Minnesota parks see boost in attendance during COVID-19 pandemic

Callan Gray
Updated: July 08, 2020 10:33 PM
Created: July 08, 2020 07:40 PM

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota parks are enticing many across the state to explore close to home. 

“It is just beautiful,” said Susan Wagner, while visiting Afton State Park from Brooklyn Center. 

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS spoke to Wagner just after she finished a hike with Sharon Wolff, also of Brooklyn Center.

“This is our third one in the last week and a half,” said Wagner. “It’s been so much fun.”

She bought both a state and national park pass this year in response to the pandemic. 

“Let’s get out and enjoy nature and sit on the beach or walk,” said Wagner.

Wolff told KSTP it’s been a great way to beat the summer heat.

“People are pretty good about keeping their distance,” she said.

Visits to state parks and day pass sales have increased, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

“A lot of folks who are attending our parks right now are first time users,” said Kim Pleticha, with the DNR. “Honestly we're thrilled. We hope these first time users turn into long time permanent users.”

She told KSTP that across Minnesota, state park visits were up 50% in March and the beginning of April. In the Central Region, it approached levels seen during the peak of summer. Some park attendance even surpassed the busiest summer weeks.

“That all started when we were just coming out of winter so what we saw was an explosion in use of our state parks that we normally wouldn’t see at that time of year,” said Pleticha. “Simply because it's kind of cold at that time and most folks are at work and at school.”

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According to the DNR, Afton State Park had more than 10,000 visitors each week for four consecutive weeks in March into early April. Only two weeks in 2019 saw attendance levels that high.

“People are flocking there in droves,” said Pleticha, telling us it's been one of the most popular spots.

Lake Maria exceeded 3,500 visitors each week for four consecutive weeks during March into early April. The previous year, there was only one week with those attendance levels.

At Whitewater State Park, during the month of April there were 68,947 visitors, compared to 31,184 visitors in 2019.

Peak summer months are now underway. Pleticha tells KSTP there may be fewer campsites available this year but Fourth of July occupancy was the same as 2019 at about 91%.

Campgrounds at more than a dozen state parks were 100% full.

“I think people are taking advantage of what they can,” said Holly Kapla, who was getting ready to go camping with her children at Afton. “Just hiking fishing and swimming.”

She says it wasn't easy to get a campsite even for two days, mid-week. 

“The reservations are pretty full,” said Kapla. 

They made their reservation as soon as the DNR started accepting them again.

“Even at that time there was hardly anything left,” she said. “We had tried to make a second reservation but it was already full by the time we did.”

With more people heading outdoors, the DNR reminds everyone to keep their distance and take out whatever they bring into the parks. Pleticha is also warning people to avoid crowded parks.

“Especially if you go to that park and you see someone trying to sell you a parking spot on their lawn, we would highly encourage you to turn around and find someplace else to recreate,” she said.

The DNR suggests park-goers use the recreation compass to find another place nearby to enjoy the outdoors.

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