If you’ve made the drive out to Afton State Park on a recent weekend, you might have found something there you haven’t seen before: a line of cars waiting to get in.
Since COVID-19 descended on Minnesota, the number of people visiting the state park, one of the most easily accessible to the Twin Cities metro, has been way up. Since April, the park has been counting around 1,000 cars in its parking lots on busy weekend days. One Saturday in June saw a record of 1,400. In previous years, it would see hundreds.
“It’s been record-breaking. It’s actually been higher visitation than we’ve ever seen before,” said Ali Crofts, assistant park supervisor. This year, after the park was so busy people parked on shoulders and in fields, staff started metering entry, creating a line to get into the park after parking spots have filled. Signs and staff typically tell people how long the wait is, usually 15 or 20 minutes. On the weekends, that line typically starts to form by 11 or noon, Crofts said.
A wait to get in
Afton’s not alone. Many state parks have seen an increase in visitors since COVID-19 hit, shutting down many of Minnesotans’ weekend pastimes and enticing them outdoors.
Kari Ingebritsen, of Bloomington, got to Afton around noon last Saturday with her family and found a line of cars waiting to get into the park.
The family bought a state park pass a month or so ago. After opting out of their usual summer road trip due to COVID-19, the family decided to visit more Minnesota state parks this year. This wasn’t the first time they found one busy.
They recently visited Nerstrand Big Woods, about an hour south of the cities near Faribault and found the parking lot full, and staff suggesting nearby parks for visitors to go to instead. Nerstrand is often so busy on the weekends that the park’s neighbors offer parking on their yards for a fee.
Ingebritsen and her family took park staff’s advice and visited nearby regional park. On their way back, they found a parking spot at Nerstrand and checked it out, too.
Last Saturday in Afton, the family spent the wait, no more than 20 minutes, eating the lunch they’d packed. Once they got into the park, they walked down the shore and found some space away from the crowds.
“We just walked along the river’s edge. The kids put their toes in. There weren’t as many people on the trails, it was mostly just a lot of people there to swim and picnic,” she said.
And it’s not just state parks that have seen increased attendance. Three Rivers Park District, in suburban Hennepin, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Ramsey counties, has seen visitor counts tick up, too.
Visitors to the popular Rush Creek and Nine Mile Creek trails had 61,583 visitors in March and April of this year, up 218 percent over March and April of 2019, according to district figures.
“When COVID first hit and the stay-at-home orders went into place, we saw a significant increase right away, especially late March and early April, even to the point we were seeing numbers on some of our regional trails higher than midsummer in previous years,” said Luke Skinner, Three Rivers’ associate superintendent.
Parks outside the metro area are seeing increased visitor numbers, too.
Kurt Mead, lead interpretive naturalist at Tettegouche State Park, says that park has felt busier than normal. In a normal year, June is quieter than July or August. This year, it felt more like a high summer month. The parking lot is often full.
But people were flocking to the park, with rock cliffs that soar over Lake Superior, even before then. In March, and April there were tons of visitors, some seemingly from far away despite a stay-at-home order that discouraged travel. Mead said he has a Facebook friend who goes for a hike every day and was posing which states she’d seen license plates from in the Tettegouche parking lot earlier in the pandemic. There have been license plates from places like Texas, Florida, Mississippi and Wyoming.
“I don’t know where they were staying because the resorts weren’t open back then,” Mead said.
Itasca State Park, home of the Mississippi River’s headwaters and north of Park Rapids, is still running numbers for May and June attendance, but March and April were up roughly 36 percent and 23 percent, respectively, over last year, said Connie Cox, the park’s lead interpretive naturalist. That’s pretty unusual, especially considering the weather.
“That’s usually that icky spring snowmelt,” she said. “We still have snow, but you can’t really ski.”
The first part of May, it got cold and snowed, slowing down visitors, but things picked up again as it got nicer out and May and June progressed.
Because Itasca is a large park, it hasn’t had parking issues due to increased visitors the same way other parks have. Sometimes, there’s a bit of a backup at the permit station. If you’re in the park (or just need a nice view for a moment), you can see how busy the headwaters area is on the park’s webcam.
Cox said she enjoys seeing people out appreciating the park.
“When you have the stress of jobs and the stress of our personal lives, one of the best therapies is going outside and enjoying nature,” she said, observing that while nature can be chaotic, with things like storms and weather [and pandemics], it’s also remarkably consistent: every spring, there are wildflowers and baby deer.
“People have been really enjoying their time at the park. Everyone has been expressing they’re happy they’re open. Happy they can get out and have some fun with their family,” she said.
While getting out in the parks is a great pandemic pastime, state park officials say there are things you should do before you leave home to be prepared for your visit in these busy times.
First, check the website. Due to COVID-19, some parks have been reopening facilities slowly, whether it’s toilet facilities or visitor centers, in recent weeks. Not everything at every park is open right now.
Second, come prepared for anything you might need given those closures and the demand on the parks right now. Check if the bathrooms are open. If not, bring some toilet paper and expect to use vaulted toilets. It’s also not a bad idea to bring your own hand sanitizer in case the park is out (at Afton, it’s back-ordered, Crofts said).
You can save time by buying your permit online ahead of time, even day of, to help avoid waiting at the permit station.
It’s also good to keep in mind that you might have to wait — whether it’s for parking or for park amenities, which could be operating at lower capacity due to social distancing. (At Three Rivers, for example, park staff will be counting at the swimming ponds to make sure there aren’t too many people swimming at once).
Lastly, don’t crowd the parks by parking outside designated spots, said Kim Pleticha, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spokesperson.
She recommends a DNR web feature called Recreation Compass that uses your location to find nearby parks and trails.
“If the park is over capacity, turn around and find someplace else,” she said.