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Report: Visitors spent $66M at Wisconsin national park sites last year

More than 670K people visited Apostle Islands, Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway in 2022

St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
People line up kayaks and canoes to paddle the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway near Osceola. 
Photo courtesy of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

Nearly 672,000 people visited national park sites in Wisconsin last year, spending roughly $66 million and supporting around 1,000 jobs.

The National Park Service within the U.S. Department of Interior released those findings as part of its annual report on the economic effects of visitor spending.

National parks drew 5 percent more visitors last year than 2021 with around 312 million people. Visitor spending also increased by 16 percent to $23.9 billion nationwide. Wisconsin received roughly 2 percent more visitors or nearly 15,000 more people than 2021, but visitor spending declined by almost $3 million. Even so, spending remains above levels seen prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway accounted for most of the uptick in visitors with around 101,000 more people taking in the site last year.

Craig Hansen, superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, said around 834,000 people visited the riverway, which runs through Wisconsin and Minnesota. They spent roughly $41 million, contributing $59 million to the regional economy. He said the park draws people to camp, kayak, hike and experience solitude. The report splits the number of visitors equally between the two states.

“There’s these special places that are protected in perpetuity forever, and people get to go there to enjoy what they’ve always enjoyed doing,” Hansen said. “It’s our job as National Park Service employees to really protect the resource for future generations.”

St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
A paddler takes part in kayak training on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway at Osceola.
Photo courtesy of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

The National Park Service manages the vast majority of the riverway, which comprises more than 250 miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers. It was one of eight sites originally established in 1968 under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The study used data from visitor surveys, visits to parks, and regional economic multipliers to estimate the effects of visitor spending. Hansen said that included visitor counts at certain landings along the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

“We feel like the number is underreported,” Hansen said. “We have a lot of visitors that come to the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers. For example, they’ll visit through an outfitter, maybe they’ll be renting a kayak or a canoe or tubing on the river or fishing.”

Hansen said the agency grants commercial use authorizations to outfitters, saying that may add hundreds or thousands more visitors. He said the riverway also supported more than 500 jobs and nearly $21 million in labor income. The lodging and restaurant industries saw the greatest benefits from visitor spending.

On the south shore of Lake Superior, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore drew around 255,000 visitors last year who spent roughly $45 million, contributing nearly $57 million to the regional economy. The park supported more than 600 jobs and roughly $17.5 million in labor income. Even so, the number of visitors dropped by about 12 percent from 2021 with roughly 36,000 fewer people coming to the park.

Wide shot of kayaks on a beach within the Apostle Islands
Wilderness Inquiry connects people of all backgrounds and abilities to the outdoors, including trips to the Apostle Islands as seen here. 
Peter Rozeboom for Wilderness Inquiry

Julie Van Stappen, the park’s resource stewardship director, said that’s due largely to an influx of people during the COVID-19 pandemic once campsites reopened.

“In 2021, we saw a real bump, so it was up to 291,000 visitors,” Van Stappen said. “Then, in 2022 that bumped down a little bit as people are getting more comfortable with going on vacation further afield.”

Despite that, Van Stappen said the number of visitors is in line with the park’s five-year average of 252,000 people. She said it can be challenging to track people coming to the Apostle Islands because it doesn’t have entrance sites like some parks. The agency gathers visitor statistics from things like camping permits, as well as traffic counters at Meyers Beach and Little Sand Bay.

Apostle Islands Cruises also provides data on the number of passengers who visit the park through their service. Van Stappen said that’s often the way many people experience the islands, which were set aside for public use in 1970.

“Visitors get a really good overview of the park, but they don’t actually put their feet on the islands,” Van Stappen said. “But, then, there are shuttles that go to Stockton and Oak and Raspberry and Michigan (islands) if the dock allows…. But all those are real highlights for visitors.”

A View Of The Devils Island Light within the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
A view of the Devils Island Lighthouse within the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Photo courtesy of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

The Apostle Islands gained international recognition in the winter of 2013-2014 when ice caves formed on Lake Superior’s shoreline within the park. The natural phenomenon nearly doubled the amount of visitors to the park from 2013 to 2014.

Carol Fahrenkrog, executive director of the Bayfield Chamber & Visitor Bureau, said thousands of visitors come every year wondering how they can access the islands. She said the park is essential to the region’s economic stability.

“This is what drives Bayfield,” Fahrenkrog said. “I mean, who doesn’t want to come to this beautiful, picturesque town. It kind of starts out at the visitor center by Ashland, they work their way through Washburn, and they come to Bayfield. And it kind of all opens up where you can see a lot of the islands. It is a massive economic driver for our area.”

Past surveys of visitors to the Apostle Islands and St. Croix National Scenic Riverway show the vast majority of people who visit the park come from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois.