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Haunted woods, shipwreck graveyards, prehistoric lava and the world’s most important wolf puppies—Michigan’s national parks have more history than you might have known.

MICHIGAN—Parks and recreation are a way of life for Michigan. 

Sure, we know of the destination points in our own backyards pretty well, but for National Parks and Recreation Month, The ‘Gander went on a search for the history, legends, and trivia that tell the lesser-known stories of our natural wonders and prehistoric shorelines. 

These parks are not just gems of conservation and green spaces for our families, but landmines of generational knowledge and fast facts for the Mitten State. Take a look at 18 bits of Pure Michigan history you might not have known:

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Sleeping Bear Dunes
A beautiful sunset at Esch Road beach on the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

What We Know 

The Sleeping Bear Dunes is a National Lakeshore located in Benzie and Leelanau counties. It covers over 70,000 acres and includes 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. North and South Manitou Islands are also included. The sands of the Sleeping Bear Dunes tower up to 450 feet over Lake Michigan. In 2011, ABC’s Good Morning America voted it the Most Beautiful Place in America. Read more about the Sleeping Bear Dunes on its official website or the National Parks Service website.

What’s to Discover

The Dunes have been a seasonal recreation spot since prehistoric times.

Since as early as 11,000 BCE, Native American tribes used the Sleeping Bear Dunes area for hunting and fishing. Many archeological artifacts, including spearheads and pottery, have been found over the park’s history. In 2017, prehistoric human remains were found by a park visitor, the first time human remains were discovered within the park. These archeological discoveries often happen due to erosion or shifting water levels.

A graveyard of shipwrecks hides in the Dunes’ waters.

Adjacent to the park’s coast is the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve, which is in the water around the Manitou Islands and Sleeping Bear Point. From 1825 until the early 1900s, passenger ships and freight ships used the Manitou Passage to travel between Chicago and the Erie Canal. The waters of the Manitou Passage were sometimes treacherous, however, and many ships sank. Because of the shifting coastline, shipwrecks have been unearthed as sand erodes away. The Three Brothers was a wooden steamer which sank in 1911 and whose wreck was discovered in 1996 under only 12 feet of water. Today, this area is protected and snorkelers and divers alike can visit the preserved shipwrecks, not all of which have been identified. A few wrecks, such as the package freighter Francisco Morazan, are sometimes visible from land!

The Dunes have a village trapped in the Roaring Twenties.

Visitors who travel to Glen Haven Beach may be surprised to notice a historical village close to the shoreline. Similar to the Edwardian style of Mackinac Island, the village of Glen Haven preserves the time when small villages along the Great Lakes supplied fuel to steamer ships. The 1920s appearance of the coastal logging village has been completely preserved, with restored buildings including a cannery, general store, and blacksmith. Nearby is also a Maritime Museum that once housed the US Coast Guard of the time. In the summer, visitors can walk inside the buildings and even watch demonstrations from noon to 5 PM.

The Dunes provide a habitat for endangered species.

As many as half the population of Piping Plovers in the Great Lakes makes their homes in the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Piping Plovers are small migratory birds who live on beaches. They were listed as federally endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1986. Thanks to the efforts of groups such as the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort, the Piping Plover population is making a comeback, with as many as 75 mating pairs in the park.

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River Raisin National Battlefield Park

Manchester, Michigan – River Raisin Park
Manchester, Michigan, USA – May 16, 2020: River Raisin Park, as seen from E Main Street. Manchester is a village in Manchester Township within Washtenaw County in the U.S. state of Michigan.

What We Know

The River Raisin National Battlefield Park is an 81-acre park in Monroe. It commemorates the Battle of Frenchtown during the War of 1812. This battle had the greatest amount of casualties of any battle in the state’s boundaries, with over 500 casualties over a 5-day period. Commemorations and reenactments of the historic battle happen annually in January on the battle’s anniversary. Read more about the River Raisin National Battlefield Park here.

What’s to Discover

River Raisin is growing into “Michigan’s Gettysburg”

The newest park in Michigan is also the fastest growing in the state! Researchers at Michigan State University helped Monroe develop a master plan for the “River Raisin Heritage Corridor” that would guide development of the park and the tourism surrounding it through sometime after 2030. The master plan includes a strategy to bring in over 1-million visitors to the park annually, a number competitive with Gettysburg. The actual process began in 2018, and in the last three years, the park has acquired several adjacent land parcels to further develop the historic village of Frenchtown, which will recreate the town as it looked in 1813. Within the next several years, planned additions include a Peace Garden, a large amphitheater, a chapel for on-site weddings, and a waterfront complex for lodging and dining that could also offer ferry tours.

River Raisin is said to be haunted.

