Attendance up at 3 of Michigan's national parks in 2018

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
Going to Elliot Falls, aka Miners Beach Falls, at sunset is popular among visitors to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Park, to watch the color of the rocks change into golden-brown tones.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has long lured numerous trekkers to its breathtaking sandstone cliffs, beaches, forests and other natural wonders.

The latest National Park Service data reflect the scenic expanse’s popularity: some 618,127 recreational visitors descended there through the first eight months of the year — 45,701 more than that point in 2017.

Those crowds had a direct impact on Trailspotters of Michigan, an Upper Peninsula-based company that caters to roving outdoors enthusiasts.

“My attendance was up 175 percent over last year,” founder/president Tom Funke said. “Very busy year for us. … I’m tweaking my policies to better deal with this volume.”

More explorers and tourists, particularly during the peak summer months when spots basked in warm weather, graced three of Michigan’s five national parks so far this year.

Keweenaw National Historical Park in the U.P. welcomed 13,378 visitors through last month, or 1,798 above the same time frame in 2017, according to the park service.

Visitors look out over Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. In 2017, more than 1.6 million people stopped at the park, which includes 35 miles of shoreline.

At Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore in the Lower Peninsula, the total was 1,372,190 visitors — 7,185 above the first eight months of 2017.

During all of last year, more than 1.6 million people stopped at the park, which includes 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. Authorized by Congress as a national lakeshore in 1970, Sleeping Bear Dunes is slated to be honored with a postage stamp.

The nonprofit Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes has launched a Preventative Search and Rescue program, which provides trained volunteers to educate visitors about potential safety issues while stopping at popular spots in the park.

Since the effort was launched in 2017, 911 calls there have fallen by more than 50 percent, said Kerry Kelly, the group’s board chairman. “A lot of people are coming from out of state and even out of the country. The more people who are not from the area and not familiar with the park, the more those volunteers are needed.”

Group volunteers note flocks of visitors teeming on the beaches and paths during warm stretches, Kelly said, but, “it’s incremental, so I don’t think most people really recognize the increase.”

While working weekly at a blacksmith shop in Glen Haven, Kelly has encountered countless tourists, who sometimes mention what sparked their trek to the area. “If you ask people, they’ll mention the TV ads they see in different parts of the country that have highlighted it,” he said.

National attention could be part of what has spurred larger crowds at Pictured Rocks, which boasts some 15 miles of cliffs along Lake Superior. 

Attendance grew soon after ABC’s “Good Morning America” featured the park through a Pure Michigan-sponsored contest in 2015. That year, recreational visitor numbers climbed to more than 723,000 from nearly 528,000 in 2014, park service data show. 

As its renown spreads, Pictured Rocks this year was named the most beautiful place in Michigan by Conde Nast Traveler.

Susan Reece, the park’s interpretation and education chief, attributes at least some of the higher numbers in 2018 to a busier winter as well as possible pushes from widespread Pure Michigan campaigns and more exposure from outdoor-focused media outlets. “We definitely have been found in a more national spotlight,” she said.

Besides international tourists, Pictured Rocks -- previously featured on a quarter -- has garnered guests from around the Midwest and across the country, Reece said.

News of the abundant natural riches have ensnared the backpacking community, as well, Funke said. “I think people go to Pictured Rocks, post their pictures and people decide that’s where they want to go. It’s a lot of word of mouth now.”

Pictured Rocks, a  long, narrow park with 15 miles of cliffs along Lake Superior, also has its dangerous side. This month, the National Park Service reported a 32-year-old California woman died after accidentally falling 200 feet while hiking.

Pickerel Cove on Isle Royale is a choice spot for sunrise fishing at sunrise.

Not all of Michigan's national parks are drawing more people this year.

Isle Royale had 23,646 visitors August, or 1,099 fewer than the first eight months of last year, according to site data.

The drop was more pronounced at River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe County. Recreational visitors tallied 167,942 in that time — a drop of 9,782 from the same period the year before.

Battlefield re-enactors commemorate the  the Battle of the River Raisin every January in Monroe, Michigan.

The site commemorating the historic War of 1812 battle was authorized in 2009. When it opened in 2011, the entire year’s visitation was 36,206. By 2017, that figure had ballooned to 238,813, statistics show.

Attendance in the first three months of 2018, during brutal winter weather, “were down pretty significantly,” superintendent Scott Bentley said. Numbers rebounded after that, he added; June and August levels exceeded last year’s.

Meanwhile, school field trips have become more popular, and events such as Spirits of the River Raisin attract the curious, Bentley said. “As the park becomes more and more known, more people come.”