A Deeper Look at a Record Breaking 2020 at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
2020 was a year of constant change and constant surprises due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of our national parks saw a decline in attendance. Three National Park Service sites in Michigan, however, saw record visitor numbers as people grew tired of being stuck at home and needed somewhere to go with plenty of space for safe recreation. In a previous post we highlighted the record year Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore had in 2020. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore saw a record breaking 2020 as well with number more than 1.7 million visits, and set records in 6 out of 12 months last year. Today we’ll look at those numbers and try and figure out the reasons behind them, while also highlighting some reasons why we think Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a great place for safe recreation as we continue to battle COVID-19.
When we saw the numbers for Pictured Rocks, it was easy to see why they set records as people looked for somewhere with wide open spaces, beautiful scenery, and relatively easy access. Sleeping Bear Dunes had already seen 1.5 million visitors or more in the previous five years and it was easy to assume that fewer people would visit with almost a month of stay-at-home orders and a decent portion of the population having reluctance to travel even when restrictions were lifted. Add in the fact that one of the park’s most popular attractions, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, was closed for part of the spring and summer and it becomes even more surprising that the national lakeshore still saw significant growth in visits.
As we take a look at the monthly numbers, we see that SBDNL was off to a solid start before the pandemic hit. January saw more than 13,000 visitors, which was a decent increase from 2019 and the second-best January ever. In February the park set a monthly record with 18,726 visits, an increase of almost 7,000 from the previous year. March was also a best ever, with more than 31,000 visits (up from 23,000 in 2019). As COVID-19 conditions worsened in April, numbers leveled off a bit but it was still a top 5 April. May saw a decline in visitors by almost 20,000 vs. 2019, but that is likely due to a combination of COVID issues and Pierce Stocking’s closure. June’s 192,000 visitors was only a decline of 8,000 from the previous year, and in July things really got rocking. With more than 592,000 visits, July 2020 was the single best attendance month in the history of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. As the summer wrapped up in August it was another great month for visits with more than 490,000, an increase of almost 100,000 from the same month in 2019.
September (146,000; -40,000) and October (88,00; -17,00) both saw declines from 2019, but the last two months were where numbers got surprising again. November’s 41,000 visits was a huge increase from 13,000 in the same month in both 2019 and 2018. December saw a strong finish with nearly 21,000 visits also marking a significant increase from 2020 (+ 7,000). The 2020 total of 1,718,696 was an increase of 140,000 from 2019 and an increase of roughly 35,000 over the previous single-year record from 2016.
Much like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers plenty of trails, beaches, open space, and historical attractions that allow for safe, socially-distanced recreation. This likely had a lot to do with the record-setting 2020, and below we’ll highlight some of our favorite things about this amazing park. At the bottom of the post we’ve included some links to our previous posts about Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to help you plan your trip. With January 2021 numbers already in, it looks like it could be another record-breaking year!
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive – If you only do one thing at Sleeping Bear Dunes, this would be our recommendation. Some of the best views come from the Lake Michigan Overlook, and this scenic drive highlights the parks dunes, forest, Lake Michigan shoreline, and inland lakes.
Beaches – An obvious draw to any national lakeshore named for sand dunes is sandy beaches. Popular spots for sunbathing, swimming, and even Petoskey stone hunting are Glen Haven Beach, Esch Beach, North Bar Lake, Platte River Point, and the County Road 669 beach.
Trails – Some of the best trails at SBDNL lead to stunning scenic vistas. Pyramid Point Trail and Empire Bluffs Trail are two of the most visited. Other trails include the Old Indian Trail, Alligator Hill, the Dunes Trail, Platte Plains, and the Sleeping Bear Point Trail.
Historical Attractions – COVID-19 restrictions limited access to some of the historical attractions last year, but let’s hope this year visitors are able to check out the Sleeping Bear Dunes Maritime Museum, historic Glen Haven village, and the lighthouse on South Manitou Island.
Campgrounds – SBDNL is home to two fabulous campgrounds. D.H. Day Campground provides a more rustic experience with 88 sites (no electric hookups). Platte River Campground has 179 sites, and nearly 100 of those have electrical hookups for those wishing to experience the lakeshore with some degree of modern convenience.