Mackinac National Park was once America's second national park, and it has a strange story. The first national park was Yellowstone National Park - and looking at that hydrothermal wonderland it's not hard to see how it was deemed an early treasure and how it remains one of the greatest national treasures today. One would think the second national park would also be a timeless national treasure like Yosemite or The Grand Canyon.

But the second American national park only lasted for 20 years and was never reconstituted as a national park. Here is the strange story of Mackinac National Park and what there's to do there today. Today America's second national park is no more - instead it's a state park stuck in the timeless past.


The Rise and America's Second National Park

Mackinac National Park existed from 1875 to 1895 on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. Today it would seem to be a strange place to have chosen for the second national park.

  • Existed: From 1875 to 1895
  • Created: The National Park Was Signed Into Law By President Ulysses S. Grant
  • Size: 821 Acres

The national park was the result of efforts by Senator Thomas W. Ferry (who was from the island). At the time the island was popular as a summer resort. The later 1800s were a time when the overwhelming majority of the American population lived in the eastern half of the country and a time long before flights could make long-distance travel cheap and quick. People needed to travel long distances by plodding trains - so popping over to the Grand Canyon wasn't an option.

Maintained by The Army Garrison And Disestablishment

With the creation of the national park, the island was split between the national park, the fort on the island, and privately owned land. During this time, the fort on the island called Fort Mackinac continued to be garrisoned by the United States Army.

It was the federal troops of the garrison who ran the park (instead of dedicated park rangers). But no federal money was provided for the upkeep of the park. In addition, the fort had to use the land at times for military training (and in times of war). The island had played an important part in the War of 1812 against the Canadians (then a British colony).

  • Maintained: By The Garrison Troops Of The Fort

20 years later in 1895, the fort was decommissioned and the troops tending to the park moved away.

The state of Michigan requested the federal government to hand the land back over to the state - which they did. Since then the former national park has been the Mackinac Island State Park - Michigan's first state park.

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The Mackinac Island State Park

Today 80% of the island is part of the Mackinac Island State Park (1,800 acres). The island is circled by the M-185 highway. But this is no normal highway, it is the only motorless highway in the country. The island maintains a ban on automobiles and so one will need to lead one's car behind.

The Island's Highway:

  • M-185: The Only Motorless Highway In The Country
  • Length: 8 Miles

If one would like to travel this highway, one will need to do it one food, horse, horse-drawn buggy, or bicycle! The restriction on motor vehicles has been in place since the 1890s. Only a few exceptions are made - like for emergency vehicles.

Related: How To Plan A Perfect Vacation In Michigan's Upper Peninsula

What To Do On Mackinac Island State Park

If one is going to the park - bring a horse or bicycle! Some of the more notable geological features on the island are Arch Rock, Gitchi Manitou, and Sugar Loaf.

  • Attractions: Notable Geological Features, Historic Sites, and A Timeless Atmosphere

Besides many geological attractions, the park is filled with historic attractions. The most prominent historic attractions are Fort Mackinac and the Historic Downtown sites. The Mackinac website details the many Historic Sites and Monuments of Mackinac Island State Park.

There are around 70.5 miles of interpreted roads and trails - not all of which are paved. Some of these are only for hiking, others are shared with horses and bikes. None are for cars.

While on the island hike, cycle, ride horses (or in horse-drawn carriages), and kayak.