Indiana state parks continue to see more visitors during pandemic

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Events were canceled. Businesses closed their doors to patrons or stayed open but with restrictions. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, people have flocked to the outdoors over the past year and a half, including to Indiana state parks. Park officials are hoping that trend continues.

The outdoors appealed to people as a safe space to relieve stress when not much else was available while COVID-19 cases surged. State parks welcomed the increase and shifted programming to appeal to new audiences.

Reservation revenue for parks, which includes all kinds of camping, shelter reservations, park-operated cabins and more, increased 53% from July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021, over the previous fiscal year, according to Ginger Murphy, deputy director for stewardship for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of State Parks.

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“Taking a hike or taking a walk or having a picnic or going fishing, those things are really good for your physical health, your mental health and your emotional health,” Murphy said. “It's an opportunity to spend time with kids and grandkids and friends and family and sort of set everything spinning around us in the world aside for a little while. Those are all good things and we are happy to be places where people can do that.”

Busy season at parks expanded

The busiest time of year for parks has changed over the past 15 to 20 years, Murphy said. Summer months, from about Memorial Day to Labor Day, used to be the peak time for visitors, with a few people camping in the spring and fall or coming out for day hikes or picnics on weekends.

“Our busy season has expanded tremendously and that really started before the pandemic,” Murphy said. “We have a lot of campers and day users in late April and early May once the weather breaks and we have wildflowers blooming and we have warm days and people just want to get outside.”

State parks have a daily entrance fee of $7, and daily gate sales increased 37% in fiscal year 2021 — July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021 — over the previous fiscal year. Annual entrance pass sales increased 43% in fiscal year 2021 over the previous fiscal year.

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Over that 15- to 20-year timeframe, there’s been a huge increase in fall camping and fall use of the properties, Murphy said.

The turning leaves are seen Oct. 25, 2016, at Brown County State Park near Nashville.
The turning leaves are seen Oct. 25, 2016, at Brown County State Park near Nashville.

“Places like Brown County have been great places to go in the fall for years, but really all of our properties now get a lot of fall use,” Murphy said. “So looking at the big picture, our season has expanded really from summer to include the shoulder seasons as well.”

Fall is one of the busiest times for Brown County State Park, and the increase in visitation paired with the pandemic has impacted park programming. Lecture-style programming that would normally be held indoors was moved outdoors, said Patrick Haulter, a naturalist at the park.

“So if we're going to do a talk about timber rattlesnakes, for example, we would do the same talk we would generally have done inside the nature center in our auditorium and we've moved that to an amphitheater outdoors or something like that,” Haulter said.

With the increase in visitors came new groups of people who haven’t been to state parks before and maybe didn’t know programming is offered or know exactly what to expect from it, Haulter said.

“I think sometimes they expect us to have, you know, maybe a live animal with every program or something like that, but they're just not used to state park-style programming, which is fine,” Haulter said. “So it's sort of our job to rise to the occasion and welcome these new folks and learn what they like about state parks or what they're looking for from their educational experiences at state parks.”

In the fall, a lot more hiking programs are done because people want to be outside looking at the leaves, Halter said. There also are more roving pop-up programs. With those, instead of having people meet at a certain location at a specific time, people like Haulter will go to a popular location, set up a table and have ideas of what they want to talk about with people as they walk by. It seems to work out really well, Haulter said.

“We know the benefit that Mother Nature can have not only physically but also mentally. It's just a place to sort of get back to the roots of who we are as people,” Haulter said. “So it's just a big benefit, not only physically but mentally, to come into these places and get outdoors and spend some time outside.”

Even when it comes to the winter at parks, there are still people who camp or stay at the inns, Murphy said.

Impact of the pandemic

“In terms of the pandemic, I think last year in the spring and up until Memorial Day, we were really one of the only places where people could just be outside — us and other parks as well — but certainly state parks were a popular feature through Memorial Day last year and continued to be that way throughout 2020,” Murphy said. “And then it has stayed that way in 2021.”

Over summer 2021, campsite occupancy averaged between 85% and 95% across the system, over about 7,700 campsites. The campsites don’t typically fill up on weekdays except at Indiana Dunes State Park, Murphy said. Some of the most popular properties were completely full for camping every weekend this summer, she said.

Fall camping reservations for weekends across the system already were at 60%-75% in mid-August, and Murphy said that was increasing.

“We are getting great response in terms of people continuing to use our properties,” Murphy said. “I think the outdoors is a place where people feel safe. It's a place where people can come with their families. It's a place to relieve stress. Certainly everybody's been under a little bit of stress over the last year and a half. So taking a hike or a walk in the woods or just having a picnic is a great way to relieve stress, to just take a break.”

Holiday gift packs and park information

Murphy said a lot of holiday gift packs were sold in November and December last year as people planned ahead for 2021 and she expects them to continue to be popular this year. It’s something people have discovered can be a great Christmas gift, she said. The gift packs include an annual entrance pass, a gift card and a subscription to Outdoor Indiana magazine.

They are on sale now at https://bit.ly/30xlMUO and include options for Indiana residents, residents age 65 and older, disabled veterans and out-of-state visitors. Some include a gift card for camping in a park, while others have a card that can be applied to a stay at a state park inn.

It’s hard to predict whether visitor numbers are going to continue to increase or whether they are going to stabilize, Murphy said.

“We do know that people love using our parks and our staff are doing a great job caring for people and helping them have a good time, from our programming to the people who are mowing the grass to people who are staff in the gates and our security folks,” Murphy said. “They have handled the increases beautifully. And we're just thrilled that people are continuing to use our parks.”

Though businesses, restaurants and other places with things to do have opened up again, giving people more options for getting out and about, Haulter is hopeful that the increase in sales of recreational equipment, from mountain bikes to canoes and kayaks, will keep people coming back.

“It's been very awesome to be the place for people during such a tough time, to be that outlet,” Haulter said. “I don't know that getting into this business in the beginning when I was going to college and trying to become a park ranger did I ever think like, 'Oh man, there's going to be a pandemic and one resort that people have that they can go and do to keep their sanity is going to be where I am.' It was really awesome to be that for people.”

Parks are completely open at this point, Murphy said, and are following guidance from the Indiana Department of Health as well as county level regulations that vary by location.

To find out more about individual state parks, visit stateparks.in.gov.

Contact Emily Cox at 812-331-4243, ecox@heraldt.com or follow @HT_InSchool on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Indiana state parks still seeing more visitors after pandemic boost

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