Record years buoy Michigan’s national parks
While Michigan’s summer tourism wraps up over the Labor Day weekend, autumn’s impending chill will likely not completely cool sizzling attendance figures at the state’s five national parks.
Many of the 1 million Michiganians expected to travel this long holiday weekend are expected to enjoy the national parks, which have experienced a record number of visitors the last two years. Tourism is up 5.1 percent at the parks through July, according to the latest figures from the National Park Service.
Sleeping Bear Dunes reached nearly 562,000 visitors in July — a record for the national park along the Michigan’s northwest coast.
“For the first time ever, we had over half a million people visit in a single month,“ said Merrith Baughman, chief of interpretation and visitor services, explaining that was a 15 percent increase from the previous year.
As of July, Sleeping Bear Dunes visitors were up 1.3 percent from 2016, which was a record year that drew 1.63 million visitors. National Park Service reports Michigan parks had a total of 2.7 million visitors last year, and Sleeping Bear Dunes attracted the most. As of July, the five Michigan parks drew more than 1.5 million visitors this year.
“(Michigan has) even more visitors at this point in 2017 than we had in 2016, and 2016 was a record breaking year,” said Lauren Blacik, special assistant for the National Park Service Midwest Region.
Michigan national parks are seeing astounding growth. As of July, Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior had 15,853 total visitors, an increase of 20 percent from the same time last year. Keweenaw National Historical Park in the Upper Peninsula experienced a 10 percent increase in the same period.
Meanwhile, River Raisin National Battlefield Park had 189,887 visitors, an increase of nearly 30 percent compared with the total through July 2016. In fact, the park attracted nearly that amount — more than 202,000 visitors — over the course of 2016.
River Raisin National Battlefield Park superintendent Scott Bentley said the growth is a result of more people recognizing the park is open in Monroe. Only six years old, the historic War of 1812 battle site was authorized in 2009 and started operations in 2011.
“We’re the only national park in Southeast Michigan, and we’re on a major thoroughfare, so I attribute a lot of it to increased awareness and programs,” said Bentley, adding last year’s National Park Service centennial campaign also helped.
Last year, the 417 U.S. national parks had more than 330 million visitors, and they continue to be “very busy” in 2017, Blacik said.
“Nationally, we saw a huge increase in enthusiasm and support for our national parks around the National Park Service centennial last year in 2016, and that seems to have just continued this year in 2017 with more people wanting to explore their national parks, discovering those parks they might not even have known are in their backyards and planning vacations to national parks,” Blacik said.
Michigan campgrounds are also filling up. As of mid-week, camping and lodging sites are 92 percent occupied for this weekend, which is 1 percent more than last Labor Day, according to Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
“A lot will depend on the weather patterns because some people will decide to make plans to go in a short order,” he said.
Michigan has 103 state parks and 70 campgrounds, with the most popular Labor Day sites in Grand Haven, Ludington, Holland and Muskegon, Olson said.
Statewide for the summer season, camping numbers are up 13 percent from 2016.
“People are traveling in increasing number from last year,” Olson said.
One indicator is the number of people crossing the Mackinac Bridge. According to the Mackinac Bridge Authority, 609,916 people crossed the bridge in July, which is 5,751 more than the year before. Over 17,800 more people crossed the bridge in June compared to June 2016.
“It has been a robust summer tourism season in the state,” said Michelle Grinnell, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
Labor Day visitation all depends on the weather, said Baughman of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
“It looks like a beautiful weekend. but a little cool,” she said. “I know we’ll have plenty of people camping, hiking and going out to the island, but if it only gets to 67 as a high on Saturday, it might be a little chilly to be out on the beach.”
The Traverse City area may only reach temperatures in the 60s Friday, but National Weather Service meteorologist Jordan Dale said the Lower Peninsula, including Metro Detroit, will stay dry this weekend, with a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms on Monday
“The remnants of Harvey are going to stay south and east of Michigan, and it will pass by on Saturday through the Ohio Valley,” Dale said. “The most we’ll see is maybe a few high clouds over the southern part of the state.”