Even before the River Raisin became a national park, it was a hotbed of reported paranormal activity. In fact, some consider it to be one of the most haunted places in Michigan. Some of the reported activity includes unexplained orbs in photos, balls of light that appear and disappear, and spectral figures in uniform. Electronic voice phenomena, or EVPs, have been recorded at the site; these recordings have reportedly contained scratchy sounds, pained voices, and the sounds of battle, none of which could be heard at the time of recording. A few alleged EVP recordings can be found on YouTube. Residents and passerby on E. Elm Ave. have frequently reported the sighting of a young girl in a white dress. The Visitor Center has since been redone, but visitors and volunteers at the former Visitor Center often heard running footsteps and loud bangs, even when completely alone. It’s up to you if you believe these stories, but it’s definitely spooky enough for a timeless ghost story!

River Raisin is the “home park” of a local family of world record-breakers.

A Michigan family from Jackson made headlines in December 2018 for their avid love of national parks—and they are most devoted to the River Raisin. The four-member Maitland family is the first family to visit all 418 national parks and units in the United States. The Maitlands took 8 years to visit every park and finally earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. However, they are also passionate volunteers at River Raisin, the closest national park to Jackson. Collectively, the family has logged over 1,000 volunteer hours at the River Raisin, and the park officials recognize the Maitlands as an important piece of their volunteer operations.

River Raisin frequently hosts workshops, classes, and family events.

The park is known for its battlefield tours, musket and cannon demonstrations, and other historical education. That’s far from all their offerings, though! In the summer, there are family-friendly events including readings of children’s books, and craft workshops for things such as corn husk dolls, voyageur canoes, and tin punch lanterns. Due to the park’s connection to Sterling State Park, nature walk and bird watching events have also occurred in the past.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

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View of tour boat and and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior at sunset.

What We Know

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located in Munising in the Upper Peninsula. It covers 40 miles of Lake Superior shoreline. Picturesque sandstone cliffs between 50 and 200 feet tall extend for about 15 miles of that shoreline.  Read more about Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore here.

What’s to Discover

Photos taken at Pictured Rocks are literally award-winning.

Amateur and professional photographers alike will find that Pictured Rocks is a legendary location for landscape photography. In 2020, photographer Rudi Jensen submitted a photo of Pictured Rocks for the National Park Service’s ‘Share The Experience’ photo contest. Jensen’s photo took second place out of over 13,000 entries. This is hardly the first time the Pictured Rocks have won awards either; in 2013, Courtney Kotewa’s view of the lakeshore from her kayak taken via her smartphone won the same contest. That winning photo then appeared on all annual park passes for 2015. Instagram also has over 100,000 posts tagged with #picturedrocks.

The trademark colors of the Pictured Rocks are chemical, not artistic.

The cliffs are called “Pictured Rocks” because of the mineral streaks and stains in the sandstone. The vertical designs of the colors are created when groundwater seeps from cracks in the cliffside and travels downward. The most common colors are red and orange (iron), green and blue (copper), brown and black (manganese), and white (limonite). Variations in the colors may happen depending on time of year, depth of water, and placement and availability of sunlight.

Pictured Rocks’ attendance broke 1,000,000 during the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s one silver lining to the dark cloud that was the 2020 shelter-in-place orders and COVID-19 panic—tourism in the Upper Peninsula started booming. Michiganders may remember the concerns about people fleeing “up north” when cases started spiking. The good news was the Pictured Rocks’ attendance broke records, passing 1 million visitors and increasing attendance numbers by more than 40%. This trend also shows no sign of stopping even as restrictions are lifted—spending time in quarantine seems to have taught more people to appreciate nature.

Erosion is an ongoing concern at Pictured Rocks.

In the current digital age, alarming videos have emerged of cliffs on the Pictured Rocks collapsing into Lake Superior. Most recently, tourist John Martin captured a video of a rockslide at Pictured Rocks. Another video from 2019 showed a similar phenomenon that had endangered some kayakers. However, multiple experts, including park officials and geological scientists at MSU, emphasize that erosion of the cliffside is not unusual—it’s just the videos of it that are more common. A wide variety of ecological factors contribute to rockfalls, including water levels, vegetation growth, temperature variations, and even earthquakes. In fact, one of the rock formations known as the Miners Castle formation had a “turret” collapse in 2006 due to erosion. Kayakers in the area are warned to be cautious when approaching the cliffs, and to watch for falling sand, which could indicate an impending collapse.

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Keweenaw National Historical Park

Abandoned Industrial Building In The Keweenaw National Historic Park In The Upper Peninsula Of Michigan
Calumet, Michigan, USA – October 4, 2016: Abandoned building at the Quincy Mine Complex. The mine is now part of the Keweenaw National Historic Park in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

What We Know

The Keweenaw National Historical Park is a collection of 20 Heritage Sites throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula. It commemorates the heritage of copper mining throughout the peninsula, otherwise known as “Copper Country,” and includes a total of 1,700 acres of property. Read more about the Keweenaw National Historical Park here.

