Pandemic brings record crowds to Michigan parks. (And trash and trouble)

At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan, July crowds broke an all-time record, a statistic parks officials attribute to vacationers embracing outdoor recreation as a pandemic-friendly pursuit. (Photo courtesy of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore)

The campground at Tahquamenon Falls State Park was full virtually every night in July, while an uptick in day-use visitors caused the parking lot to fill up daily. Visitors to the falls should plan ahead to avoid crowds, park manager Kevin Dennis said. (Shutterstock photo)

Visitor numbers at the Huron-Clinton Metroparks system are up 31 percent so far this year, at 2.2 million. Parks staff have at times had to temporarily close parks to enable social distancing amid the visitor surge. (Courtesy photo)

Litter, human waste, animal feeding, illegal camping and other issues have emerged at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore as visitor numbers surge during the pandemic. (Shutterstock photo)

Popular recreation spots like the beach at South Haven aren’t the only ones seeing high numbers of visitors this year. Even lesser-known parks, trails and campgrounds are experiencing an uptick as visitors seek socially-distant recreation during the pandemic. (Shutterstock photo)

Large crowds at Belle Isle in Detroit have forced parks staff to temporarily close the island multiple times this summer, waiting for crowds to thin before letting additional visitors onto the island. (Shutterstock photo)

Tubers and paddlers crowd the Platte River at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The lakeshore experienced record visitor numbers in July. (Photo courtesy of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore)

Michigan’s beaches, campgrounds, hiking trails and harbors are logging record attendance this summer, as vacationers seek relief from COVID-19 cabin fever and travel restrictions, closures and health concerns limit their options.

At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan, July crowds shattered an all-time record, with more than 590,000 visitors. In July 2019, the lakeshore saw just under 500,000.

At Tahquamenon Falls State Park in the Upper Peninsula, day-use attendance in July was nearly 60,000, up 4 percent from last year’s already higher-than-average numbers, and the campground was full virtually all month. 

Statewide, nights reserved in July were up 25 percent at state campgrounds along with “unprecedented” attendance at first-come, first-served rustic campgrounds, while visitors to the Huron-Clinton Metroparks system in southeast Michigan increased nearly 31 percent so far this year to 2.2 million.

“We’ve seen record numbers of people all week, even on marginal weather days,” said Ron Olson, parks and recreation chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “People have been sequestered at home, and being outside feels like a safer place to go, particularly places that have larger open spaces so people can spread out.”

The increases follow nationwide shortages of bicycles, kayaks, sleeping bags and tents and record boat and RV sales. But with more crowds come more problems — and poop.

Along Lake Superior, early numbers indicate a 7 percent jump in visitors at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Parks staff have noticed a dramatic spike in littering, illegal trailblazing, and other disregard for park rules, said Susan Reece, the lakeshore’s chief of interpretation and education.

Hoping to avoid restrooms for fear of spreading the virus, visitors have defecated “next to the toilets, behind the toilets, on the floor, wherever,” Reece said. Some have built illegal campsites after arriving at the lakeshore without reservations, only to discover that campgrounds are full. Others have left entire coolers in the woods.

This month, a bear was struck and killed by a car on Highway 58 in the park. The animal was loitering in the road and had learned to do so by people feeding it from car windows. Bear run-ins are way up throughout the park this year, Reece said.

“People are just throwing trash everywhere, and a lot of younger bears, the yearlings in their first year on their own, are getting themselves in trouble,” she said.

Olson said state parks and forests are also experiencing a similar increase in littering and illegal dumping. He attributes it partially to an uptick in first-time campers who aren’t accustomed to leave-no-trace principles. 

Social distancing protocol may also play a role, he said. As visitors take precautions to keep their distance from other groups, they stray from the developed picnic areas equipped with trash receptacles and other amenities. 

“They don’t want to hunt down a receptacle,” he said, so they toss the trash on the ground. 

At Sleeping Bear, the biggest issue is illegal parking. Visitors arrive at a popular trail to find the lot full, so they park off-road, sometimes on sensitive dunes.

Sleeping Bear Superintendent Scott Tucker said parks staff combat the bad behavior by trying to spread a message: “The lakeshore is here for you during this trying time, but we want to make sure the lakeshore is here for your grandkids, as well.”

Cleaning up after litterers is a strain on parks and recreation employees, who are already short-staffed after COVID-19 closures delayed the summer hiring season, Olson said. Plus, employees are busy adhering to a stepped-up cleaning routine to make sure COVID-19 doesn’t spread in park bathrooms and other facilities. “But we just continue doing the best we can.”

