Department of Natural Resources
Michigan’s state parks system started out small. Between 1919 and 1921, the Michigan State Park Commission established 23 state parks. Initially, many of these parks had been wilderness areas or old industrial land – like Hartwick Pines – that were converted to park land. In many cases, railroads provided visitors access to the parks system.
Beginning in the 1920s, cars became an increasingly popular form of transportation – an especially important trend for park development, as people began to travel in their cars to state parks.
After World War II, when car ownership increased further, the interstate highway system brought people, cars and parks closer to each other than ever before. The impact of this accessible road network was significant.
The changes were evident on state road maps. In 1912, Michigan’s highway department issued a free road map of the state. In 1919, the state Legislature authorized the highway department to publish and sell a tourist map. By 1922, that map included state parks, and by 1923 the map also contained information on recreation sites, campsites and ferry schedules.
Needless to say, roads and cars had a big impact on park attendance. In 1922, state parks welcomed 220,000 visitors, but by 1930 – just eight years later – saw a 40-fold increase as state park attendance soared to more than 8 million people a year.
Michigan also was one of the first states to introduce roadside parks and recreation areas. This occurred after Herbert Larson, an engineer for the Upper Peninsula’s Iron County Road Commission, had difficulty finding a picnic spot while on a vacation trip to northern Wisconsin in 1919.
With most of the state’s population concentrated in the south and southeast, and parks located primarily in the north and northwest, automobile travel enabled easier access to parks.
By 1927, those who wished to visit or camp in a state park for two weeks or more were issued free permits and windshield stickers if they provided their name, address and license number.
As more Michigan residents frequented state parks, the Department of Conservation began to consider instituting passes for vehicles instead of individual fees. The annual park sticker, which was a predecessor of today’s Recreation Passport, was an outcome of that automobile-driven increase in park usage.
The sharp rise in vehicle ownership after WWII also created an increase in motor vehicle stickers. More cars meant the need for parking lots, especially close to campsites, at state parks. Not surprisingly, the increase in car ownership led to state parks issuing greater numbers of campsite permits.