NEW BUFFALO — On a typical weekend afternoon in the summer of 2020 there are a lot of people at the beach.
This has been especially true in New Buffalo, Bridgman and Warren Dunes State Park near Sawyer as hot sunny weather, the inviting waters of Lake Michigan and a lack of alternatives have combined to bring in the crowds.
During the early afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 22, the New Buffalo public beach parking lot was closed due to the beach being considered full; cars were being turned away at the entrance to Weko Beach (with intermittent admittances occurring when spots opened up); and there was a long line of cars lined up to enter the state park.
Parks Director Kristen D’Amico was helping manage the parking situation at the busy beach lot on the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 22.
“We’re at capacity. That’s pretty much typical on weekends lately,” she said. “Especially with other beaches (including Michigan City) being closed.”
D’Amico said the city’s lifeguards report to her when the beach reaches capacity.
“We shut the parking lot down and they’re not allowed to drop off down here or park down here,” she said.
And it wasn’t just the beach.
The New Buffalo boat launch parking lot (located across the road from the public beach) also filled up on Aug. 22.
“This is about the fifth time we’ve been at capacity at the boat ramp where I can’t fit any more trailers,” D’Amico said. “This is a typical Saturday.”
The popularity of the lakefront has made for a challenging environment for those working there. D’Amico said it can be difficult to enforce basic rules related to the pandemic with some members of the beach-going public, adding “We’re doing our best and we do it with a smile.”
“I anticipate weekends through September still being pretty busy if the weather is nice,” she said.
Bridgman City Manager Juan Ganum said since they opened in early June attendance and revenues have risen significantly over last summer at both the campground and the beach.
During a recent meeting of municipal and business leaders Ganum said it was noted that “staycations” seem to be keeping people closer to home with camping and trips to the beach especially popular. Also, many Lake Michigan Beaches in Indiana and Illinois have been closed which seems to have sent more people into Michigan.
And the weather has been extremely favorable, with most weekends featuring perfect beach weather.
Ganum said the Weko Beach parking lot has reached capacity quite a few times this summer, adding that closing the lot is kind of a self-regulating mechanism to reduce crowds because it’s a long walk from downtown.
He added that most people at the beach seem to be doing an effective job of self social-distancing — a situation helped by the large stretch of Lake Michigan beach open to the public.
“Essentially we’ve got three miles of beach between Weko and Warren Dunes,” he said.
Bridgman Parks Director Milo Root said, “We’ve been busier than last year by a significant amount … It’s been a really good summer.”
He said parking pass revenue and concession sales are up nearly 50 percent from last summer.
Early on Root said he coordinated with other area parks directors and followed local best practices such as closing a percentage of the parking lot.
Root said the Weko Beach Campground (which has a total of 68 sites, seven of them cabins) averaged about a 57 percent occupancy rate in June of 2019 versus close to 90 percent this year after opening June 5. He said July and August occupancy rates are also up from 2019.
“We’ve seen a lot more camping than we’ve had in recent years.”
The Weko Beach Summer Sunset concerts were canceled at the start of the season before a few took place. As of now Root said they are on hold again because of a reduction in the number of people allowed at public gatherings under state executive orders.
“We’ve been taking it week by week … the concert scheduled for Labor Day weekend in still up in the air,” he noted.
What’s not up in the air is the nightly playing of “Taps” at sunset on the Weko Beach House deck.
Although Warren Dunes State Park no longer offers free admittance like it did earlier in the pandemic, it is offering advance-sale daily non-resident Recreation Passports on weekends as follows:
1. Visit MDNR-eLicense.com. If you don’t already have an account you will be prompted to set up an account. You can then click on the “Parks and Trails” tab and then “Warren Dunes Daily Recreation Passport.”
2. The vehicle license plate number, make, model and color must be provided at time of purchase.
3. Purchases are date-specific, nonrefundable and cannot be transferred to another day or vehicle.
4. The advance-sale passport is available for Saturdays and Sundays only through Sept. 26/27.
5. The advance-sale passport doesn’t guarantee a parking space inside the park, but helps reduce the number of people waiting in line to purchase the passport. There still may be a line at peak visiting times.
6. A limited number of advance-sale passports will be sold. This number may fluctuate depending on a few factors, including anticipated visitation.
7. A printed or online receipt is required for entry.
The State Park offers three miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, six miles of hiking trails and camping. The entrance is at 12032 Red Arrow Highway.
For information on camping visit: https://www.midnrreservations.com/