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Gates open to Minnesota state park campgrounds

The wait is over for camping enthusiasts. Minnesota's state parks are reopening campgrounds for the summer season. The campgrounds are opening in phases, and sanitation buildings are not open.

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Trent Pool hooks his boat and trailer to his vehicle Wednesday at his campsite in Sibley State Park's Oak Ridge Campground. Pool, of Mankato, said he and his wife were waiting for the reopening of state park campgrounds and were among the first to pitch their tents with the opening of campgrounds on Monday. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

NEW LONDON β€” The first campers of the season rolled into Sibley State Park on Monday right along with the first heat wave.

β€œWe wanted to go camping,” said Trent Pool, of Mankato, who pitched his tent in the Oak Ridge Campground on Monday. Pool said he and his wife have been eager to get out camping all spring, and were watching for their first chance to finally get out.

Sibley State Park Manager Jack Nelson said he expects a busy weekend ahead now that state parks reopened campgrounds on Monday under new COVID-19 directives from Gov. Tim Walz. Nelson said the combination of pent up demand for camping opportunities and the arrival of summer weather are likely to bring plenty of guests to the park.

But campers and visitors to the park should be aware that the reopening is not a full-fledged return to business as usual. Sibley State Park has opened its Oak Ridge Campground and its 132 sites, but the Lakeview Campground will not open until June 15. When it does, it’s likely that not all of the 87 sites will be available. Some of the sites do not allow for the safe distancing required under the Centers for Disease Control guidelines the parks are following, Nelson said.

He said the park is taking a phased approach to the return of services. Some services, such as interpretive programs, remain canceled until further notice.

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Park visitors are also advised that flush toilets and shower buildings will not be open at most state parks, including Sibley, Upper Sioux Agency, Monson Lake and Big Stone State Parks in western Minnesota. The social distancing requirements cannot be met to allow for the buildings to be opened.

Nelson said he’s already heard from some would-be campers who have canceled due to their concerns about the lack of bathrooms with running water and other concerns related to social distancing.

Lac qui Parle State Park is the one exception to the closing of sanitation buildings. Thanks to its modern build and design, the sanitation building at the Lac qui Parle State Park Upper Campground will be open. Its configuration allows for privacy and social distancing, according to Park Manager Terri Dinesen.

She’s expecting a busy weekend in the campground, which will be open with the exception of a few campsites that are located too close to each other.

State parks have seen a spike in day-use attendance ever since Gov. Walz urged Minnesotans to get outdoors during the pandemic. Dinesen said the lack of camping was noticeable on Memorial Day weekend, however. It was a relatively quiet weekend at the park since many would-be campers pursued other options.

State park users should be aware that the state has implemented a hiring freeze at the start of the pandemic that has affected the ability of parks to prepare for the summer season. Social distancing requirements have also affected how park staff members are able to get their jobs done.

Parks are asking users to take advantage of online reservations and self-service options as much as possible.

The Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center is also taking advantage of the Internet to minimize contact between staff and visitors while continuing to offer summer outdoor activities.

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The center is making available fat tire bike, kayak and canoe rentals through the summer. Users need to reserve their use and pay for their rental either online or by phone. Staff members will have the gear ready to go. It also allows for scheduling so that social distancing requirements can be met, according to staff member Steve Friedlein.

The 500-acre site on the southeast corner of Lake Florida is available for hiking and picnicking as well, and like area state parks, has seen a rise in day use, he said.

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Tyler Keithahn, left, and Nikita Munch pitched their tent in the Oak Ridge campground in Sibley State Park near New London as soon as camping was allowed in the park in early June. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

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