A sporadic weather-filled summer has South Dakota state park campsites on pace to end a decade-long upward trend in the number of camp-goers.
Since the beginning of the calendar year, state parks have seen 210,314 nights of camping, down 2 percent from last year's report of 213,860, according to Bob Schneider, assistant director of the Division of Parks and Recreation with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks.
"Weather is the biggest factor in camping numbers, and we had a couple blizzards in April, which is typically when things start up at the recreation area campsites," Schneider said. "The Platte and southeast part of the state having the huge rain spells this year has had an impact on park use as well."
For Schneider and park officials, the slight year-to-date decrease is not sounding an alarm bell, given the late April snow showers and heavy rains in the southeast part of the state, paired with having four months left before the calendar year report.
"The 2 percent decrease is actually pretty good considering the long winter and heavy rains we have experienced this year," said Schneider, who has been with the state parks system for 32 years. "We're not far off from last year's average."
Last year, the total number of nights camping reached 342,000 at the end of the calendar year, making it the 10th year of increase.
With 13 state parks, 43 recreation areas, five nature areas and 69 lakeside use areas, it's safe to say the state parks have a lot of responsibility in managing the state's beauty.
"Since we have been continually increasing in camping until this year, there is a demand to try and add certain things while maintaining what we already have in our campsites," said Katie Ceroll, South Dakota State Parks director.
Tucked along the Missouri River 15 miles west of Platte lies Snake Creek Recreation Area, one of 21 campsites along the nation's longest river that attracts in-state and out-of-state camp-goers and fishermen.
According to Ceroll, 75 percent of camp-goers are in-state, while 25 percent are out-of-state.
"Every one of our parks are unique, but the southeast part of the state has a lot of water based recreation areas, which attracts more fishermen and families looking to camp," said Ceroll, who has been the state parks director for a little over two years.
While the state parks receive very little state funding, staying relevant to the customers' demands is at the forefront for Ceroll and Schneider.
"The majority of the state parks funding lies within the guests and visitors, as South Dakota gives very little assistance to the state parks system," Ceroll said.
It's crucial for the state parks to see steady numbers, but with the 10-year upward trend the state parks have been experiencing, parks officials have proof in numbers that they are meeting customer demands.
"All of the money we make from camping receipts and park entrance licenses goes right back into the parks," she added.
Additions and improvements
The steady number of camp-goers has continued to prompt talks among state parks officials on improvement plans for campsites. In fact, Schneider said there weren't any camping cabins 32 years ago. Today, there are 250 scattered throughout the state parks campsites.
The state parks and recreation areas are open year-round, and finding ways to draw more visitors outside of peak season is a priority for Schneider and Ceroll.
"We're offering and planning more fall and winter activities at our parks and recreation areas, and we are seeing a lot more people in the parks during shoulder season than we have compared to ten years ago," Schneider said.
Shoulder season is a term the parks system uses in reference to the end of summer and beginning of fall. It's the little things that make a big difference, as Schneider said one state park offered free snowshoes last year that helped with an increase in numbers.
All 250 camping cabins are equipped with heaters to attract more winter visitors. Along with the addition of camping cabins, the state parks have built new restrooms in the comfort stations.
"Meeting the needs and desires of our customers means the world to us at the parks system," Ceroll said. "As camping is such a family oriented activity, small improvements go a very long way. An improved bathroom facility is an example of a small improvement with a huge impact."