The best view in Michigan: Ascending the towers of the Mackinac Bridge
Correction: There is a 16-inch-by-12-inch hole (with a circumference of about 45 inches) to pass through while climbing the ladder to the top of the Mackinac Bridge. This story has been updated with the correct information.
The most dramatic view in Michigan – more dramatic than Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks or the Detroit skyline – is the view from the top of the Mackinac Bridge. From that aerial vantage point, high above the Straits of Mackinac, you can see the Upper Peninsula, the Lower Peninsula, the green cables of the iconic suspension bridge stretching out to connect the two landmasses, Mackinac Island with its historic fort, and several other islands, all in one sweeping, 360-degree view.
It’s a view that few get to see: only 281 people (not including those who work on the bridge) got to go to the top in 2018, according to Melissa DeKeyser of the Mackinac Bridge Authority. This tally includes 50 members of the general public; the rest were well-connected VIPs. Access is tightly restricted, but it is possible for anyone to visit… if you’re lucky.
Getting to the top is an adventure: it involves climbing through a narrow hatch in the side of one of the bridge’s two towers and then maneuvering through the maze-like interior. There’s an elevator inside the tower (original to when the bridge was built in 1957) that’s barely big enough to fit a guide plus two people crammed together, but it doesn’t go all the way up so you’ll have to climb 40 feet of ladders before finally wiggling through a suck-in-your-gut opening at the top, nearly 550 feet above the water and 350 feet above the roadbed and traffic below.
“If you’re claustrophobic, you probably don’t want to attempt this.” That’s advice from Roger Jarema of Boyne Falls, who did the tower tour in July 2017 with his son. But there’s a sturdy guardrail up top – good news for those with a fear of heights. And there’s no sense of movement – no tower sway or vibrations from traffic.
Interested? Then you’ll have to act quick. Each year, the Mackinac Bridge Authority selects 25 nonprofit organizations and gives them each a tower tour certificate that can be used as a prize in a fundraiser raffle or charity auction. Winning one of these coveted certificates (good for two people) is the only way a member of the general public can get to the top of the bridge.
Nearly all the tower tour certificates for the 2019 season are already claimed or set to be auctioned off at private events. There are, however, two opportunities left that are open to everyone:
The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse Society in Huron County (in the northern tip of the thumb) is selling raffle tickets for $25 each or five for $100. Organizer Sandra Affholter estimates they’ve sold about 275 tickets thus far; they’ll sell up to 1,000 max. Visit www.pointeauxbarqueslighthouse.org to enter. The drawing will be held May 18. You don’t need to be present to win, but you must send payment in advance to purchase tickets. (They aren’t setup to accept online payment.)
If you’d rather not rely on random chance in a drawing, the East Lansing Educational Foundation is holding an online auction from May 6-20 at www.32auctions.com/elef
Winning a Mackinac Bridge tower tour at auction likely won’t be cheap; the winning bid at the Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum auction in Naubinway (in the upper peninsula) was $2,700.
If you’re lucky enough to win the raffle or auction, you’ll have to coordinate with the Mackinac Bridge Authority to schedule the tour on a weekday from May 1 through Oct. 15, 2019 and sign a liability waiver. No minimum age requirement, but you must be 56” or taller and weigh at least 80lbs. They don’t have a maximum height or weight limit but there is a 16” x 12” hole (with a circumference of about 45 inches) to pass through while climbing a ladder.
Dawn Laway and her husband, Mike, did the tour in Oct. 2014 after winning an auction in support of Bishop Baraga Catholic School in Cheboygan. She’s not normally bothered by heights but “when you peer over the edge of the railing and look down – that got my stomach a little bit,” she said. Going into the tour her 6’4” tall husband was concerned about the tight spaces, but “he squeezed through it fine.”
Tours are normally to the top of the south tower (which is better for taking pictures since the sun is always behind when looking at the bridge’s center span and north tower 3,800 feet away), but tours in 2019 will be to the top of the north tower due to a painting project making the south tower inaccessible.
The whole experience generally lasts about an hour, with a maximum allowed stay of 10 minutes up top. (That’s according to the official rules, but they’re usually pretty lenient on time, especially if it’s a nice day and a freighter is about to pass underneath the bridge.)
Being from Cheybogan, Dawn has been across the bridge numerous times but seeing the view from the top was different. “We talked about it for so long afterward because it was one of the best things I’ve ever experienced,” Dawn said.
Ryan Kazmirzack is a Michigan-based freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.