Gateways to the outdoors remain wide open

Area state parks and the Prairie Woods ELC are all seeing an increase in the number of visitors. Many of the visitors realize the benefits of being outdoors and physical activity during this stressful time. Many also know that the arrival of spring and migrating wildlife make this a special time to be outdoors no matter what.

Shawn Lobbins with his son Tracyn Lobbins, 9, fish Tuesday evening on Foot Lake in Willmar. Fishers are encuraged to stand a fishing pole's length away as a way to properly socially distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

NEW LONDON — Doors on many public buildings are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but our popular gateways to the outdoors remain wide open.

City, county and state parks are all open for day use, and state and federal public water access sites are open as well. Fishing, biking, hiking, hunting, trail riding, boating and canoe and kayak paddling are all allowed activities.

People are taking advantage of the ability to get outside, more so than ever. “Definitely,” said Dave Pederson, executive director of the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center , when asked earlier this week if he is seeing more hikers and visitors on the trails. He said he is seeing individuals, couples and families getting out on the trails.

“It’s up significantly,” said Colin Wright, assistant manager of Sibley State Park . Wright said the park does not have exact numbers, but there are definitely more visitors than usual for late March and early April. Most noticeable, he added, is the number of hikers coming on weekdays.

Park Manager Jack Nelson and Wright both urge visitors to avoid congregating at popular sites such as Mount Tom, and to abide by the guidelines for social distancing. From what both have seen, people do seem to be following the guidelines and giving plenty of space to others on the trails.


And there’s no doubt people are happy to get out. Most phone callers always say how happy they are to learn the park is open, explained Nelson.

Other area parks are also seeing similar increases in visitors. Terri Dinesen, manager of the Lac qui Parle State Park , said a jump in the number of self-registration permits filled out by visitors makes it apparent that more are visiting the park even though the office and interpretive center are closed.

Buildings at all state parks and Prairie Woods ELC are closed due to the COVID-19 guidelines. Unfortunately, the guidelines have forced Prairie Woods to cancel 60 outdoor programs that were scheduled in April and May for visiting school and other groups. It’s a financial hit for the non-profit organization, but the good news is that all of the groups have rescheduled for next year, Pederson said.

Getting outside is the perfect antidote to the blues and stress brought on by the pandemic. Get out for a walk, run, bike ride or whatever, and you just can’t help but feel a whole lot better, he said.

It’s not just the physical exertion, he added. It’s being outdoors. The sunshine, fresh air and seeing wildlife are good for us. “Being in nature is where we’re supposed to be. We’re not programmed to be sitting in front of computers all day,” Pederson said.

Nor are we necessarily programmed to receive a steady diet of stressful news. He suspects many of those he sees hiking are in part looking for the chance to unplug from some of this.

And of course, many are also getting outdoors right now because they know what a special time of year this is. Wright has heard the first of the season’s call of the loons, and visitors have told him they’ve spotted bluebirds. Wood ducks and mergansers and other waterfowl are all about. Nelson spotted his first bloodroot in bloom and enjoys the chorus of birdsong and frogs heard as day begins.

Pelicans, snow geese and even trumpeter swans have been observed by hikers at the Lac qui Parle State Park. Dinesen said she’s looking forward to the days ahead as pasque flowers and other prairie plants emerge.


The pandemic has delayed the camping season. State parks will not open campgrounds or buildings until early May, based on the latest directive from Governor Tim Walz.

All other outdoors activities remain a “go.”

Fishing is open as well, and the walleye and northern pike season will open May 9 as previously set. Turkey hunting will open this coming week. Sales of turkey licenses were actually up by 15 percent one week before the season’s start, according to Kim Pleticha, assistant communications director with the Minnesota DNR. A bump in youth and archery licenses represents the majority of the increase, she added.

Parks and trails staff are beginning to get fishing docks and piers out at public access sites. It will take longer to get all of the docks out this year as the DNR crews follow social distancing guidelines in their work.

Pleticha said the DNR will be urging anglers and others to follow social distancing guidelines at the public sites. The DNR recommends anglers stay a fishing pole’s length or six feet apart from one another.

She said the DNR is also urging all of those who enjoy the outdoors, to do so close to home in keeping with the spirit of the guidelines.

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