2018-09-13 / Front Page

Lakeshore cruising toward record

By Jen Murphy of the Enterprise staff

OVERLOOKS 9 and 10 are among the most popular sites on the 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, and both hosted visitors earlier this week. Photo by Amy Hubbell OVERLOOKS 9 and 10 are among the most popular sites on the 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, and both hosted visitors earlier this week. Photo by Amy Hubbell Looks like nature is set to set a record.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore so far in 2018 has been busier than any previous year on record.

Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, puts the number in perspective.

“After the 2011 Good Morning America (designation as ‘Most Beautiful Place in America’), we hit a new plateau. But we’ve hit another new plateau — ‘16 was a centennial year for the park service, but ‘17 was just as big, and now it’s the same story again in ‘18.”

August and June are typically the second- and third-busiest months for the Lakeshore, and records were set this year for both. While July’s visitation of 490,650 couldn’t compete with the 562,784 visitors counted in 2017, it does rank second since estimates were available starting in 1986.

Through August, attendance is more than 7,000 above 2017 and 6,000 more than 2016, which set the annual mark with 1,683,553 visitors.

Ulrich believes that 2016 set a trend that continues.

“2018 is shaping up to be just like ‘17 and ‘16,” he said. “The last three years have really put us up on a new level of visitation. After the big jump in 2016, we haven’t dropped off. It shows no sign of dropping back down.”

Although she tends to stay away from the crowds at the lakeshore during the height of the season, Empire resident Mary Sharry has noticed the number of visitors around the village as well.

“The parking downtown is reflective of the amount of people,” she said. “There are a lot of people around.”

Continuing to increase those numbers to set visitation records is not Ulrich’s ultimate goal. Increased visitation brings a “mixed bag” as it affirms that the National Park Service is doing its job of preserving the Lakeshore while offering a quality experience.

But higher attendance challenges those in charge of preserving the landscape.

“We are not like a business that is making a profit off people,” he said. “What I want is to continue to make sure the resources here are protected. It’s fine if more people come, but my big- ger concern is to make sure people continue to have a good time and that the natural resources or historical resources aren’t been impacted by all of these people.”

The Lakeshore’s visitors regularly fill parking lots at popular attractions. Soon those lots may be redesigned.

“We aren’t going to design parking lots for the maximum of people, otherwise we would look like Walmart,” Ulrich said. “We are applying for a funding package to use to improve existing facilities for those areas like Pyramid Point and Empire Bluffs that continue to be overflowed. Not designing to peak, but designing for every day.”

Those changes may be a year or even a few years away. NPS planners now are working with nearby communities to handle congestion.

The Lakeshore staff takes pride in keeping up with a higher visitor count, he added.

“We are already prepared for lots of visitors,” Ulrich said. “We have paved parking areas and flush toilets and staff to clean it. But the staff has to work harder to clean it. The staff is already working super hard.”

Ulrich encourages visitors to spread their love to shoulder months.

“We are letting people know about the the great potential to come in September,” he said. “Look outside, this is fantastic, right? So we are letting visitors know to come during the shoulder season and not just in the middle of July.”

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