Loved to death: Iconic Michigan lakeshores battered by crowds, waste

SLIDESHOW: Joe Hughes, chief ranger at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, attempts to unsnarl traffic on the narrow dirt road leading to the Chapel/Mosquito trailhead. On any given summer weekend, traffic on the road can be backed up for miles as hikers push their way into the small dirt parking servicing a trailhead that wasn’t designed for this many visitors. (Bridge photo by Ryan Stephens)

Bumper-to-bumper traffic is the norm during the summer along the dirt road leading to the Chapel/Mosquito trailhead at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. (Bridge photo by Ryan Stephens)

“Take your diseases and your trash and GO HOME,” urges a sign near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Rising visitor numbers have increased tension with local residents frustrated with the impact of crowds. (Bridge photo by Ryan Stephens)

Joe Hughes, chief ranger at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, is one of just three law-enforcement rangers for the 42-mile lakeshore. As visitor numbers rise, it has become increasingly difficult for Hughes and his colleagues to divide their time between emergency rescues, crowd control and pursuing scofflaws who litter or defy park rules. (Bridge photo by Ryan Stephens)

A man gazes over Lake Superior from beyond a protective barrier at Miners Castle, after ignoring written signs that warn visitors not to cross the fence. Such incidents are growing increasingly common as Pictured Rocks records visitor numbers year after year. (Bridge photo by Ryan Stephens)

Resource damage is another consequence of large crowds at Pictured Rocks, where visitors often destroy plants by parking off-road after arriving at parking lots that weren’t designed to accommodate the large numbers of visitors the park has attracted in recent years. (Bridge photo by Ryan Stephens)

A group of Pictured Rocks visitors climbs out of a raft after park rangers ordered them to shore. The group had been navigating 4-foot waves in a raft better suited for a lazy river. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

A Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore park ranger holds signs advising visitors against carving unsanctioned bootpaths. Rising visitor numbers have increased problems with such “social trails,” which can worsen erosion, kill native plants and cause a host of other problems. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

MUNISING — Kristine Kolbus understands why people flock to the popular trailhead near her property in the heart of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  

“I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” she said, “and I am truly blessed and I want other people to enjoy that.”

She just wishes they’d stop blocking the gate that leads to her property.

 

Once a quiet family refuge, the 120 undeveloped acres that Kolbus lovingly refers to as “camp” is now a casualty of the lakeshore’s skyrocketing popularity. On any given summer day, miles of parked cars line the narrow dirt road leading to the lakeshore’s Chapel/Mosquito trailhead, spilling over onto the private drive that leads to Kolbus’ land.

Kolbus doesn’t mind helping out a lost hiker who strays onto the property while searching for the trail, she said, but she’s fed up with the “squatters” who illegally pitch tents after arriving at Pictured Rocks without reservations, only to find campsites full.

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A million people have flocked to the Upper Peninsula lakeshore so far this year, shattering last year’s record of 859,000, which itself topped the previous year’s record of 815,000. In fact, Pictured Rocks has registered record visitation every year since 2015.

But the park’s surging popularity isn’t necessarily cause for celebration. Across Michigan and throughout the nation, cherished landmarks are threatened by record crowds as budgets and staffing at properties managed by the National Parks Service have failed to keep up with their skyrocketing popularity. 

Staff and administrators at Pictured Rocks have watched with consternation as the visitor numbers keep climbing without a commensurate investment in infrastructure to absorb the crowds, nor an increase in staffing or budgets.

Michigan’s other popular national lakeshore, Sleeping Bear Dunes, faces similar challenges. 

The result? Septic systems failing under the strain of too many toilet flushes. Traffic jams at trailheads where hundreds of cars compete for a handful of parking spaces. Rampant illegal camping, littering, and defiance of park rules while park rangers are busy tending to emergency rescues or runaway campfires. 

The strain on park resources poses a vexing question with no clear answer: How to absorb the surge at recreation lands that weren’t designed to host this many visitors? 

“It’s the classic national parks struggle,” said Pictured Rocks Superintendent Dave Horne. “Our mission is to preserve and protect these areas for this and figure generations, and at the same time encourage people to come and enjoy them. But those missions can be in competition.” 

At Pictured Rocks, the answer could involve new fees at a park that, in its 54-year life span, has never required payment for entry.