Metro Detroit temperatures will reach the low to mid-70s over the weekend and warm up to 80 on Monday. Northern cities will experience similar temperatures, Dale said.
Higher gas prices not deterring travelers
Higher prices at the pump from Labor Day gas hikes and Hurricane Harvey aren’t stopping Michiganians from hitting the road to national parks and elsewhere, even with average Michigan gas prices at $2.59 per gallon. That’s about 10 cents more than last week and 22 cents higher than this time last year, according to AAA Michigan spokeswoman Susan Hiltz, who listed several factors affecting prices.
“Going into Labor Day weekend there’s always a larger demand for gas,” said Hiltz, “and although we don’t know all the effects of Hurricane Harvey, that could be having an effect, too, on some of the distribution centers for crude oil and gasoline.”
On Thursday, Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of energy emergency for Michigan due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey. The executive order waives Clean Air Act requirements related to the sale and use of gas and remains in effect until it’s rescinded or Sept. 15.
“This executive order will help ensure there are no artificial shortages of fuel impacting the state’s residents or visitors,” Snyder said.
Hiltz said rising gas prices likely won’t impact the number of travelers since most have already made plans.
“They might feel a little bit of pinch at the pump, but I think that won’t deter folks from hitting the roads and enjoying that last hurrah of summer with family and friends,” she said.
On Saturday, William Schultz, 36, will drive from Grosse Pointe to a vacation home in Bronson on the west side of the state. He’s one traveler not worried about gas prices.
“I recently got a more gas efficient car. It’s a Ford Escape, so it gets pretty good gas mileage,” he said. “But (prices) won’t bother me too much, especially since it’s nice to get away for a little bit and spend some time with family.”
Labor Day weekend is traditionally the third-most traveled holiday of the summer. Fourth of July takes the top spot, as a record number of 1.4 million Michiganians traveled this Independence Day. Compared to last Labor Day, Hiltz said more Michigan residents will likely drive to destinations.
“With the better economic conditions and pretty favorable weather forecast, we’re looking at that number to be a little bit higher than last year,” Hiltz said.
Labor Day transportation, lodging and weather
Travel agent Pamela Nikitas with Joan Anderson Travel Service said most people are driving up north and to western Michigan. Top destinations include Traverse City, Leelanau County, Holland and Saugatuck. For those leaving the Great Lakes State, Nikitas said Chicago is a hot spot.
“They’re driving, flying or taking the train because it’s only six hours,” she said. “Other people are taking off for Toronto because Toronto is only four hours away, (or) you take can take the train from Windsor. It’s so easy, and it’s very inexpensive.”
Airfares are “a little bit higher” this year, Nikitas said, but prices depend on when you book.
Hotel rates are about the same as last year, Nikitas added. According to the Michigan Economic Development Corp., average daily hotel rates were $105 last September in Michigan.
Arrow Trudeau of Cherry Tree Inn and Suites in Traverse City said there is no availability Saturday, and just a few rooms remain Friday. While there are some in-state guests, many are coming from Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“We’ve been booked for a while,” Trudeau said of Labor Day weekend. “We usually recommend people book a year in advance.”
Detroit travel and events
In Detroit, the QLine will be offering free rides through Labor Day. After that, passengers will have to pay $1.50 to ride the Woodward street car for three hours, or $3 for an all-day pass.
Amtrak is also offering a deal to travel to Detroit on the Wolverine line for $5 through Sept. 4. The Wolverine line departs from Dearborn, Ann Arbor, Pontiac, Royal Oak and Troy. Book tickets at amtrak.com.
Detroit visitors should be aware that the 38th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival will draw crowds and disrupt downtown traffic patterns Friday through Monday. Notable jazz musicians will perform on four stages from the Detroit River to Campus Martius throughout the weekend.
The Detroit Tigers are also playing at Comerica Park Friday through Monday, and U2 will perform its first Metro Detroit concert in more than a decade at Ford Field 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are still available on Ticketmaster.
On Monday, there will be a Detroit Labor Day parade featuring unions such as the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO and Newspaper Guild of Detroit, on Michigan Avenue starting at 9 a.m.