Hundreds of thousands of camping newbies are flocking to our federal lands, with many of them ignorantly – but sometimes intentionally – causing damage to National Parks.
It is a nationwide problem, unprecedented in scope, brought about by COVID travel restrictions and the need for people to get away.
And the flood of new campers and RVers shows no signs of abating. posing great threats to the sustainability of our national parks, already hamstrung by bare-bones budgets and hiring freezes.
That's the topic of our interview of the week on the RV Podcast as we talk to the superintendent of one of our most pristine hunks of federal wilderness, the beautiful Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
You can listen to the podcast in the player below or scroll down this page for shownotes and a transcript of the interview, plus links and resources about all the things we talk about. The interview can be heard about 26:20 in.
About the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the stress caused by Camping Newbies
Our guest is David Horne, the Superintendent of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which hugs the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It's known for the dramatic multicolored Pictured Rocks cliffs and its unusual sandstone formations like Miners Castle and Chapel Rock. It covers the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and has pristine beaches, rugged hardwood forests, abundant wildlife, and little development.
Size of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
It covers 73,236 acres (114 square miles), roughly between the towns of Munising on the West and Grand Marais on the east. Hiking trails crisscross the lakeshore, with the most popular being a 42-mile section of the North Country Trail that traverses the hilly lakeshore.
There are three rustic, but small, campgrounds. Backcountry camping is available by permit through the lakeshore.
Normally, the park gets around half a million visitors every year. But this past year was anything but normal.
The number of Camping Newbies exploded last year
Here is a video we shot last fall that shows parts of the Lakeshore which even in the fall, saw every campground filled:
Over a million people flocked to the lakeshore in 2020, shattering the 2019 record of 859,000, which itself broke the previous year’s record of 815,000. The growth started about 2015 when the park averaged around a half million visitors a year.
The result has been more than troublesome.
The visitors and camping newbies have damaged trails. Made their own trails where they shouldn't.
They have so congested some of the two-lane roads in and around the park that many places had traffic jams, with hundreds of cars competing for a few dozen parking spots.
Trash, human waste, littering, illegal camping, and a massive strain on the park's infrastructure and staff have reached a point of crisis.
Again, this is not happening just at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
It is all across the country.
But in looking at the problem through the lens of what the invasion of the camping newbies and other new visitors have brought to just one park, perhaps we can better understand what is happening everywhere.
So we can figure out what to do about it. Yes, I said “we.” For those parks are our parks. And they, and the dedicated staff that works so hard to protect them for us, need all our help.
Interview with David Horne, Superintendent of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
David is a 26 year veteran of the National Parks Service and took over running the lakeshore in 2018.
A graduate of Humboldt State University in northern California with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Horne spent four years in the U.S. Coast Guard, stationed primarily in Kodiak, Alaska.
His career with the National Park Service began in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in natural resource management. He then joined the ranks of Visitor and Resource Protection working at Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Big Bend, Yosemite, and Pinnacles National Parks as well as Lake Mead National Recreation Area and in the Intermountain Regional Office.
He loves the park, as is evident in the interview and he has some great suggestions for all of us to help. Here is a transcript of our conversation:
The problems with Camping Newbies
Mike Wendland: Joining us right now to talk about this is David Horne. He is the superintendent of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore up near Munising, Michigan in the beautiful snow-covered Michigan upper peninsula right now. David, thanks for being on the podcast today.
David Horne: Well thanks a lot. My pleasure.
Mike Wendland: So let's talk about last year. We have seen all of the stories. We've actually encountered as we've traveled some of the congestion. But help our listeners understand exactly how crazy it really got out there, as so many people, locked down, looking for a place to vacation, said, “Let's try camping and RVing.”
David Horne: That's a great question. For the last five years, every year has been a record. I don't want to pepper you with a bunch of stats, but in the last 10 years, we've had 143 percent increase, which is a huge increase for us. We have the same infrastructure that we did 10 years ago, same budget. So it really had an impact.
The stats: There have been lots of Camping Newbies
David Horne: But last year (2019) we had 860,000 visitors. In 2020, the preliminary number we're getting is 1.2 million.
