great Lakes that they used for hunting. The relationship between the Indians and the French, some who lived within the confines of the fort and others in the outlying area, was much more to their liking.

The park has done an excellent job of preserving and presenting its history. Since the digs began nearly 50 years ago, more than two-thirds has been excavated. As evidence is gathered, period appropriate structures in French colonial style are added within the original footprint. And don't be fooled by thinking that what you see is the complete outpost. There's plenty underground too. Inside the Chevalier House, take steps down to view the charred remains of earlier palisades. In the "Treasures of the Sand" exhibit, see a few of the million artifacts that have been unearthed on the premises.

Trappers' shanties surrounded the fort during its heyday. From the catwalk on the south side, there's an example of one adjacent to the horse stable and sheep pen. Inside the stockade walls, there were a handful of stand-alone dwellings, as well as row houses - where homes and businesses shared the same roof.

Nowadays a shopkeeper in this trading village barters goods for beaver pelts, a young man demonstrates how to shoot a musket and British soldiers are visible. A Jesuit priest officiates a wedding on the site of the original St. Anne's Catholic Church. To celebrate this joyous occasion the church bell rings signaling visitors to gather round. Women in a nearby kitchen spend the entire day preparing food. Vegetables and herbs grown in the garden just outside their door are used to make roasted chicken, chicken stew, apple pie and pound cake.

Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse Stands Guard Over Lake Huron
All of the state historic parks are geared toward families. To the east of Colonial Michilimackinac, overlooking Lake Huron, is the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. While owned by the parks for quite some time, only recently has it been renovated and reopened. According to the state tourism agency, Travel Michigan, Old Mac is one of 115 such lights and lighthouses that borders the Great Lakes. Of these, only 26 are open to the public.

The duplex on the first floor features the keeper's quarters, restored to its 1910 appearance, as well as the assistant's home that showcases the original fourth-order Fresnel lens once used in the tower. Also find a display on the ferry transportation which operated between the mainland and the Upper Peninsula before the Mackinac Bridge was built in 1957. Guests are invited by the light keeper to take a 10-minute tour to the top.

There are several lighthouses in the region including the often-photographed Round Island Lighthouse south of Mackinac Island. Shepler's Ferry, in addition to carrying passengers to and from the island, offers lighthouse tours.