When John Mueller bought them Keweenaw Mountain Lodge in Copper Harbor in 2018, he had great ideas to not only preserve and enhance the historic resort, but also enhance the visitor experience by providing access to the Keweenaw Peninsula’s unparalleled natural environment.
The resort was built in the 1930’s as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) on 170 acres donated by the Keweenaw Copper Co. and was previously owned and operated by Keweenaw County. It was designated a Michigan Historic Site in 1976 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Today, the complex spans 560 acres after Mueller purchased additional lots (including 11 miles of hiking trails) adjacent to the original property earlier this summer. The resort also features a 9-hole golf course, 24 two- and three-bedroom log cabins, a main lodge, cafe, restaurant and—opening June 2022—Michigan’s newest International Dark-Sky Park.
“We are thrilled and honored that the International Dark Sky Association has decided to add Keweenaw Mountain Lodge to the IDA Dark Sky Places program,” says Mueller. “It is a significant achievement and the lodge’s dark sky friendly policy will help promote and preserve their incredible starry skies in Keweenaw. Keweenaw Mountain Lodge strives to expand the stargazing and other dark sky related activities available in the region and is proud to offer a dark sky activity headquarters at the summit of Keweenaw.”
That Keweenaw Dark Sky Park is the first and only facility of its kind in the Upper Peninsula to join Headlands Dark Sky Park near Mackinaw City – established in 2011 as the sixth park in the US and ninth in the world – and the dr TK Lawless International Dark Sky Park in Vandalia, Cass County, established in 2020.
Since its inception in 1988, IDA – headquartered in Tucson, Arizona – has worked to protect the night sky from light pollution and ultimately provide ideal locations for stargazing around the world. There are approximately 200 Dark Sky Places around the world with five unique designations: Communities, Parks, Reserves, Sanctuaries, and Urban Night Sky Places.
“When used indiscriminately, artificial light can disrupt ecosystems, affecting human health, wasting money and energy, contributing to climate change, and blocking or revealing the connection to the universe,” says the IDA website. “The International Dark Sky Places Program was established in 2001 as a non-regulatory and voluntary program to encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark places through effective lighting policies, environmentally conscious outdoor lighting and public education.”
In short, IDA works with communities and individuals to identify and promote rural locations that are remote from excessive luminescence from streetlights, billboards, shopping malls and other commercial establishments.
“Keweenaw Dark Sky Park offers a unique stargazing experience in the Midwestern United States,” said Ashley Wison, director of conservation at IDA, in a press release earlier this summer. “The historic Wilderness Lodge allows visitors to view the splendor of the night sky through a window on the pristine boreal landscape while having the opportunity to further engage with the nocturnal environment with astrophotography and light management workshops.”
This unique park on the Keweenaw Peninsula, surrounded by Lake Superior (the world’s largest freshwater lake) and thousands of acres of undeveloped wilderness — teeming with forest creatures such as bears, wolves, coyotes, deer, bald eagles, owls and more — is open 24 hours a day, year-round open to the public.
Keweenaw Mountain Lodge under a full moon.“The night sky over Keweenaw is truly a sight to behold thanks to our lush wilderness, small communities and northern location,” said Brad Barnett, Executive Director of Visit Keweenaw. “Thanks to the leadership efforts of Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, we now have an internationally recognized year-round attraction perfect for stargazers and aurora borealis hunters. The lodge staff really play their part in educating visitors and helping them connect with the dark skies of Keweenaw.”
The formal application process started in April 2021, but before that there was a lot of research and data collection. These included sky quality measurements with a Unihedron SQM light meter with over 500 readings between February 2021 and May 31, 2022; photographing the horizon to determine if there are light dome effects nearby; Developed a lighting management plan and passed a resolution affirming the organization’s commitment to promoting dark skies on the top of the Keweenaw, all of which is documented online.
Mueller also collected letters of support from local, state and state organizations such as Fort Wilkins State Park, Michigan Nature Association, Copper Harbor Trails Club, Keweenaw Adventure Company and Travel Michigan – the state’s premier tourism organization with the award-winning Pure Michigan brand.
“The vast wilderness of the UP encourages a variety of nature explorations,” said Tom Nemacheck, executive director of the Travel and Leisure Association of the Upper Peninsula. “The Keweenaw Dark Sky Park is sure to be a shining star for our region and with its international designation it will no doubt attract visitors from around the world.”
