The Sky’s the Limit for Keweenaw Mountain Lodge
By Dianna Stampfler
When John Mueller purchased the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge in Copper Harbor in 2018, he had grand ideas of not only maintaining and improving the historic resort but enhancing the visitor experience by providing access to the unparalleled natural surroundings of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Built in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), on a 170-acre parcel donated by the Keweenaw Copper Co., the resort was previously owned and operated by Keweenaw County. It became a Michigan Historic Site in 1976 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Today, the complex sprawls out over 560 acres after Mueller purchased additional tracts of land (including 11 miles of 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, main lodge, café, restaurant and – as of June 2022 – Michigan’s newest International Dark-Sky Park.
“We are excited and honored that the International Dark-Sky Association has elected to welcome the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge into the IDA Dark Sky Places Program,” says Mueller. “It is a significant accomplishment and the Lodge’s Dark-Sky friendly policies will help foster and preserve its incredible star-filled sky in the Keweenaw. The Keweenaw Mountain Lodge looks to increase the stargazing and other dark-sky-related activities that are available in the region and is proud to offer a headquarters for dark sky activities at the top of the Keweenaw.”
The Keweenaw Dark Sky Park is the Upper Peninsula’s first and only such facility, joining the Headlands Dark Sky Park near Mackinaw City – established in 2011 as the sixth park in the U.S. and the ninth in the world – and the Dr. T.K. Lawless International Dark Sky Park in Vandalia (Cass County), established in 2020.
Since its founding in 1988, IDA – which is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona – has worked to protect the night skies from light pollution ultimately providing ideal star gazing locations around the world. There are about 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, impact human health, waste money and energy, contribute to the climate change, and block or view and connection to the universe,” according to the IDA’s website. “The International Dark Sky Places Program was founded in 2001 as a non-regulatory and voluntary program to encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through effective lighting policies, environmentally responsible outdoor lighting and public education.”
In short, IDA works with communities and individuals to identify and promote rural sites that are removed from excessive luminescence from streetlights, billboards, shopping centers and other business enterprises.
“Keweenaw Dark Sky Park offers a unique experience to stargazing in the Midwestern United States,” according to Ashley Wison, IDA’s Director of Conservation, in a news release from earlier this summer. “The historic wilderness lodge allows visitors to view the magnificence of the night sky in a window of the pristine boreal landscape while also having the opportunity to further engage with the nocturnal environment with astrophotography and lighting management workshops.”
This distinct park location on the Keweenaw Peninsula, surrounded by Lake Superior (the largest freshwater lake in the world) and thousands of acres of undeveloped wilderness – flush with woodland creatures like bears, wolves, coyotes, deer, bald eagles, owls and more – is open 24-hours a day, year-round, for public use.
“The Keweenaw’s night skies are truly a sight to behold thanks to our abundant wilderness, small communities and northern location,” says Brad Barnett, Executive Director of Visit Keweenaw. “Thanks to the leadership efforts of the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, we now have an internationally recognized, year-round attraction perfect for stargazing enthusiasts and northern lights chasers. The Lodge’s staff truly embrace their role in educating visitors and helping them connect with the Keweenaw’s dark skies.”
The formal application process began in April 2021, but there was plenty of research and data collection prior to that. This included taking sky quality measurements using a Unihedron SQM light meter, with over 500 readings between February 2021 and May 31, 2022; taking horizon photos to determine if there are any light dome effects in the vicinity; developing a Lighting Management Plan and adopting a resolution confirming the organization’s commitment to fostering the dark skies at the top of the Keweenaw, all of which is documented online.
Mueller also gathered letters of support from local, regional and state organizations like Fort Wilkins State Park, Michigan Nature Association, Copper Harbor Trails Club, Keweenaw Adventure Company and Travel Michigan – the state’s leading tourism organization with the award-winning Pure Michigan brand.
“The vast wilderness of the U.P. invites a variety of natural exploration,” says Tom Nemacheck, Executive Director of the Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreational Association. “The Keweenaw Dark Sky Park is sure to become a shining star for our region, and with its international designation it undoubtedly will draw visitors from around the world.”
Globally, there has been a growing interest in what has been dubbed Astrotourism. According to a 2019 article on Forbes.com, Astrotourism is “purposely traveling to nature-rich destinations that experience less light pollution, allowing you to spot stars more easily, as well as visiting observatories and astronomy-related organizations with ecotourism in mind.”