Mike Wendland: Oh my goodness.
David Horne: So it was a huge jump in one year from 2019 to 2020. So yeah, unfortunately, the natural resources of the park took a little bit of a hit, just that many people just, our parking lots our infrastructure, the restrooms, trails, roads. We're literally not made for that level of visitation and that many people.
David Horne: We got through it. A lot of people came. A lot of people had fun. But it was definitely the most crowded the park has ever been in the history of it.
Mike Wendland: Now many of those people, if we're to believe what we're hearing from elsewhere, were new people, people who maybe have never really done a lot of camping or haven't been real active in terms of visiting national parks and national lakeshores like Pictured Rocks. Was that's your experience? Did you find a lot of new people who maybe are trying something for the first time?
Illegal camping caused damage to National Parks
David Horne: That was our experience. We don't really keep hard data on that. But just anecdotally, it's easy to look on a map and say, “Oh, that's three miles in. There's the trail. You just walk in.” Those are mountain miles. They're tougher when you're actually walking with equipment. Our staff actually picked up a lot of equipment. People hiked in to backcountry sites with ice chests and mattresses, giant tents, and several people, many people actually just abandoned that in the backcountry. So we cleaned up a lot of that.
David Horne: That's just based on inexperience. Those miles look easy on paper, and when you started actually walking them, it's a lot tougher. So yeah, I think we did. It's fair to say we have a lot of first-time visitors and first-time park users.
Mike Wendland: I'm kind of laughing at that because I can just picture somebody walking through the woods carrying a chest thinking, “Oh, it's only a quarter inch on the map.”
David Horne: Right. Right.
Mike Wendland: But the problems have been pretty severe. Maybe you could help enlighten everyone about what kind of problems you saw besides that, besides people just leaving stuff that was too heavy to carry back. This really stressed our lands, and I think it has to make us wonder about the sustainability of this kind of growth on our national lands like this.
The influx of Camping Newbies came as a surprise
David Horne: It is really fast growth. Last year with COVID, we were thinking it's not going to be a big year. But it definitely, it was a 41 percent increase. It was a huge year for us. I have people that are speculating that you couldn't fly, but you could drive here. So that was probably a big part of it.
David Horne: But yeah, there were some real measurable impacts. Our trails got widened, the most popular trails just by the volume of people walking on them were widened. A lot of social trails, social trails, they're not trails until a few people walk off trail and it starts to look like one. That attracts more people and essentially turns it into trail. So we had a huge increase in social trails. They're tough to rehabilitate and get it back to that natural condition after that happens.
David Horne: A lot of illegal camping, camping that isn't in a campsite. The reason we have campsites is we limit the damage. We want people to come in here and enjoy the park, but we also want to try to keep it as pristine and as much of a wilderness experience is as it can be. So when you have a lot of people creating new sites it denudes the foliage and it just makes it look like a campsite, which draws more campers. So there was a lot of physical effects of that, of the increased visitation this year.
Parking problems at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Mike Wendland: And the parking lots, there's not a lot of room in parking lots and you bring in trailers and motor homes and fifth wheels and all of this stuff. How did you handle all that with the parking?
David Horne: That's another great question. Part of it we just got through it. It's really difficult to manage. The Chapel Trailhead is one of our most popular trailheads, and the parking lot has a 57 vehicle lot in there. That typically fills up first thing in the morning and then people are parked along the road and essentially by the afternoon hiking an extra mile along the road just to get to the trailhead. All that parking along the road, the congestion, it really became a problem. There were a couple of instances where we couldn't even get emergency vehicles down there when people were needing help.
David Horne: So we're trying some creative strategies to try to manage that in the future. But yeah, these parking lots were designed and built many, many years ago, and the park was not engineered to hold 1.2 million people in a year.
Human waste disposal is a challenge with so many new visitors to all our National Parks
Mike Wendland: We've read stories about human waste being found and just causing problems all over our federal lands. Did you encounter that as well? People are out in the middle of places they shouldn't be, and camping where they shouldn't. I would imagine that is also a problem.
David Horne: Yeah, that's kind of funny. We ended up talking about human waste removal quite a bit in the park. It's a major management challenge just to manage the waste in our backcountry sites. They're remote, many of them.
