SPICER — Our family has already enjoyed two weekend camping trips to state parks, something we couldn’t do this early in the season last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state parks were closed for the beginning of the traditional camping season.

Once they did open, the people came, and state parks reported record numbers of campers and day visitors.

Call it the new normal. This year is also on track to set records as Minnesotans continue to take advantage of what the outdoors offer.

“It’s a really strong year,” said Chuck Carpenter, manager of parks and trails with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in New Ulm for the southern region. He helps oversee the 17 state parks in the region. They are among 74 state parks and recreation areas statewide.

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Compared to 2019, which was also a strong year for park usage, permit sales are up 25 percent at this point to 20,868 in the region. Camping occupancy rates are up from 2019 as well. Average occupancy at this point in 2021 is 59.46 percent, as compared to 52.29 percent in 2019, according to figures from the DNR as of June 9.

Weekend camping occupancy rates tell the story best. Occupancy rates are at 75.77 percent at this point. That’s up by 19.39 percent as compared to 2019.

Those numbers come as no surprise to the people who help make it possible.

“Our campground is looking a lot like last year being full, full, full, full,” said Terri Dinesen, manager of the Lac qui Parle State Park. The park’s campground was full every weekend last year through the Minnesota Education weekend in the fall, something it had not seen in previous years.

Busy is the word at Sibley State Park as well. Even before the numbers were in, staff noticed in May that firewood bins were being emptied as is more typical for weekends after Memorial Day. When the May numbers were tallied, the results showed why: Visitor numbers were up by eight percent.

In May of 2019, the park hosted 20,410 visitors. In May of 2021, the park counted 21,995 visitors.

The trend was the same at nearby Monson Lake State Park, which is managed by the staff of Sibley State Park. Monson Lake counted 255 overnight visitors in May of 2019, and 417 campers in May of 2021, a 62 percent increase, according to information from Sibley State Park.

Along with camping, state parks are also seeing an increase in the number of day-use visitors. Carpenter said vehicle number counts are up at parks around the region. Parks such as Nerstrand Big Woods and Minneopa have been counting anywhere from 500 to 1,000 vehicles a day on weekends, he said.

People are enjoying the outdoors for lots of reasons. The number of people hiking the trails at state parks has probably never been higher.

And with the recent heatwave, no destination is more popular than swimming opportunities. Parks with water for swimming are "really popular," said Carpenter.

One of the trends that got a lot of attention last year was the number of new users. That seems to be holding true yet, according to Carpenter. He said state, county, city and regional parks alike are all reporting many new users.

Many of those first-time users from last year are returning as well, he added.

The growing popularity of the parks is also leading both new- and long-time users to do more exploring. More park users are visiting parks they had not explored before.

It’s a welcome trend, as people are always surprised in a good way by what they find, he noted. Lake Shetek, Blue Mounds and Camden are among the parks reporting lots of positive comments from those visiting them for the first time, he said.

Park staff throughout the region are busy with all of the extra visitors. A state hiring freeze has meant that the parks have not been able to replace permanent employees who left for retirement or other job opportunities.

For the most part, Carpenter said the parks have been able to replace all of their seasonal staff positions. They are generally staffed up to meet the challenges of the new season, according to the regional manager.

And know this: The increased number of visitors are more than welcome. State park staff are public service oriented, he explained. “It’s fun to see the energy of the increased use. It’s a good energy coming out.”

Prairie Woods hosting summer programming

Sibley State Park is off to a busy start for the season, and things are no different just down the road at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

Mari Klebe at the PWELC near Lake Florida said staff there are witnessing the same jump in enthusiasm for the outdoors. No different than last year, the center’s hiking trails are proving popular with people who are looking to get outdoors and get some exercise, she said. The only difference this year is the heat. “With this heat, people are out at 6 in the morning, trying to beat the heat,” said Klebe.

Prairie Woods was not able to host educational programs for young people last year due to the pandemic. This May, schools began sending small groups again. “That first bus showed up, it was really exciting,” said Klebe.

Prairie Woods is again offering a wide range of nature programming, but with some exceptions. It is not offering some of the Challenge Course programming and it is not bringing the climbing wall to large group settings. It’s impossible to practice social distancing when strapping someone in a harness, she explained.

People have been very understanding. “Okay, we can’t come out and do the flying squirrel. What can we do? That is what we hear a lot,” said Klebe.

Of course, there is a lot to do. Riding fat tire bikes, kayaking and canoeing, birding and the Center’s nature classes are all attracting lots of people.