The National Park Service (NPS) has also noted an increase in Astrotourism as a regional economic driver. “With the popularity of stargazing program, 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 draw more tourists and tend to increase the length of stay and corresponding economic benefit to those communities.”
At the Headlands Dark Sky Park, they conservatively welcome up to 60,000 visitors annually, according to Jamie Westfall, Park Manager. “We have had 36,496.5 visitors at the Headlands this year [with three months left of 2022]. This does not factor in the thousands of visitors that come and utilize the overflow lot across the street due to insufficient parking or the winter visitors that come when we can no longer use the traffic counter.”
The 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, drawing on average just 18,216 visitors per year) and the Keweenaw National Historical Park, which operates in cooperation with 21 heritage sites in the Keweenaw Peninsula. It is also adjacent to the 443-acre McLain State Park – which stretches along 2 miles of rocky Lake Superior shoreline and the Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, housed at a restored 1844 army military outpost at the top of the Keweenaw.
Nature-based eco-tourism experiences, like skiing, hiking, kayaking, camping and stargazing, are traditionally what draws visitors and their wallets to this region.
“I was very excited to hear about this announcement as the Dark Sky Park aligns with our mission of ‘contributing to the region’s well-being through education, stewardship, conservation and sustainable tourism.’ We look forward to this designation helping to attract new folks to visit the Keweenaw and enjoy all the natural beauty it has to offer,” says Raymond Landsberg, the new owner of Keweenaw Adventure Company. In the future, Landsberg hopes to add overnight camping to their list of recreational adventures (like mountain biking and sea kayaking) to take advantage of the dark night skies.
Given the Keweenaw Dark Sky Park is just months old, the direct economic impact has yet to be determined. “We are doing a study funded by the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance and conducted by the University of Michigan to help us better understand specific drivers of Keweenaw tourism, which will be available next year,” according to Barnett.
Earlier this year, Visit Keweenaw reported a $25 million increase in tourism income in 2021 compared to 2020 and 2019. Adding a Dark Sky Park to the mix, especially with vested community partners like the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, is sure to draw even more astrotourists in years to come.
“We continue to work on our lighting situation and minimize our light footprint while still providing guests with a safe and warm experience,” Mueller notes. “This goes hand-in-hand with the Stargazing (outdoor activities) we are building at the Lodge. The events / activities we have and will have in the future provide patrons to the resort the ability to view and learn more about the stars, and take in the clear starry skies, meteor storms, and even the Northern Lights.”
Programs such as New Moon Parties, Night Sky Photography Workshops and guided interpretive Moonlit Snowshoe Hikes provide both entertaining and educational opportunities for those headed to the Keweenaw Dark Sky Park for unique celestial experiences.
Mueller is also working on getting two cameras installed on property which will allow people from around the world to get a glimpse at what is going on at the park. One will be a Northern Lights webcam – sure to be popular when the aurora borealis begin to dance in the sky, and the other an all-sky webcam which will compliment the resort’s stargazing activities.
In addition to the Dark Sky Park project, Mueller has a list of other initiatives aimed at enhancing the visitor experience for Keweenaw Mountain Lodge including the installation of a Rivian electric vehicle charging station this past summer. Other projects in the works include:
- Employee Housing Development on Property
- Improving Mobile Phone Communication
- Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary Golf Course Certification & Certified Green Lodging Establishment
- Establishing a Quiet Parks Quiet Stay through Quite Parks International
- Measuring Air Quality at the Lodge
- Certified B Corp
- Mountain Bike Park – Pump Track and Skills Loop
- Update Interior Design of Cabins
- F&B Mentor Board
- Heritage Site for the Keweenaw Historical National Park
- Walking Tour around the Lodge (in the building and around the property, virtual reality – VR)
- Nature Trails
- Enhancing winter recreation offerings such as Snow Biking & a Snow Terrain Park
“We are a historic wilderness at the top of the Keweenaw, focused on outdoor activities, rustic worldly food and education,” says Mueller. “Our metric of success is not the number of cars in the parking lot but ensuring that each individual has a delightful experience that connects them closer to nature.”
Dianna Stampfler has been writing professionally since high school. She is the president of Promote Michigan and the author of Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses and Death & Lighthouses on the Great Lakes, both from The History Press.