I’m staying at D. H. Day Campground in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with family. My uncle, aunt and three cousins are visiting from New York. It’s a perfect evening – in my opinion – at Site 15. Somewhat cool; sweaters and socks weather. The sky is flecked with stars, and the peepers are out. We sit around around the fire roasting marshmallows for the classic camping dessert: s'mores.
Even though the campground is full tonight, it's quiet. You can barely hear the faint sounds of clinking pots from sites nearby and see their fires flickering through the trees.
Last week the National Park Service turned 100. But whether it’s a centennial year or not, Sleeping Bear Dunes is busy, and scoring a nice campsite can be a challenge. D. H. Day has 88 rustic campsites, and they don’t take reservations. It’s first come, first serve. When my family arrived at 3 p.m., they snagged one of the last spots left. No such luck for those who came later.
But some of those unlucky campers aren't deterred. They're lining up outside the campground's ranger station, even waiting overnight to get a spot.
On this particular evening, at 9:30 p.m., I head to the ranger station to see if people are already lining up, waiting and hoping for a spot tomorrow morning. Two cars are parked there. But by 7:30 the next morning, there are 16 cars waiting. The ranger station opens at 8 a.m.
"We’re the fifth car in line, and we got here at like 5 a.m," says Zack Hills. He’s waiting for a campsite with his three siblings. His younger sister is asleep in the front.
Zack says when they started driving up from Grand Rapids yesterday they called the campground to see if sites were still available.
"They said there were a couple of sites available," Zack says. "So we sped up a little bit, and we called again when we were half an hour away, and all the sites were full. We didn’t make it."
Now they’re trying again today. Hoping to get a site. Zack says they love D. H. Day because they it's a short walk to Lake Michigan, and Glen Arbor and Glen Haven are nearby. Most of the other people I talked to – including a family from metro Detroit that arrived at 2 a.m. – said the big draw was the campground's proximity to Lake Michigan, the nearby towns and the short bike ride to the Dune Climb on the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail.
Park Ranger Sandy Lovlien says this morning's line of 16 cars is pretty tame. She says there have been mornings this summer where more than 30 cars were lined up waiting at 8 a.m.
At 8 a.m. this morning, Sandy gives her spiel to sixteen cars worth of campers all at once. She works to make it enjoyable.
"My famous joke for the month of August," Sandy says. "Two termites walk into a bar. Termites look around. One termite says to the other, ‘huh, is the bar tender?" The crowd pauses a moment. Then they get it, and they start laughing.
Jokes are fun, but no one likes waiting in line.
Sandy says her ideal solution would be for the National Park to build more campsites.
But Merrith Baughman, chief of interpretation and visitor services at the park, says the park hasn’t considered that.
"You don’t want to create a bigger footprint on the landscape than you have to," Baughman says. "So that’s one of the challenges for the National Park Service is that we’re trying to preserve the land, and that’s our foremost mission, but then, you know, balancing it with providing those facilities for people.”
Baughman says in the past, park officials have considered taking reservations for some sites and leaving others first come, first serve. She says they'll likely consider that this year too. But they're not convinced this will help with the lines. Plus, Baughman says they already have a campground that takes reservations, and there's something nice about allowing people to spontaneously decide to camp and have a shot at a D. H. Day site.
Ultimately, though, people are still showing up. They want to camp at D. H. Day, lines or not.