2018-08-16 / Front Page

July, visitors stream into Lakeshore

By Jen Murphy
of the Enterprise staff

People, people everywhere.

That seems to be the theme for this summer in Leelanau County. It’s certainly a theme at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Last month’s visitation numbers marked the second highest July on record — just about double what they were a decade ago. The year-to-date number of visitors is also sitting at the second highest ever with 925,764 as of July 31.

Leonard Marszalek, manager of the Heritage Trail since 2012, has seen the result of increased visitation.

“The past three summers, you see all kinds of people everywhere,” he said. “It appears, every time I’m riding the trail, we are running into more and more people earlier and later in the day.”

Marszalek said he has seen more people in sections of the trail that had been less frequently used in the past. He said he has noticed more people using the trail around Port Oneida, for example.

And he sees increased traffic on the trails as a good thing.

“Overall, it’s very positive for the lakeshore, the village of Empire and the town of Glen Arbor,” he said. “It’s a positive experience having people around you and seeing other people having fun.”

So with all those people, will 2018 be a year for the the Lakeshore’s record books?

“I have no idea,” replied Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore superintendent Scott Tucker.

“The number of year-to-date visitors is 1.13 percent lower than the same time last year,” he said. “We are right on track with the last two years. Visitation is so contingent on weather and temperature and rain. It was a very hot July, and we were down over 12 percent than the year before. June was hot, but that month was up. We have no idea. What I do know is our campgrounds are full, and our ranger programs are full and visitors are loving the summer here at Sleeping Bear.”

Despite the positive effects of having more visitors, Marszalek admitted there can be some inconvenience with more people. “It’s like driving around. With more people on the road, you can’t get to where you’re going as quickly sometimes.”

But like traffic, people have to be managed.

And Lakeshore chief of interpretation and visitor services Merrith Bauman said there are places at the Lakeshore in need of management.

“We are definitely seeing increased traffic at Empire Bluffs, Pyramid Point and North Bar Lake,” she said. “When I’ve travelled up to Empire Bluffs during the day, the parking lot is overflowing. And those three areas are definitely exceeding our capacity for parking.”

“Here at the Visitors’ Center we are encouraging people to go to other places,” Bauman said. “Port Oneida is beautiful and has wonderful beaches, the Olsen House and the Farm Heritage Center.”

Is the overflow and back-up a new sensation for the Lakeshore?

Not exactly. “It’s been building for the last three years,” Bauman said. “And we have been working on congestion management. We had an internal study done.”

Tucker explained.

“We did a table-type exercise,” he said. “We worked with our Denver Service Center and they highlighted for us where we see high congestion areas of the park. We brainstormed and looked at things other national parks are doing to manage overcrowding.”

What resulted from the session were ideas such as expanding or restriping parking lots to allow for more vehicles; placing signage that lists better times to visit different areas; and using social media and a future mobile app to encourage visitors to explore less-visited areas of the National Lakeshore.

Tucker said the Lakeshore also brought in a landscape architect to provide plans for parking options at the Pyramid Point and Empire Bluffs trailheads.

“We are trying to manage the high-visitation, iconic locations that a day visitor has on a bucket list for the park,” he said. “Our opportunity is to get the repeat visitors that come back to find and explore other areas of the park. That would lessen visitation on those iconic areas of the park.”

As far as Tucker is concerned, it’s all good.

“The fact that there are (almost) 500,000 people experiencing nature in its pure form, and experiencing moments with their family or friends that will stay with them for years to come - the more people that come, the more we can fulfill our mission to preserve that land so the park will be here when their grandkids want to come,” he said.

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