A worsening crisis

This year, the problem reached a point of crisis: The skyrocketing popularity at Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear collided with a COVID-19 outdoor recreation boom that brought record crowds to public lands throughout the state

Whether you attribute the rise in visitors to the popular Pure Michigan tourism campaign, the 2010 completion of a pavement project that simplified travel on the formerly rugged county road that visitors use to access Pictured Rocks, or the viral influence of social media, “every year is now a record,” Horne said.

It’s easy to understand the appeal. Pictured Rocks’ 42-mile lakeshore, which encompasses 33,929 of national parkland and a surrounding buffer zone of 39,306 acres, is home to some of Michigan’s most awe-inspiring natural landscapes. 

Sandstone cliffs and arches tower hundreds of feet above Lake Superior’s deep blue, piercingly clear waters. Amber-colored rivers cascade through dense forest, forming pools and waterfalls before emptying onto sandy beaches littered with agates and quartz. Private tour boats and kayaking outfitters offer visitors a close-up view of the cliffs from the water, and more than 100 miles of trails provide access to a backcountry that teems with wildlife. 

Despite several years of record visitation, the park’s budget of $2.6 million hasn’t budged since 2010. Staffing, meanwhile, has dwindled from the equivalent of 25 full-time positions in 2009 to just 22 positions today. 

Meanwhile, the park’s design remains largely unchanged from the days when it welcomed far fewer visitors. Many popular sites are accessed via narrow dirt roads owned not by the parks service, but by private timber companies or other units of government. Trails that used to see a few dozen hikers a day now see thousands during peak-season weekends, but still have modest restrooms and trash facilities. 

“We just hope that people self-govern,” said Joe Hughes, chief ranger at Pictured Rocks. “There’s stuff that we don’t have the time to control.”

As Sleeping Bear celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, park Superintendent Scott Tucker is worried about how the Lower Peninsula’s signature national park property on Lake Michigan will weather the years until its next milestone. 

This summer, Sleeping Bear welcomed 1.2 million visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Most were destined for just a handful of extremely popular areas: The famous Dune Climb, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, the Empire Bluff Trail.

That leads to traffic congestion and widespread off-road parking.

“People will stop anywhere they can get their four wheels on the ground,” Tucker said, sometimes trampling sensitive plants or creating safety hazards in the process. 

In an attempt to ease the pressure on Empire Bluffs and other overused areas, the park this year launched an app that helps visitors find other, lesser-known hikes. But the park will also probably need to invest in “formalizing” existing parking areas at popular sites to stop sensitive dunes from becoming unsanctioned parking lots, Tucker said. 

Sleeping Bear is fortunate, he said, that proceeds from its $25-per-vehicle entrance fee can help pay for some of the needed upgrades. 

That’s not the case at Pictured Rocks. The park has been free to visit since its founding in 1966, but Horne said parks officials are now “seriously considering” imposing fees to help pay for the upgrades that Pictured Rocks desperately needs to absorb the visitor crush.

As it stands, he said, “we literally can’t keep up.”

A plan, but no money

It would be years before any such fees could take effect, Horne said. The park first needs to conduct a study to identify possible options, then involve the public as it selects a fee structure. The end result could range from formal toll booths to an honor system. 

An honor system is more likely, Horne said, largely because it would be near-impossible to put up toll booths at every park entrance. Unlike some parks with limited entrances on National Parks Service roads, Pictured Rocks blends into the surrounding land. A county-owned highway cuts across the lakeshore area, and multiple dirt roads owned by local or even private entities serve as access points to popular hikes and viewscapes. 

“You can boat into Pictured Rocks. There are multiple ways to drive in,” Horne said. “We’re just not the kind of park where that would work.”

Although such fees are common at other national parks and public lands, Horne is expecting some pushback from users who have grown accustomed to accessing Pictured Rocks for free. 

In general, said Elizabeth Perry, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources who studies trends in land management, visitors are resistant to fees, viewing them as “a form of double taxation.” A Trump administration plan to increase user fees at popular parks like Yosemite faced so much opposition the administration later pulled the plan. 