Worldwide there is a growing interest in what is referred to as astrotourism. According to a 2019 article about Forbes.comAstrotourism is “deliberate travel to natural-rich destinations that have less light pollution so you can spot stars more easily, and visiting observatories and astronomical organizations with ecotourism in mind.”
The National Park Service has also noted an increase in astrotourism as a regional economic driver. “With the popularity of stargazing programs, night walks, full moon hikes, and other such activities in parks, natural landscapes have become an economic resource,” according to NPS.gov. “Visitor facilities in communities surrounding national parks are finding that stargazing activities attract more tourists and tend to increase length of stay and associated economic benefits for those communities.”
According to Park Manager Jamie Westfall, they welcome up to 60,000 visitors a year to Headlands Dark Sky Park. “We had 36,496.5 visitors to the Headlands this year [with three months left of 2022]. This does not take into account the thousands of visitors who use the overflow lot across the street due to insufficient parking, or the winter visitors who come when we can no longer use the traffic desk.”
Keweenaw Dark Sky Park is ideally situated between the 132,018-acre Isle Royale National Park (ironically the least-visited national park in the contiguous United States, averaging just 18,216 visitors per year) and operated Keweenaw National Historical Park in association with 21 heritage sites on the Keweenaw Peninsula. It also borders the 443-acre McLain State Park, which stretches along two miles of Lake Superior’s rocky shoreline, and Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, housed in a restored 1844 Army military outpost atop the Keweenaw is.
Nature-based ecotourism experiences such as skiing, hiking, kayaking, camping and stargazing traditionally draw visitors and their wallets to this region.
“I was very excited about this announcement as Dark Sky Park aligns with our mission to contribute to the well-being of the region through education, stewardship, conservation and sustainable tourism. “We look forward to this award helping to attract new people to visit the Keweenaw and enjoy all the natural beauty it has to offer,” said Raymond Landsberg, the new owner of Keweenaw Adventure Company.
In the future, Landsberg hopes to add overnight camping to its list of recreational adventures (like mountain biking and sea kayaking) to take advantage of the dark night skies.
As the Keweenaw Dark Sky Park is only a few months old, the direct economic impact has yet to be determined. “We are conducting a study funded by the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance and conducted by the University of Michigan to help us better understand certain drivers of Keweenaw tourism that will be available next year,” said Barnett.
Earlier this year, Visit Keweenaw reported a $25 million increase in tourism revenue in 2021 compared to 2020 and 2019. Adding a dark sky park to the mix, especially with dedicated community partners like Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, is sure to come attract more astrotourists in the years to come.
“We continue to work on our lighting situation, minimizing our light output while still providing a safe and warm experience for guests,” notes Mueller. “This goes hand in hand with the stargazing (outdoor activities) we are building up at the lodge. The events/activities that we have and will have in the future offer resort guests the opportunity to see and learn more about the stars and enjoy the clear starry skies, meteor storms and even the Northern Lights.”
Programs such as New Moon Parties, Night Sky Photography Workshops and guided moonlight snowshoe hikes provide both fun and educational opportunities for those who head to Keweenaw Dark Sky Park for unique celestial experiences.
Mueller is also working to install two cameras on the property that will allow people from around the world to get a glimpse of what’s going on at the park. One will be a Northern Lights webcam – sure to be popular when the Aurora Borealis begins to dance in the sky, and the other an all-sky webcam to complement the resort’s stargazing activities.
In addition to the Dark Sky Park project, Mueller has a list of other initiatives aimed at improving the visitor experience for Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, including installing a Rivian electric vehicle charging station last summer. Other projects in progress are:
- Development of staff housing on the property
- Improvement of mobile phone communication
- Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary Golf Course Certification & Certified Green Lodging Establishment
- Establishment of a Quiet Park Quiet Stay by Quite Parks International
- Measurement of air quality in the lodge
- Certified B Corp
- Mountain Bike Park – Pump Track and Skills Loop
- Update cabin interior design
- F&B Mentorship
- Heritage for Keweenaw Historical National Park
- Tour of the lodge (inside the building and on the property, virtual reality – VR)
- nature trails
- Enhanced winter recreation offerings such as snow biking and a snow terrain park
“We are a historic wilderness at the tip of the Keweenaw focused on outdoor activities, rustic, worldly cuisine and education,” says Mueller. “Our measure of success is not the number of cars in the lot, but ensuring that each individual has a delightful experience that connects them more closely with nature.”
Dianna Stampfler has been writing professionally since graduating from high school. She is President of Promote Michigan and author of Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses and Death & Lighthouses on the Great Lakes, both from The History Press.