Endurance of the outside outlasts pandemic – West Central Tribune

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WILLMAR – A pandemic-driven surge in camping and other outdoor activities in the region is proving very persistent.

For the third year in a row, county and state park campgrounds in the region filled up, while day users continued to flock to explore the trails and enjoy the beaches at our favorite getaway spots.

“If it’s a fad, it hasn’t died out yet,” said Colin Wright, parks and trails supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Spicer, speaking of the continuing interest in camping and outdoor activities.

Wright was unable to verify the final numbers for the season. Based on what he’s seen and heard from others, he said camping and day use at the region’s state parks in 2022, from Upper Sioux Agency State Park to Sibley State Park, appear to be consistent with experiences during the pandemic years 2019-2020.

Jim and Betty Christensen of Worthington and Jeff and Terri Hughes of Westbrook enjoy their campsite at Sibley State Park in this undated Tribune file photo.

Tribune file photo of TJ Jerke

During the two years of the pandemic, park use increased significantly. In June 2021, Chuck Carpenter, parks and trails manager for 17 state parks in the southern region of Minnesota, reported that park permit sales were up 25 percent from a year earlier.

The story was similar at the county parks in the area. Renville County saw a 61 percent increase in camping reservations at its county parks from 2020-2021.

Jesse Diehn, Parks Director for Renville County, said this year’s numbers have not yet been tallied but appear to be on track with last year’s performance. “A very comparable year,” he said.

While general interest in nature remained stable, Diehn said weather and other factors also played a role. A wet, stormy spell in late spring and early summer, including flooding along the Minnesota River, impacted activity. Skalbekken Park on the Minnesota River saw a decline in its numbers.

But as the season wore on and drier conditions came, numbers grew and usage patterns changed. Diehn said the district parks saw larger numbers of campers in the fall than in previous years. The camping season lasted well into October. The last campers checked out on Halloween weekend.

Diehn said some of the increase in fall usage is due to groups of hunters camping in the parks, taking the opportunity to hunt pheasants and waterfowl on public land in the area.

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Renville County Parks offers quiet, rustic camping in the woods of the river valley. An online reservation system and improvements to park toilets and the availability of hand pump drinking water have helped attract more campers to the parks.

Courtesy of Stefanie Ryan

Kandiyohi County has again seen good numbers at its popular camping parks, according to Larry Kliendl, county administrator. Big Kandiyohi West (+20%), Diamond (+23%) and Green (+1.4%) all saw year-over-year gains. Big Kandiyohi East (-3.2%) and Games (-6.5%) were down. While the number of campground reservations at the Games decreased, the total number of residents actually increased as each site accommodated larger groups.

Kleindl said the number of county parks was impacted by the rise in gas prices in May and June and a stormy weather pattern. Most notably, a change in the fee structure designed to allow more week-long campers to use the parks appears to have met its goal, he said. Reservations for seasonal units fell somewhat, opening up spaces for those seeking shorter stays, he said. It meant more people could enjoy the parks.

By any measure, Sibley State Park remains the region’s top destination for those who enjoy the great outdoors. Jeremy Gehrke, who assumed stewardship duties at the park last season, said park usage in 2022 appeared to be in line with the previous year. There was a good number of overnight guests and day users, he said. He said the park was able to bring a naturalist back on board last summer and that has helped boost visitor numbers.

To the west, popular Lac qui Parle State Park hosted camper numbers that also matched those of the pandemic years. As in the previous two pandemic summers, the park’s campground was packed every weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day, park manager Terri Dinesen said.

She also sees a growth in weekday camping reservations. She attributes part of this to a move by the state park system to take reservations 120 days in advance. With weekends getting booked up earlier, more people seem willing to reserve weekdays, she said.

Lac qui Parle State Park always enjoys a busy fall camping season. Camping in the park in the fall is a well-established tradition as many pheasant and waterfowl hunters are drawn to the Lac qui Parle wildlife sanctuary, she added.

No doubt she and others pointed out that ‘glamping’ is a bigger part of the camping experience than ever before. Kliendl explained that sales of larger motorhomes and RVs surged early in the pandemic and those who made the investment are making sure they take advantage of it. Dinesen said she’s also seeing a growing number of Ice Castles and other wheelhouses at the campsite as their owners take advantage of their multi-season versatility.

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Lakeview Campground in Sibley State Park near New London is featured in this Tribune file photo.

File photo by Gary Miller/ West Central Tribune