But at this point, Horne said, fees are the only option he sees to increase revenue enough to keep the park’s infrastructure from buckling under the strain of growing crowds. Annual federal appropriations for the park have remained stagnant for a decade, and Horne doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

“We do the best we can with what we have,” he said, “but we’re struggling.”

A visitor management plan finalized this year plots several strategies to absorb rising visitor numbers at Pictured Rocks’ popular westernmost portion, the roughly 17-mile stretch from Munising Falls to Spray Falls. But implementing the plan will cost money. 

Much of the plan focuses on expanding park infrastructure: Paving over dirt roads and parking lots, creating drop-off areas for commercial shuttles, adding changing rooms, toilets, drinking water sources and other amenities to popular spots such as Miners Beach and Sand Point Beach. 

All of that would come at a cost, although Horne couldn’t estimate how much. Without money to carry out many of the plan’s solutions, parks staff for now must resort to management by triage.

‘Near-impossible to keep up’ 

Infrastructure at Michigan’s iconic lakeshores was overdue for routine maintenance and upgrades even before record visitor numbers began to worsen the wear-and-tear. 

At Pictured Rocks, the maintenance backlog is $10 million. At Sleeping Bear, it’s $18 million. Across the entire U.S. National Parks Service system, more than $11.9 billion in needed maintenance and repair projects were skipped in 2018.

The Great American Outdoors Act, which received President Trump’s signature in August, aims to cut into that backlog by allocating $6.5 billion over the next five years to address deferred maintenance at national park properties. But the number falls far short of the need, and it’s unclear how much if any Michigan’s national lakeshores will receive.

“Some of these things are management by fire hose,” said Tucker, of Sleeping Bear. “Which is the bigger fire this year?”

Add unprecedented use on top of decrepit infrastructure, and lingering problems can become crises.

At Pictured Rocks, an aging septic system that serves the restrooms at Miners Castle blew out in 2018 under the strain of too many toilet flushes. With no money to fix it, the lakeshore had to spend $45,000 this year to pump waste from the restrooms and truck it offsite on a near-daily basis.

“Our facilities just weren’t designed to handle a million people,” said Ron Jones, one of four custodial staffers for the park.

More visitors also means greater costs to stock facilities with soap, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other amenities. And more people using those amenities makes Jones’ job harder.

Confronted with the mountain of trash generated during this year’s visitor surge, he hitched a trailer to the truck he usually drives around the park to empty trash cans and clean bathrooms. Even with the added trailer, he said, “It’s been near-impossible to keep up.”

Enforcing park rules poses a similar challenge. The park’s three law enforcement rangers (down from four this summer) must decide which duties to prioritize as they struggle to maintain order across 42 miles of Lake Superior shoreline and nearly 34,000 acres of parkland. 

Often, they focus on safety. The iconic sandstone cliffs towering over Lake Superior’s frigid blue waters are beautiful, but they can be also dangerous. More visitors mean more people to climb over barriers, inch perilously close to the edge of cliffs, or venture out into Lake Superior on vessels better suited for a lazy river.

On Labor Day weekend, Hughs and fellow ranger Eric Paupore were patrolling the water by boat when they encountered five people crowded into a small blow-up raft with a car battery powering a small propellor, while four-foot waves dumped water into the raft.

“They need to get out onto shore and out of that boat, like, now,” Paupore said as the pair steered their patrol vessel toward the raft. 

Worried the rafters would electrocute or drown, the rangers ordered them back to shore and issued a warning. They’d been back on land mere minutes before being called back out to rescue a hiker who had fallen from a cliff over the lake.

Time spent protecting park visitors from Lake Superior’s hazards and their own bad judgement leaves less time to deal with illegal campers, litterers, double-parkers and other scofflaws.

Take, for example, dog owners. Hikers’ best friend can inflict widespread ecosystem damage, which is why dogs are banned from the park’s backcountry (dogs are allowed in other parts of the lakeshore, but must be kept on a leash). Compliance with the rules is spotty at best.

As Hughs worked to detangle a miles-long traffic jam at the Chapel/Mosquito trailhead the Saturday before Labor Day, a woman made her way toward the trail with what appeared to be a pitbull, then became irate when he reminded her that dogs are not allowed.

When she walked away yelling obscenities, he opted not to follow. Deep in the woods with no backup, a visitor who seemed ready for a fight, and countless other crises to address, this encounter wasn’t worth the risk.

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Comments

Disagree
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 8:07am

So rather than expanding the area and entrance points, provide more parking, toilets and campground facilities, the answer is to raise the fees and reserve the area for wealthy people? One woman enjoys 125 acres for her personal "camp" while 1 million people have to squeeze on the narrow road? There is way too much of a divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Hallinen
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 10:52am

I’d be surprised if the owner of the 125 acres is a member of the 1%. Land often goes for about $1000/acre in the area and has often been in families for years. The buffer zone owners have extra restrictions on what they can do with their land, their land greatly expands wildlife habitat. A lot of people trespass with ATVs on the private land and leave trash and damage vegetation.

Just wait
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 10:55am

Trump will probably get a sweetheart deal to put his branded hotels and condos on the federal land before he leaves. Our taxes will pay for the infrastructure and the wall to keep common people out.

Just Wait,
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 8:19pm

Prez. Trump took no pay for 4 years for being POTUS, I hope he does get richer like all other Presidents before him!

David Waymire
Fri, 11/13/2020 - 10:59am

If he hadn't wasted tens of millions on his weekly golf trips, the parks could have been better maintained. He didn't take $200,000....and cost us a ridiculous amount , with many millions going to his properties to house him, staff and secret service. He made money off his presidency WHILE he was president. Nobody ever did that before.

LH
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 11:27am

Did you miss the part about preserving and protecting the natural resources that make these parks so special? I agree that infrastructure improvements are needed, but big parking lots, more developed campgrounds, paved roads, etc. are the antithesis of what we love about the UP. About half the land within the park boundary is owned by other federal or state agencies, or by private parties, and so cannot be developed by the Park Service anyway. And those of us in the UP who have worked hard to be able to buy a little bit of paradise are certainly not deserving of people trespassing on private property, blocking driveways and leaving trash and feces behind. It's laughable to refer to most of us in the UP as the "haves," at least in an economic sense.

LOL
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 5:50pm

Sorry, the "landed". You want your land, you want tourist dollars, you want, you want, you want, and boy do you complain.

Kelly House
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 4:08pm

Hi there. Just want to clarify a point that's in the story: Pictured Rocks does have a plan that calls for rethinking parking, adding toilets and making other upgrades to absorb the growing crowds. But the park lacks funding to make those improvements, which is part of the reason a fee is under consideration.

Another view
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 5:51pm

All that is good and well, but as federal lands, it's part of the commons and our tax dollars should pay the tab, not user fees.

Free For All
Sat, 11/14/2020 - 1:36am

Agreed! National Parks should be free for all Americans, our taxes pay for these parks and funds should be spent wisely instead of adding another tax to visit our national treasures. Absurd!!

Ouchez
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 8:14pm

So you want to strip the woman of her property rights? Will you pay her the $millions it is worth for campers to come and pollute it?

Anonymous
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 8:29am

In general, said Elizabeth Perry, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources who studies trends in land management, visitors are resistant to fees, viewing them as “a form of double taxation.” A Trump administration plan to increase user fees at popular parks like Yosemite faced so much opposition the administration later pulled the plan.

_______________________________________________________

THAT'S why Trump is an impeached one-term president. He didn't/doesn't represent We the People. What is he doing right now????

Picture This!
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 8:32am

"At Pictured Rocks, the maintenance backlog is $10 million. At Sleeping Bear, it’s $18 million. Across the entire U.S. National Parks Service system, more than $11.9 billion in needed maintenance and repair projects were skipped in 2018." If only Trump would have kept his promise for Mexico to pay for the wall, instead of us....

Chuck
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 8:39am

I wish you would have asked Senators Stabenow and Peters and District 1 Representative Bergman why the budget for Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore hasn't changed in 10 years or what their plan is for resolving the issues.
They need to voice a policy position on supporting this park. What are their next steps to help? Are they even aware of the problems?
This article left me frustrated at a time when we should be solving problems not just complain or failing to work together. If the author has studied this issue then they also should also point to solutions and how the reader can help make it happen.

To delusional
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 10:57am

Ask them or Moscow Mitch? I think Moscow calls the shots in the senate, but nice try.

