2021 Was Another Record Breaking Year for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
It wasn’t by much, but Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore set an all-time visitor attendance record in 2021. We like starting off a new year with good news, and it’s great to see that Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was one of two national lakeshores in Michigan (stay tuned for a look at 2021 at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore coming soon) that built on the momentum of 2020. After reaching a record of 1,718,696 visits in 2020, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore snuck past that mark with 1,722,955 visits in 2021. Today we will take a look at how the year broke down, including some surprising trends.
One important thing to keep in mind when looking at 2021 visitor numbers is that ferry transportation to North Manitou Island and South Manitou Island returned after missing the entire 2020 season due to repairs and dredging work that was needed at the island docks. South Manitou Island is popular for both day trips and camping, with visitors enjoying the South Manitou Island Lighthouse, the wreckage of the Francisco Morazan, a 500 year old Northern white cedar forest, sand dunes, and 17 miles of trails. North Manitou Island is a paradise for rustic backcountry camping and hiking. Though these are two of the least-visited areas in the park, having them accessible again no doubt helped 2021 visitor numbers.
Seven months last year were record months. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore got off to a strong start with January 2021 (21,880) showing 8,000 more visitors than any previous January. February was also a record month (20,475) though not by a huge margin. Things escalated in March of 2021 with 44,589 visits – almost 13,000 more than any previous March! April (39,583) was also a record by a slim margin, but then visitor numbers exploded in May. With 110,460 visits, May 2021 beat the previous record (2016) by more than 10,000 visits and also more than doubled the May numbers from 2020 (53,678).
Summer is where the trends from last year start to get interesting. June was a record month and more than 278,000 visits marked an increase of 86,000 from 2020. Seven of the last ten Junes have had more than 200,000 visits. July and August, usually two of the busiest months for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, both showed significant declines from 2020. The park’s 481,137 visits in July was a decrease of around 110,000 in July of 2020. The 2021 numbers for July surprisingly show it was the slowest July since 2014! August was very similar, with a drop-off of more than 80,000 from 2020 (408,715 vs. 490,098). This was one of the lowest August marks in the last six years. One possible explanation for this “summer slump” could be that in 2020 people were getting out but staying in Michigan and in 2021 they were able to get out and expand travel to other states and countries.
Fall continued to be good to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and while September (154,000+) wasn’t an all-time record month, it was a slight increase from 2020. October’s 125,000+ visits was an all-time best for that month and a gain of nearly 40,000 from 2020. Things cooled off in November (23,000+) with about 6,000 fewer visits than in 2020. December’s 14,401 visits was a decrease of roughly 6,000 from 2020 but still good enough for the park’s second-best mark ever in December.
I am always fascinated by statistics and trends, especially when it comes to Michigan. It was great to see Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore have another remarkable year, helped out by a strong January-June. My biggest takeaway from all of the numbers was the big drop-off in July and August, and it will be interesting to see what happens in those months this year. One final point, and one that I’ll get into at more length in the upcoming Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore post, is that one of the arguments against adding fees to Pictured Rocks was “if you add fees fewer people will visit.” Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a great example of how that just isn’t true, and I remain pretty confident that Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore will see a similar trend continue (and have money for much-needed infrastructure projects too!) after fees have been added.