$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.

2015 a good year for Michigan’s national parks

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Hordes of visitors are descending on Michigan’s national parks, setting records for two parks this year and following a national trend of visitors rediscovering America’s scenic wonders.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, in the Upper Peninsula, set a visitation record this year.

Four of the parks — Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and River Raisin Battlefield Park — had more visitors this year through November than in 2014 and saw double-digit increases in visitors. Data was not available for Keweenaw National Historic Park.

Two of the parks, Pictured Rocks and River Raisin, set visitation records in 2015, according to the National Parks Service, which tracks attendance.

The parks’ popularity in Michigan mirrors a national trend. Overall visitation to national parks is on track to hit 300 million in 2015, besting last year’s all-time high of nearly 293 million.

Absent December totals, the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona hit almost 5.3 million visits. Zion in Utah is over 3.5 million. Yellowstone, which stretches into Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, is nearing 4.1 million. Yosemite in California is about 220,000 visits shy of the 1996 record — 4.2 million — with November and December still left to count.

In Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes, a 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan’s northeastern coastline, was by far the most popular national park in the Great Lakes State, attracting more than 1.5 million visitors this year, compared to nearly 1.4 million for 2014.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which boasts sandstone cliffs, beaches, sand dunes, waterfalls, lakes, forest and shoreline in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, set a record for visitors in 2015 with 735,628, compared to 519,964 last year.

David Borton, treasurer of the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, said visitors are coming from around the globe — and not just during the summer.

“It’s great watching people hike the sand dunes and speaking Chinese or German or one of the Germanic languages,” Borton said.

“I ask people why they come and they say they have heard of the park and they just want to come and see for themselves. So many people don’t know what a sand dune looks like. Here they can see it and feel it and get sand in their shoes.”

The Hamilton family of Pleasant Ridge — Ben, 42, Emily, 41, Jack, 12, and Molly, 10 — has a plan to visit as many national parks as possible.

On spring break this year, the family took a circuitous road trip to North Carolina and spent a day at Smoky Mountain National Park and another day at Mammoth Caves National Park. It was the children’s first trip to either park and Ben’s first trip to Mammoth Caves.

“It is important for us to get out of the city and connect with nature, to see these unspoiled natural wonders, and unplug from our busy, electronic-filled lives,” Emily Hamilton said.

Emily Hamilton recalled the Smoky Mountain park being fairly crowded, but the family managed to find some quiet hiking trails. At Mammoth Caves, the family went on several tours and used the visit as an opportunity to talk to the kids about conquering fears, and trying things that may make one uncomfortable, but are worth doing anyway, Emily said.

“Seeing this incredible place is something everyone should do,” she said.

The state’s other national parks, including the River Raisin National Battlefield Park and Isle Royale National Park, saw significant visitor increases, too.

River Raisin, which commemorates the January 1813 battles of the War of 1812 and their aftermath in Monroe and Wayne counties, saw a 140 percent increase of visitors to its Visitor Center. As of November, the center saw 21,706 visitors compared to 9,029 for the same time period last year.

Visitors to the park’s main entrance were also up, 49,221 this year compared to 44,200 last year. Overall, total visitation was up 90 percent.

Daniel D. Downing, River Raisin park supervisor and chief of education services, said the park is doing a better job of counting visitors through an automatic system at the visitor center and additional signage on state roads and freeways. The park is in Monroe, just minutes from Metro Detroit.

“There is more awareness of the fifth national park in Michigan. We are running more programming, more school groups and all these things contribute to more visitors,” Downing said of the park, which was designated a national park in 2010.

Many of the country’s most prominent national parks, including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Zion, set visitation records in 2015 and are bracing for what could be an even busier new year.

The National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday in 2016 and has been urging Americans to rediscover the country’s scenic wonders or find new parks to visit through marketing campaigns that include giving free passes to every fourth-grader and their families.

“Everybody’s getting psyched and ready for it,” Yellowstone spokeswoman Sandra Snell-Dobert said. “We want people to have a good experience when it comes to our national parks. We’re trying to keep that wonderful experience while managing large numbers of people.”

(313) 222-2269

Associated Press contributed.