The upshot for vacationers hoping to visit a popular Michigan campground or outdoor recreation spot this summer:

“Plan ahead,” said Tahquamenon Falls State Park Manager Kevin Dennis, who also oversees 11 state forest campgrounds in the U.P. “We see a lot of folks that don’t, and they get up here and can’t find anywhere to camp.”

The uptick isn’t limited to popular sites like Tahquamenon and Grand Haven State Park, although those places have been consistently packed. Even some of the DNR’s less-popular destinations, such as small inland lakes and rustic state forest campgrounds, have been busy. So have harbor slips, where reservations are up 14 percent, and off-road vehicle trails, where permits are up 22 percent, Olson said.

Balancing the newfound popularity against COVID-19 social distancing protocol can be a challenge. 

In the five-county Huron-Clinton Metroparks, communications chief Danielle Mauter said officials have developed a system to restrict visitor access when parking lots reach 60 percent capacity. At times, workers have had to temporarily close whole parks or popular areas such as splash pads and beaches. 

Olson said DNR staff have also had to close popular parks such as Belle Isle in Detroit more frequently than usual, waiting for crowds to thin out before letting new visitors enter. 

Signs placed throughout parks remind visitors to keep their distance and wear a mask in indoor spaces, and “by and large,” he said, “people have become more and more used to the protocols.”

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My two cents
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 9:26am

Back in the day, our parents taught us to leave things cleaner than we found them. I still remember the touching PSA with the native American teary-faced when he saw trash people left. I simply can't understand why people think it's okay to discard their trash wherever they want, including out of car windows or at off ramps. Lastly, we really need a deposit law for water bottles, even if it's just a penny. Someone will pick them up!

Mon, 08/17/2020 - 9:33am

Excellent article, the kind that the major TV networks should be reporting throughout the state, if not the country.

A Yooper
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 10:00am

If people can’t respect these parks then close them, period!

Mon, 08/17/2020 - 10:07am

"Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints."

It's not hard, stop being selfish. Or better yet, leave the area better than you found it because no amount of complaining at garbage will compel it to magically float over to a trash can. Also if you see someone trashing the place, report them to the DNR or local authorities.

Mon, 08/17/2020 - 12:29pm

Seriously, who poops on the floor of a bathroom or portapotty? God help us! I'm so disgusted.

Mon, 08/17/2020 - 9:16pm

Who does this? Well, probably white trash, folks that are afraid of their own shadow, or millenials, the "social justice warriors" that only care about themselves and getting free stuff.

Eyes rolling
Tue, 08/18/2020 - 2:19pm

You might want to stereotype groups of people, but the truth is those people are just jerks, not of a particular race, party, age, religion, or anything else. Jerks also make mean comments like yours.

Mon, 08/17/2020 - 1:53pm

people need to learn to be less selfish and more responsible... and you are not being kind by feeding the wildlife! They need to fear people... for a lot of reasons! And for those of you that live in this beautiful state... shame on you... keep our lakes CLEAN, keep our environment clean. You want to trash something... trash your own home.

Mike C
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 7:13pm

It's also against state law. Our neighbors in the city feed "birds" and we have problems with skunks, raccoons, groundhogs, etc. They do lots of property damage.

Tue, 08/18/2020 - 9:46am

There are a lot of parks in the US and Canada that have adopted the phrase : "A fed bear is a dead bear." Once a bear stops fearing humans, the only option park rangers have to prevent that bear from attacking people is to euthanize it.

Tue, 08/18/2020 - 2:22pm

Here in the US, lazy hunters feed wildlife so it's easier to kill them. So I guess, you're right.

Mon, 08/17/2020 - 2:06pm

Humans are the worst. species. ever. This is why we can't have nice things, we trash everything, especially natural resources and place, and then we wonder why Ma Nature sends pandemics our way....sheesh.

Wed, 09/02/2020 - 10:52am

Right Dat, Anne B.

middle of the mit
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 8:20pm

I hate to say this but this is typical America. We want our areas clean, so we trash the outdoors.

How hard is it to carry a bag in your pocket for trash, or even put the trash in your pocket or car until you can find a trash can? And fear of using the toilet? How.....wha.....?

Come on MI! BE better stewards of our State and planet.

And don't feed the wildlife! You never know when those cute little bears mom will poke her nose at you! There was a biker that was stampeded by a bison the other day. Wild life is wild, they are not your pets.

What happened?
Tue, 08/18/2020 - 2:25pm

To be fair, the same stuff happens in less developed countries. That's where we are today, at the same level of lesser developed countries.