By all measures, 2020 was a year unlike any other. Last March, the global pandemic brought life as we know it to a grinding halt and cabin fever took on a whole new meaning. When warmer spring weather arrived, restless Midwesterners jumped in their cars, campers, and RVs. They flooded to national parks for a welcome respite from their indoor confinements.
At Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, visitor traffic in May and June was steady and manageable. In July, however, Park Superintendent David Horne's concern quickly turned to alarm. Visitors were coming in droves -- up 42 percent from the previous July -- straining the park's limited resources.
Visitor traffic to national parks in the northern U.S. follows a predictable pattern. It falls in the winter months, picks up again in the spring, and is steady throughout the summer. But in 2020, the number of park visitors shattered all previous records. "We've been booked solid," said Horne. "July, August, and even September have seen unprecedented numbers."*
In fact, during the past 10 years, the park has experienced a steady rise in visitation. Horne believes this may be due to a popular Michigan Economic Development Corporation marketing campaign promoting Michigan as a world-class travel destination. Also, the paving of Highway 58 makes the park easier to access.
Even so, Pictured Rocks saw a big jump in visitors in 2020 -- more than a 22 percent increase from 2019 when the final visitor count was 858,715. "This year, I think we're going to break a million," Horne observed.
While a large attendance at the park is usually welcome, this was too much of a good thing. "Our areas are not engineered for this kind of visitation," said Horne. "We weren't expecting a million visitors in a shorter timeframe. We're used to a certain visitation that has increased every year, but this year, everything grew much larger than expected."
Trails were widened by all the foot traffic and new "social trails" (people creating their own paths) sprang up. Campsites multiplied in places that are off-limits to campers. And people parked their vehicles in areas where they shouldn't.
"We have a finite number of campsites, so there was frankly a lot of illegal camping," said Horne. "(Going off-trail) doesn't sound like a big deal, but once you denude the plant life, it stays scarred until you rehabilitate it. One of our primary trailheads is Chapel Basin; it was so overrun. It's a 38-car parking lot, and there were tens of thousands of people going down there this summer."
According to the National Park Service, many national parks had a surge in visitors this year. Some parks closed; others restricted the number of visitors to ease the strain on park resources. Unfortunately, budgets for the parks did not keep pace with the influx of visitors.
At Pictured Rocks, more visitors also meant that the amount of trash grew exponentially. The park had to buy more dumpsters and trash cans. It was nearly impossible to keep the restrooms cleaned and stocked.
During the autumn months, the steady stream of park visitors remained heavy. Campsites were filled through October. Now, as the tourism season winds down for the winter, NPS personnel are planning what to do next year. Horne says Pictured Rocks will evaluate its infrastructure and work to educate visitors about how to enjoy the parks responsibly. "We want people to treat this park as their own home," he emphasized.
The big unknown is whether the park will continue seeing large increases in visitors next year – COVID-19 or not. "We don't know if 1 million visitors a year is our new normal or if it'll come back down," Horne said. "A lot of people are concerned about that. We don't have the financial flexibility to hire more people."
Horne is thankful that his hardworking, resourceful staff managed to get through a tough season. But after a long, record-setting year, they were ready for a break. "Staff is exhausted," Horne said. "Everyone is ready for the winter."
*July up 42%, August up 49%, September up 45%