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National Parks are more crowded than ever. What about Minnesota State Parks?

As more things open up, people have other options for recreation — but there’s some evidence new outdoors habits have stuck.

Jay Cooke State Park
Jay Cooke State Park

This summer, many national parks out west — Yellowstone, Glacier, Arches and others — are seeing record numbers of visitors, creating bottlenecks at and forcing ticketed entry at some popular spots, like Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road.

At many Minnesota State Parks, last year was the busier year, as COVID-19 shutdowns and stay home orders kept Minnesotans close to home. Now, things have settled down a bit, but Department of Natural Resources and park officials say many parks’ visitation remains above pre-pandemic levels so far this year.

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Higher annual pass sales

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the parks saw tons of day use, as people took to the parks to take hikes or enjoy the outdoors even as their overnight camping and lodging facilities were closed in the early season, said Rachel Hopper, visitor services and outreach manager for the DNR’s parks and trails division.

“When we had the stay home order, people were doing very short day trips, and so our parks, [especially very close or near to larger population centers, were seeing a crush of visitors during the day,” she said. That continued even when overnight facilities opened: as other recreational opportunities remained closed, state parks were a place where people could meet friends for a walk or gather outdoors with less fear of COVID-19 spread.

Cascade River State Park
Cascade River State Park
So far this year, many day use numbers have moderated relative to 2020, Hopper said. But for most months so far this year, annual permit sales have been up relative to the same months in both 2019 and 2020: In May 2021, for example, 10,000 more annual passes were sold than in May 2020.

Annual park pass sales by month, 2019-2021
Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

The jump in annual permit sales surprised Hopper, who thought those numbers would be lower than in 2020.

There’s no sure explanation for the jump in annual pass sales, but it could mean more visitors are intending to spend enough time at the parks to make the annual pass worthwhile. A day use pass is $7 while an annual pass is $35.

“If you’re planning on visiting a park more than five times, it’s a money saver, right? You can visit all 75 or any of the 75 as many times as you want within an entire calendar year,” Hopper said.

Occupancy rates for overnight stays, including in camping and lodging, are also up compared to past years.

Less busy than last year

At Afton State Park, things have quieted down relative to last year. Just 40 minutes from Minneapolis, and along the St. Croix River bluffs, Afton State Park saw nearly double its previous record for visits in 2020, said park manager Nick Bartels.

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In a typical year, Afton sees about 280,000 visitors. Last year, visitation was nearly 500,000, and at peak times on the weekends, people waited in their cars to get a parking space.

This year, the park remains busy, but things have slowed down, giving staff a chance to catch their breath. As with other parks, Afton has seen its overnight occupancy rates up relative to previous years.

Bartels estimates visitation this year is about 50 percent above the previous five-year average — “busier than we typically would be but we’re not getting overrun like we were last year,” he said.

Many of the people park staff interact with seem to be relatively new visitors to the park.

“We’re definitely noticing a lot of first-time visits — we get a lot more questions about, ‘Is there a swimming beach here?’ or ‘What trails, should I [hike]?’ so it seems like it’s a lot of people’s first-time visit, but especially this year, I think a lot of people came out for the first time last year and enjoyed it so much that we’re getting a lot of returning visitors just from the new group of people that were kind of forced to rediscover our state parks,” Bartels said.

Another park that’s an easy day trip from the Twin Cities that got slammed with visitors last year was Nerstrand Big Woods, outside of Faribault. The park has trails that wind through a big woods ecosystem of tall trees and is popular with spring wildflower lovers.

Things are still busy at the park this year, but not like last year, said Nathan Springer, park manager. It’s still very busy on weekends, but weekday numbers, while still up, are not at pandemic levels, when Springer said cars were more frequently turned away.

Springer recommended people planning a visit to a park who are concerned it will be a busy call ahead and plan accordingly.

Lake Maria State Park
Lake Maria State Park
Kurt Mead, interpretive naturalist at Tettegouche State Park, which is a popular North Shore destination known for its waterfalls, says he doesn’t have hard numbers on visitors in the park yet this year, but anecdotally, it seems busier than pre-pandemic years. And notably, camping reservations during the winter and spring — normally the park’s quieter time — were up by 50 percent this year.

Camping is busier at Blue Mounds State Park, in Southwestern Minnesota, too. This park, which features tallgrass prairie and maintains a bison herd, would have maybe 15 or 20 campers during the week in a normal year. This year, it’s often 25 to 30, said Tom Sawtelle, assistant manager.

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Reaching more Minnesotans

Hopper, of the DNR, said she’s hopeful that all the interest in visiting state parks last year and into this one — when things are beginning to reopen, giving people other options — is proof that Minnesotans had a chance to reconnect with nature during the pandemic, perhaps a silver lining.

“Despite all the terrible things that came out of it, we are hoping [it] allowed people to either connect with or reconnect with nature and kind of slow down a little bit and spend more time,” she said. “There’s hundreds of studies that have shown the physical and mental health and wellness benefits of spending time in nature.”

Hopper said the DNR doesn’t collect demographic data on visitors every year, but when the survey is conducted next year, she hopes to find many new users representing a broader cross-section of Minnesota’s population.

“We’re hoping that those benefits have now been realized and spread more deeply throughout our entire population in the state,” she said.