2016-09-08 / Outdoors

Park ‘worth seeing’ sets yet another monthly visitation mark

Weather, centennial play parts
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

Same story. Different month.

August attendance at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was again a record-breaker with 442,439 visitors. That tops the previous record for the month by 4,525, set in 2012.

“I expect we’ll reach the previous all-time (annual) record sometime in October,” said Tom Ulrich deputy superintendent of the Lakeshore. “We’ve broken records every month this year with the exception of April.”

Indeed, the year began with a steep increase in visitors, going over 10,000 for the first time ever. Some 12,994 people spent time in the Park, more than double the previous year’s tally of 6,340.

February, too, brought record attendance at 14,577, besting the previous record of 12,366 recorded in 2005. March followed suit with a new record of 20,166, up over 8,600 from the previous year and edging out the 17,436 visitors counted in March 1990 which held the record for 26 years.

Usually considered the “slow time” of the year, the first quarter set the pace for the busy season ahead. The only exception was April when some 30,032 visitors were counted, down 6,021 from 2015.

Back-to- back records in May, June and July of 100,289, 258,960 and 486,506, respectively, and another in August has the Park poised for a best-ever year for attendance.

A number of factors likely contributed to the turnout, according to Ulrich.

“The centennial of the National Park Service has driven numbers at parks all over the country,” he said.

In addition, Sleeping Bear and the Grand Traverse region have been front and center in newspapers, magazines and the Internet.

“The area has received so much attention… We’ve been discovered,” Ulrich said.

Weather has always been a driving force in visitor numbers at Sleeping Bear. The better the weather, the higher the count.

This year has been no exception.

The average high temperature for the month of June at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center was 74.6 and the average low, 55.

Things warmed up in July when high temps averaged 81 and lows were 62. August was also warm with an average high of 80.8 degrees and lows at 64.1.

The Empire Area Museum has benefitted with a steady flow of visitors over summer, according to Dave Taghon, president of the Empire Area Heritage Group.

“There’s a correlation between park attendance and ours but I can’t say exactly what it is,” Taghon said. “Our donations were up and I think the economy is steady.”

Both the Park and the Heritage Group rely on manpower to get through the summer months — easily the busiest time of the year.

“Our staff has been incredible this year. Every single division has been overworked — from the natural resources (staff) who kept the hoards of visitors away from the piping plovers to law enforcement and maintenance.”

A crew of between 50 and 60 volunteers man the Heritage Museum each summer.

“Shirley Tanguay does a great job scheduling the volunteers. They’re the backbone of our organization,” Taghon said.

As of Aug. 31, with four months remaining in 2016, Sleeping Bear attendance is just 170,000 off a new all-time record.

“Our record September was about 150,000 so I expect our previous alltime record will be broken in mid- October,” Ulrich said.

Things slow down some after Labor Day. The demographic of Park visitors goes from families to retirees, couples without children and international guests.

But September and October of last year brought more than 100,000 visitors each month to the Lakeshore.

“Our visitation numbers affirm that this is a fantastic place and we’ve done a good job making sure it stays that way,” Ulrich said. “People aren’t going to want to come visit if there isn’t friendly service and nice facilities.

“The numbers say the Park is something worth seeing.”

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