David Horne: So we're trying to come up with creative solutions there. This is a park-wide issue as well too. You can Google all kinds of stories on that, where there's parks that gather it and fly it out in helicopters and things like that. We are trying to tackle that. We're coming up with different vault toilet, pit toilet designs, that kind of thing.
Pit toilets are filling up much faster than usual
David Horne: But yeah, it was a huge issue. Our backcountry pit toilets are filling up. Usually, they last several years. After one or two years, we fill them up and have to move them now. So we're trying to come up with alternatives for that.
Mike Wendland: Now this was, of course, the year of the RV, the year of camping they said of 2020, and all the indications are that 2021 is going to be just as busy. You're mostly shut down, although there are still places that you can get in. Are you noticing even in the winter, more people up there or has that, I know the UP can get pretty snowbound but are you still seeing people up there now? And what's the expectation for once the snow melts and the seasons start again?
David Horne: Well, we don't see any reason why the visitation is going to decrease dramatically. We're basically expecting the same levels of crowds. We still have COVID going on. I think it's going to be a repeat of the same situation.
David Horne: Just to clarify too, we never close. We're always open, but we don't plow some of the roads. So technically you can still camp in our camp sites. You just can't drive to most of them, or all of them actually. You can snowmobile in, ski-in and things like that. But yeah, by far, the far majority of visitation is during the summer months.
What will 2021 bring in terms of crowding and damage to National Parks?
Mike Wendland: And what happens in 2021? You don't have any increase in budget. You don't really have any increase in personnel. You've got a massive increase in visitors. What are some of the solutions that you guys will be doing at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and then what kind of things can we suggest to our listeners that they do to make your job a little bit easier, but most importantly to keep our parks clean and pristine?
David Horne: Yeah. I really appreciate that. We don't have more people coming in and we don't have more budget for this year. The service is really trying to catch up to this. But on one hand, we're just going to try to get through it again. We prioritize which work we have to do and we dramatically increase the rate of picking up trash and removing trash out the trash cans in the park, in the campsites, things like that.
Best advice for all National Park visitors: Leave No Trace
David Horne: This kind of outreach that you're doing is fantastic as well too, because we really want to get the word out there of Leave No Trace, take care of this like it's your own land, which it is. This is the people's park, the National Park Service is. So when you come here, just take care. Pick up your own trash, but also pick up other people's too. That's always very helpful and just follow our rules.
The Seven Principles of the Leave no Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What you Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
David Horne: We try to establish rules that will maintain the wilderness feel of the place. So have fires only where there are fires allowed. Camp only where there's camping allowed. We have a reservation system. If you can't get a reservation, there are other options for camping around here, but please just don't make your own campsite. Those kinds of things would be really helpful.
Mike Wendland: Well we will pass all of this along, and in our show notes we'll link to the Leave No Trace movement. We've got lots of resources on that, and you are one of my absolute favorite places in all of North America and I almost hate to talk about it because I don't want to bring more people up there.
David Horne: No, that's great. It's beautiful. It really is a wonderful place. I hope I didn't make it sound like it's just overrun. It's still just a fantastic experience.
Mike Wendland: But we want to sustain it.
David Horne: We welcome everyone.
Mike Wendland: We want it to stay that way and we want to make your job as easy as possible, and all the awesome folks out there who work for the National Park Service. We're on your side, David Horne, and we want to thank you for helping us understand the challenges that you faced this past year, that you'll be facing this year, and most importantly, I hope we have convinced our audience to take some responsibility. Go out there and enjoy it, but be responsible. David Horne, you've been a great guest. Thank you.
David Horne: Well, thanks a lot. I appreciate it.
Want to learn more about visiting the Michigan Upper Peninsula and the Pictured Lakes National Lakeshore?
We've written one of our popular 7 Day Adventure Guides all about Michigan UP
We provide a suggested route and itinerary, links to multiple campgrounds and boondocking spots, and the best spots to see along the way.
You can hit everything in seven days, do a whirlwind weekend tour, or you can take your time and explore the area over a 2+ week period. And it features a whole section on the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
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