GRAND FORKS -- The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a banner season last year for state parks and recreation areas in North Dakota and Minnesota, and the appetite for getting outdoors appears to be just as strong as ever, park officials in the two states say.

“I think the projection is really looking positive, overall,” said Andrea Travnicek, director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department in Bismarck. “I think people are still trying to figure out what they want to do. I know there’s still a little bit of uncertainty, but also a lot of positives.”

North Dakota’s state park system in 2020 saw a 25% increase in camping permits from the previous year, Travnicek said. Nearly 1.29 million people visited North Dakota state parks in 2020, she said; annual state park permit sales increased 20%.

“I think what we were finding is that a lot of folks decided to stay a little bit closer to home and realized there’s a lot of these wide open spaces, unique opportunities right here in their backyard,” Travnicek said. “We had a lot of people that came from in-state, from North Dakota, but yet we still had a lot of out-of-state visitors, as well.”

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The increase was reflected both in annual permits and daily permits, she said.

“People really took advantage of coming out to the state parks and just really being able to spend some time with their family, with their friends in a social distance-safe setting,” Travnicek said.

Minnesota parks draw crowds

With a larger population base and more restrictive travel policies throughout the pandemic, the trend was even more pronounced in Minnesota, where people flocked to state parks to get outside. An estimated 12.3 million people visited Minnesota state parks and recreation areas last year, a 25% increase from 2019, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

“We've still been busier than normal throughout all the seasons, so we are still anticipating busier-than-normal use levels,” said Rachel Hopper, Visitor Services and Outreach Section manager for the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division in St. Paul. “I don’t know if it will be at the same rates as 2020, just because I’m expecting with the dial turning and more people being vaccinated, it seems like more people might be traveling farther. But given that we still are operating under the existing executive order here, where it’s ‘stay close to home,’ I would still anticipate there being higher-than-average use.”

Rachel Hopper, Visitor Services and Outreach Section manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Parks and Trails Division. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Hopper)
Rachel Hopper, Visitor Services and Outreach Section manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Parks and Trails Division. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Hopper)

Visitation to Minnesota state parks and recreation areas has been on an uptick since the early 2000s, but it hit a new level in 2020, Hopper said.

“When you look backwards, before 2020, our state park attendance had risen already 25% over the previous 15 years,” Hopper said. “Between the early 2000s and 2019, it had already risen about 25%, and then last year alone, it was another 25%.

“So, it increased that much over a one-year period.”

In Minnesota, day use was “extremely high” during the early stages of the pandemic because of Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home executive order, Hopper said.

That was especially apparent at parks in the Twin Cities metro area, where parking lots at times were overflowing, Hopper said. Adding to the challenge was a DNR hiring freeze, she said.

Parking lots at some Twin Cities metro area state parks, such as Afton State Park on the St. Croix River in Washington County, overflowed at times last spring as people flocked to get outdoors for a break from the pandemic. (Photo/ Rachel Hopper, Minnesota DNR)
Parking lots at some Twin Cities metro area state parks, such as Afton State Park on the St. Croix River in Washington County, overflowed at times last spring as people flocked to get outdoors for a break from the pandemic. (Photo/ Rachel Hopper, Minnesota DNR)

At times, DNR staff suggested people visit alternative parks or trails.

“It was challenging, especially in those units where we didn't have enough staff to even just help ensure public safety,” said Hopper, who served as a volunteer “traffic warden” during peak times. “We found that public messaging and communication was so critical, so we had a whole new suite of signs that went up to remind people of things like the importance of social distancing, of staying on trails so as not to damage the natural resources.

The DNR erected signs at many Minnesota state parks last spring encouraging people to follow social distancing recommendations as a way to mitigate the potential spread of the coronavirus. (Photo/ Minnesota DNR)
The DNR erected signs at many Minnesota state parks last spring encouraging people to follow social distancing recommendations as a way to mitigate the potential spread of the coronavirus. (Photo/ Minnesota DNR)

“It was busier than I think even some of our visitors probably wanted in some places.”

The uptick in attendance was less pronounced at northwest Minnesota state parks, where the U.S.-Canada border closure likely kept traditional Canadian visitors away, Hopper said.

“In the northwest, interestingly, overall visitation was lower,” she said. “It increased, as it did across the whole system, but it increased the least in the northwest.

“Because the border was closed, we actually saw lower visitation from our traditional visitation base.”

Attendance at northwest Minnesota state parks such as Lake Bronson State Park increased at a slower rate in 2020, as the ongoing U.S.-Canada border closure kept traditional Canadian visitors away. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Attendance at northwest Minnesota state parks such as Lake Bronson State Park increased at a slower rate in 2020, as the ongoing U.S.-Canada border closure kept traditional Canadian visitors away. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Camping trends

While North Dakota saw an increase in state park camping permits, overnight use in Minnesota declined 18% because campground openings were delayed and restricted, Hopper said.

“We didn’t start opening things up until Memorial Day weekend, and that was just a very small number of sites,” she said. “And then through June, we were slowly opening up more of the system. But we weren't really back to closer-to-normal operations until July and August.”

Even then, Hopper said, some parks remained closed for overnight camping, or campground loops or sites within a campground would be closed to keep campers spread out.

“We never were up to full occupancy and availability as we would have been in a normal year, so that was to be expected that our overnight visits would have gone down,” she said.

That affected overall revenue to the state park system because camping permits are a “fairly big source of revenue,” Hopper said.

On the flip side, state park permit sales increased 50%, and the jump in online permit sales was even higher. The DNR in 2020 sold nearly 200,000 state park permits online, Hopper said, an increase of more than 2,000% in online sales from the previous year.

Entrance stations to state parks were closed, so the DNR had to come up with a non-contact way of helping visitors purchase entrance permits.

“We quickly put up signs with a QR code that people could just scan on their mobile phone and go in and buy a permit online,” Hopper said. “There were a lot of quick learning moments like that.”

Following guidelines

In North Dakota, Travnicek, of the Parks and Recreation Department, said the state park system was able to offer all of its regular campsites last summer, although group campsites were more restrictive than previous years. The department also implemented a 24-hour buffer between reservations of camper cabins to ensure more intensive cleaning protocols, Travnicek said, and utensils normally available in full-service cabins were removed.

“For the most part, we were able to still operate pretty normally, but we always did check with local and state health officials,” she said, to ensure North Dakota’s “Smart Restart” and CDC guidelines were being followed.

North Dakota didn’t offer in-person naturalist programs at state parks because of the pandemic, but the Parks and Recreation Department implemented self-guided hikes and scavenger hunts, along with virtual events such as a 12-part “Campfire Series” on its YouTube channel as a way to keep visitors engaged, Travnicek said.

Naturalist programs are on track to return for the coming season.

“We’ll be continuing to watch the CDC guidelines and North Dakota Smart Restart, talking to our local, state and federal health officials, but we are really hopeful that we can bring back some of those in-person interpretive activities but at the same time continue with those virtual offerings, as well,” Travnicek said. “And then we also saw that people really did like some of those self-guided hikes and scavenger hunts, so it’s probably going to be trying to offer a suite of all those different types of options.”

In Minnesota, the DNR canceled naturalist programs because of the pandemic, along with its popular “I Can!” outdoor skills programs, Hopper said. Plans for resuming the programs and reopening buildings and facilities remain a work in progress, she said.

“We haven’t come to a final decision point on that yet, but we are hopeful that there will be more things open this next year than there were last year,” Hopper said. “But again, it will always be consistent with the outdoor recreation guidelines and the governor’s office executive order, but we’re anticipating some of the restrictions to be a little bit more relaxed.”

  • On the web:

Parkrec.nd.gov

mndnr.gov/state_parks

State park systems at a glance

Here’s a look at the state park systems in North Dakota, managed by the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Trails Division.

North Dakota

  • 15 destination properties.

  • 21,287 acres managed.

  • 61.5 full time employees, 16 long term seasonal employees, 171 seasonal positions.

  • 1.29 million visitors in 2020.

  • 84,700 camping nights in 2020 (23% increase from 2019).

  • The largest increase in camping numbers was seen during September and October. September had a 173% increase, and October had a 339% increase in camping numbers from the 2019 season system wide.

  • 20% increase in the sale of annual permits in 2020.

– North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department

Minnesota

  • Operates 66 state parks, nine state recreation areas, nine stay waysides and nearly 5,000 campsites.

  • Maintains more than 1,500 miles of state trails and 3,600 miles of hiking/biking/motorized trails in state parks, recreation areas and forest lands, along with 23,000 miles of snowmobile trails.

  • Maintains 43 state forest campgrounds, including 29 day-use aras, 12 horse campgrounds and over 700 campsites.

  • Maintains 1,700 public water accesses, 360 fishing piers and 35 state water trails.

  • Provides recreation opportunities that contribute to the state’s $16.7 billion outdoor recreation economy, which brings in about $1.4 billion in staten and local tax revenues.

  • Provides Minnesota with eight of the top 40 tourist attractions statewide and 24 of the top 40 tourist attractions in the state outside the metro area.

  • Restores and maintains 256,000 acres of natural lands and helps preserve 285 rare species.

  • Stewards 47 historic districts, nearly 600 historic structures and more than 900 archaeological sites.

  • Delivers 8,000 outdoor educational programs to 250,000 participants.

– Minnesota DNR