What’s to Discover

Copper Country is one of Michigan’s geological marvels.

Copper is so plentiful in the Keweenaw area because the area contains the oldest and largest lava flow in the world. The region once held plentiful deposits of pure elemental copper. Native Americans extracted copper from the Keweenaw area even in prehistoric times. In the United States between 1845 until 1847, Keweenaw was the most productive copper mining region.

The Calumet Unit of the Historical Park has been recreated in Minecraft.

Using the platform of Minecraft as an educational tool to engage kids? It doesn’t sound like something a national park in the Upper Peninsula would be doing, but at Keweenaw, it’s reality. The Keweenaw NHP Minecraft Project uses photographic collections to create spatially accurate virtual to-scale recreation of the Calumet Unit as it looked in 1917. In 2020, the Keweenaw National Historical Park staff turned to the internet to ask for help in their recreation project. Starting this year, YouTube user and volunteer JakobeCraft has posted a video series documenting the build, complete with historical and photographic references.

The Italian Hall disaster is one reason you never shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

The Keweenaw National Historical Park includes the site of the former Italian Hall. Though the Italian Hall was demolished in 1984, the archway and an informational historical marker remains at the site to inform visitors of the Italian Hall disaster that occurred in 1913. At the time of the disaster, copper miners from Calumet and Hecla Mining Company had gone on strike. That year on Christmas Eve, many of the striking miners and their families gathered in the Italian Hall in Calumet for a Christmas party. There is much scholarly debate about the facts and motives of the event, but it is believed someone falsely yelled “Fire” in a room of over 400 people. This caused pandemonium as the party guests clamored for the stairs, and the unfortunate misunderstanding caused 73 people, 59 of those children, to be trampled to death. Although scholars have theorized that the person who yelled “Fire” had ulterior motives to stop the strike, it isn’t certain. Six years after the tragedy, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes coined the term “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre” in the case Schenck v. United States when discussing limitations to free speech. The metaphor has since stuck. It is believed that this phrase was inspired by the Italian Hall disaster in Calumet, making this a linguistic piece of Michigan’s historical significance.

Isle Royale National Park

Moskey Basin
Moskey Basin at Isle Royale, Michigan.

What We Know

Isle Royale is a remote island archipelago in Lake Superior. It has no year-long human residents and closes during the winter due to extreme weather conditions. Visitors must arrive via boat or seaplane. Read more about the Isle Royale National Park here.

What’s to Discover

Isle Royale performs the longest continuous study of wolves in the world.

Before European settlement in Michigan, native gray wolf packs existed throughout the state territory. Unfortunately, between 1838 and 1960, wolves were systematically killed through poisoning. In 2014, a federal court judge placed wolves back on the endangered species list. This criminalized the killing of wolves, even if they attacked livestock or dogs. On Isle Royale, wolf research began in 1958 and continues today. Approximately 15 wolves live on Isle Royale. Not only do these wolves help to keep Isle Royale’s moose population in check, the predator-prey system of wolves and moose is continuously monitored for 7 weeks every winter. Despite the public perception of wolf behavior, the National Parks Service reports that wolves are typically afraid of humans and usually leave an area when they hear or smell humans. The sound of their howls, however, are an iconic experience on Isle Royale.

Michigan’s official gemstone can be found at Isle Royalebut don’t think about collecting it there.

Michigan’s state gem is chlorastrolite, but its more common name is Isle Royale Greenstone. Chlorastrolite is exclusive to the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale. One billion years ago, the Midcontinent Rift caused a fissure hundreds of miles long, which caused a lava spill. When the cooled lava formed basalt, lava gasses created empty space within the basalt. These pockets are where Isle Royale Greenstone was formed. Because of chlorastrolite’s age, it is difficult to find large formations of the gemstone, as most pieces have been eroded and smoothed by water. However, any rocks found in Isle Royale, including its trademark Greenstone, are illegal to collect since it’s a national park. Rock collectors are better off going to the Keweenaw Peninsula if they want a keepsake Isle Royale Greenstone.

Camping on Isle Royale gives you a chance to see the Northern Lights.

Although rare, there have been times where Isle Royale has been the best spot in Michigan to get a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. This colorful experience in the sky occurs when solar winds collide with Earth’s atmosphere. Isle Royale is closed between November and April, a prime time for Aurora Borealis viewing, but October is a peak month for sightings when Isle Royale is open. The Northern Lights can only be seen on clear nights late at night, and given Michigan’s unpredictable weather, that could be tricky. Frequent visitors to Isle Royale consider Aurora Borealis sightings to be like trophies due to their scarcity. Even if you don’t see the elusive Northern Lights, you’ll still have a great opportunity to stargaze.