Downstate
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 8:54am

We went to the Sleeping Bear Dune climb midweek July 2020 for a daytrip (seeking outdoor activities) and were quite surprised that there was no entrance fee there; no signs. There was no longer even an entrance station; just a foundation from where it had been torn down! We assumed it had something to do with Covid, but the park missed a revenue opportunity at that time.

Tracy
Sat, 11/14/2020 - 12:41pm

The park had several scheduled maintenance projects happening this summer that were supposed to take place in the spring. The entrances to both Pierce Stocking and the Dune climb included, as these kiosks were not open, they waived fees from June-September losing 2.5 million dollars in entry fees. Not the way they wanted their summer to go. If you’d like to make a donation to the park, anyone can at the NPS website or donate to the local Friends organization that supports The park’s projects. I hope you had a lovely visit and that you and your family will come back and see more!

Hallinen
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 10:46am

I’d like to see 3 large visitor lots, one near Munising, one near Grand Marais and one near Melstrand. These lots could be served by shuttles that hit the popular spots. Charge a parking fee to cover the shuttles. After Covid of course. Zion does this in the summer. The bus stops would need a fan that blows away the insects. H58 is a great biking road, it would be great to discourage motor vehicles. Chapel’s parking lot has been overwhelmed for years.

Dave Lindhout
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 3:02pm

You might be on to something, Hallinen. Perhaps a reassessment is in order.

Jb
Fri, 11/13/2020 - 11:17pm

Good ideas for prime visiting weeks. Would for sure lesson the burden on entry points and help mitigate crowds.

Daniel Schoonmaker
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 1:50pm

This is a growing issue that was particularly evident this past fall and summer, especially in the UP. If Tahquamenon Falls et al is going to attract a Grand Canyon size crowd it needs the infrastructure to support that.

Dave Lindhout
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 3:41pm

In the last century I camped on South Manitou Island many times, Nordhouse Dunes a few times, and one memorable trip to Pictured Rocks. We always camped where the latrine was a garden shovel, a roll of toilet paper, and the smoothed tree we could find to lean against.

Perhaps the best day at Pictured Rocks was taking the high road from Mosquito Creek northeast to the log slide. We went down the dune with no intention of climbing back up. It was an extraordinarily hot summer in the 1980's. Lake Superior was as warms as it gets. Walking in the water was more on sandstone than sand. Incredible experience.

In regards to today's issues, I'm so glad I camped when i did. My thought would be, expect less. You're in a gorgeous area that can't support the amenities available elsewhere. We are going to need to find a balance.

Sue
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 6:20pm

REALLY!!!!We the people have a RIGHT to visit shores n parks..Shut UP rich whinning babys that want land to your self..YOU CAN GO TO AN ISLAND.. You dont own the parks.

robert liebermann
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 11:47pm

Please start by getting the name of the agency correct... or stick to the easier to spell acronym (NPS)!

Anonymous
Thu, 11/12/2020 - 5:24pm

I am kind of surprised that a few of these private landowners haven't started their own campground/parking service. It seems that would solve tourists parking in front of driveways and along the road, while making money for providing a highly needed service.

Granted I don't know the proximity of houses to the road, but it seems like a fine idea if the State can't come up with the land to do it.

But putting modern amenities in a highly wilderness area? That isn't going to happen anytime soon, especially when we are ambivalent at best when it comes to taxing, for paying for things.

It's what I always tell people, if you aren't willing to pay for better, do the best with what you have. The least you can do is pick up your trash and some one elses to boot! Leave it better than when you got there and it will always be that way. Trash it and that is what you will have.

John
Fri, 11/20/2020 - 4:43pm

Granted, you don't know therefore your comments are useless.

Tim
Fri, 11/13/2020 - 11:23am

A little more in depth reporting would’ve dug into the real reasons there is no staff at Pictured Rocks. In the last two years there has been a 70% reduction just in law enforcement staff In the park because of a failure to hire and retain employees.

The park is being mismanaged. Ironically, Joe Hughes who is featured in this article, was previously investigated by Office of Inspector General for mismanagement at the last park he worked at. Yet he was somehow allowed to move to a new park where he is currently mismanaging his staff again. This will only get more noticeable as the park becomes busier. If you visit Pictured Rocks try not to get hurt, there is no one to come help you!