Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: A break from the pandemic tourism spike

As the park prepares for the winter season, a look back on a more normal summer season
The slower pace meant more projects being completed and a better overall experience, though the park struggled to fill open positions.
Published: Nov. 1, 2022 at 7:57 AM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ALGER COUNTY, Mich. (WLUC) - Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has seen a huge influx of visitors over the past couple of years.

Numbers last year were up from 400,000-500,000 visitors in 2014 to 1.3 million in 2021.

It’s a spike with a big impact.

You may remember, this past spring, TV6′s Elizabeth Peterson backpacked the lakeshore to showcase those effects and highlight the efforts by the National Park Service to control and preserve the recreational opportunities throughout the park.

At the time, no one was certain what 2022 would bring. Would the numbers continue to climb? And if they did, how would the area handle it?

This summer’s visitor numbers won’t come out until February or March, in the meantime, Elizabeth went back to the park to see how the season went and what those working in the area experienced.

Susan Reece, the park’s chief of interpretation and education, said overall it felt like a more typical year.

“It seemed a lot quieter,” said Reece. “Which was a nice little break for us in the park anyway. It just wasn’t as crowded. We had less problems, which usually comes with less people… less trash, less parking issues.”

And less of an impact on a trail system that’s taken a beating the past couple of years. Reece says park staff was able to get to some of the projects on their lists, though not all. And while it felt more normal, this year there was the issue of employees.

“Like a lot of people, we had a hard time employing people,” said Reece. “We weren’t able to fill a number of positions, seasonal position this summer, so that did affect what we could get done. And that included our trail crew, our visitor center folks, even volunteers who would normally come spend the summer... gas prices affected them and they chose not to come, so we’re all kind of adjusting to that.”

They’re also adjusting to the new fee structure that began this spring at Pictured Rocks. For the first time visitors to the national lakeshore were supposed to pay to enter the park. Though, due to a number of issues it was a slow start to the program.

“We were hoping to have more self-pay options for people,” added Reece. “We heard a lot of people wanting and trying to pay, but without cell signal, it was difficult for some people. We knew people were trying and we were trying as well, so it’ll be interesting to see how much we’ve collected this year since a lot of it did end up kind of on the quasi-honor system. We weren’t going to ticket people if they weren’t able to pay.”

The plan next year is to make it easier. The park service is planning to add an additional collection site at Grand Sable, plus they’ll add tablets to some areas where there’s no cell signal, like Miners Castle as well as the Chapel Rock and Beaver Lake areas. They’re necessary adjustments and changes to an experience and a county riding the wave of the pandemic and post-pandemic economic impacts.

Kathy Reynolds, the CEO of the Alger County Chamber of Commerce said it’s been a challenging but educational couple of years.

“One thing you do learn when you go through a pandemic,” said Reynolds, “I think in a place like this, where all of a sudden you get a bunch of people, who knows if they’re going to come back… Again, because it’s not a pandemic anymore. You don’t base a business plan based on a pandemic.”

Reynolds says she expects growth to continue in the Munising area, but to go back to a more reasonable climb. She says she’d love in time to see a million visitors in the summer season but she expects it will take a bit before numbers are consistently at or around a million.

“You know it’s many things. A lot of people want to pinpoint one particular thing that has happened,” added Reynolds. “I think in my mind a lot of it is social media and it’s photos. People see those photos, they share them. They’re beautiful. I mean, they’re outstanding and people don’t realize that those kind of images are in the Midwest or certainly in Michigan, so they’re liking and sharing, saying I want to go someplace that looks like that.”

For now, the work continues. For Reynolds, they’re getting caught up and beginning to make plans for next summer, already. For Reece and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore - they’re getting ready for winter, for snowshoers and snowmobilers, ice climbers and fishers.

“We’re still here, we’re still pushing forward and hopefully people will start seeing more and more improvements as the next couple of years goes on,” said Reece.

Passes for the park can be purchased online ahead of arrival. They’re available as an annual pass or by the week. Money collected through the new park fee will go to improvements along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

To purchase a pass or to learn more, click here.