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Stateside Podcast: Tourism skyrockets at Pictured Rocks

A cliffside at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore from a kayaker's point of view. A red kayak is visible in the foreground, an archway in the cliffside serves as the background.
NPS Photo
National Park Service
Cliffs at Pictured Rocks

The rainbow-colored sandstone cliffs that make up Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore have always felt like a little secret amongst Michiganders.

But that is changing.

Sheri McWhirter, a reporter for MLive, said that the tourism numbers at Pictured Rocks have been increasing for nearly a decade. In 2014, the park reported around 500,000 visitors. By 2018, it had increased to 800,000. Then, when the pandemic started, quarantine-exhausted people started looking for ways to safely go outdoors, and the number of visitors jumped again. Around 1.2 million people visited the Michigan landmark in 2020 and 1.3 million in 2021.

This spike in tourism has had a dramatic effect on the park. Trails and septic systems that were designed to handle 400,000 to 500,000 visitors a year have been failing. Pictured Rocks was a national park that did not charge an entrance fee—meaning that there were limited funds for upgrades.

“They didn't have a revenue stream to help pay for things,” McWhirter said. “So trails to the backcountry that are normally single file are now maybe four or five persons wide, and there's more litter around. Staircases are crumbling under all those extra feet. Septic systems that were able to handle 400,000 to 500,000 visitors a year have not been able to keep up with over a million.”

The park has since implemented a seven day pass at $10 for groups or motorcycles, or $5 for an individual. But this revenue will not be available until next year.

The influx of tourists has also impacted the communities around Pictured Rocks. The small town of Munising is the closest to the park, and is trying to keep up with all the new business.

“There's no food delivery in Munising,” McWhirter said. “A lot of times, the restaurants will be closed by 8 or 9 p.m. One woman at the Park Service suggested that people even bring their own groceries in a cooler. The community is attempting to keep up with all of the extra people, but like a lot of other places, they are experiencing trouble finding enough workers.”

One business owner handling the tourism boom is Tom Dolaski, owner of Roam Inn in Munising. A U.P. native, Dolaski encourages guests to “check in and get out” to explore all the area has to offer.

It's a great place to relax and unwind,” Dolaski said. “Whether you're on a boat tour, kayaking, hiking, waterfalls, it's really, in a hospitable way, encouraging people to check in and drop your bags and then get back out there because you don't have enough time to take in everything that's here.”

As the town faces the spike in tourism, Dolaski said that a recurring obstacle is the lack of long-term rentals where employees can stay.

“There was a very, very aggressive movement toward acquiring as many single family homes as possible and converting them into short-term rentals,” Dolaski said. “That definitely was a rug pull on available housing for our workforce and our locals. Good news is there are some of us, myself being one, that are trying to bring some long-term rental and long-term housing options back to Munising.”

While the number of tourists to the town may be increasing, Dolaski said there is one thing that remains the same: the bugs. He said visitors often ask him what the bugs are like that season. His standard reply? "Friendly."

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Asher Wertheimer is a junior at Olivet College studying Journalism and Mass Communication.