2017-04-13 / Life in Leelanau

March weather slows down Sleeping Bear Dunes visitation

Still above average
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

For just the second time in 11 months, visitation at Sleeping Bear Dunes Natural Lakeshore (SBDNL) didn’t set a new attendance record.

Some 14,339 visitors were in the park last month, down about 5,800 from the 2016 record of 20,166. But it’s still a respectable turnout.

“Numbers were down, but you have to remember … It’s down from a record year and it’s still above average,” SBDNL deputy superintendent Tom Ulrich said. “And that was after a record January and February.”

Parks nationwide had record attendance during the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service’s creation. SBDNL was no exception with an alltime high attendance of 1,683,553.

New monthly records were set in 10 of the 12 months of calendar year 2016. April was one of the two exceptions joining December with tallies of 30,032 and 8,390 respectively.

“We had seven straight record months and December was lower, but it was still the third highest on record,” Ulrich said.

The Park Service anniversary and favorable weather conditions are credited with last year’s strong attendance.

Weather is also tied to low attendance at the park last month.

Snowfall stood at 123 inches April 5, 10 inches higher than this time last year. But weather systems vacillated from storm to slumber frustrated people hoping to use the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.

“We only had enough snow to use our groomer three times,” said Kerry Kelly, president of the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes.

A whopping 20,166 visitors made their way to Sleeping Bear in March 2016 and a good portion of them coming specifically to cross-country ski on the trail.

Fluctuating weather patterns this winter not only failed to deliver snow needed for recreationists, but icy conditions presented a challenge on the trail. There wasn’t enough snow for skiing and too much ice for biking and walking.

In January just over 42 inches of snow was recorded in the county, slightly below the historical average of 42.5 inches for the month.

But an 11-day stretch — from Jan. 15 through 26 — with high temps of 33 degrees or higher took its toll on the snowpack.

The warmth continued in February averaging 38.5 degrees for high, a full 6 1/2 degrees above normal.

On the warmest day of the month, Feb. 23, the high temperature rose to 57 degrees, teasing the winter weary.

Even low temperatures came in nearly 5 degrees above “normal” averaging 22.2 degrees.

As if flip-flopping with the previous month, March brought below normal temperatures — both high and low.

The average high of 37.5 last month was about four degrees below normal.

April has brought more seasonal temperatures and hope for all who have been itching to get outside after an unusual winter.

Park Service crews are out opening up things for the 2017 season.

“There is a lot of dead trees. Our sawyers have a heavy workload,” Ulrich said.

Heavy equipment will be brought in for yearly duties such as opening the paths to popular overlooks on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Winter winds clog the walkways with sand each year.

The Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes also has crews out.

“We’re out doing some spring cleaning. Taking some trees that are leaning into the trail,” Kelly said. “We’ve got people going in to sweep next week so we’ll be ready for summer weather.

“There’s a lot of pent-up interest,” he said.

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