State parks have seen an influx of visitors over the past year as people get to know their local attractions again.
Wesley Robinson, Press Secretary for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said state parks had an average of 26.6% more visitors in 2020 than the previous year.
“Much of it was in May, June and July,” he said during a telephone interview.
In 2020, the state parks welcomed 46.9 million visitors, up from 37 million in 2019. He believes much of this was caused by a pandemic as people needed a safe, healthy place to walk or hike outdoors.
“People live within 40 kilometers of a state park,” he said of the 121 facilities in the Commonwealth. “They are very close and very practical.”
He also pointed out that most of the attractions in parks are free. There are rental fees for items like campgrounds, but there are no fees to visit and enjoy the scenery.
“It’s a free resource to do what you want to do, within the park rules, which is a nice thing,” he said.
For those considering a long stay, he said book your reservations well in advance.
“The bookings for campsites are complete,” said Robinson. He encourages people to make their reservations as far in advance as possible, including days of the week. The parks are traditionally not as crowded during the week as they are on the weekends. “It’s a great way to take advantage of some of your vacation days,” he said of a quick trip to a park.
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The increase in traffic was seen in large and small parks. He said Cherry Springs in Potter County had increased traffic from 8,000 visitors in 2019 to 27,000 people.
The top five parks for visitors to visit are Presque Isle in Erie County with nearly 5 million visitors last year, followed by Pymatuning State Park in Crawford County, Prince Gallitzen, Point State Park in Pittsburgh, and Codorus State Park in York County.
“We hope it continues,” said Robinson of the trend visits. “The big thing is that the parks are for everyone. It is good that people are taking advantage of them. “
Ken Bisbee, park manager at Ohiopyle State Park, said his Fayette facility is a top state park in the Commonwealth for visitors, with 1 to 1.3 million visitors annually.
Over the past year, state parks saw a surge in visitor numbers as people sought outdoor recreation to escape the coronavirus. The park had 1.36 million people in 2020, he said, adding that the number is likely a little on the low side as park officials couldn’t use all of the traffic desks due to a construction project.
“We are a target.” He said about people looking for vacation. The park features scenic waterfalls, world-renowned white water rafting, and junctions with the Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail.
Mike Mumau, park manager at Laurel Hill, Kooser and Laurel Ridge state parks, said visitor numbers increased over the past year. He said they had close to 600,000 visitors between the two parks in 2020, a 33% increase from the 450,000 average for most years. “It was nice to see.”
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He believes the pandemic allowed people to connect or reconnect with nature. “There’s a real appreciation for being out there and what our public land can offer.”
He said the parks have the ability to provide a safe place for families and individuals to relax at very little cost.
Matt Greene, park operations manager at Presque Isle State Park, said their attendance also increased by about 25%.
“We only got just under 1 million additional visits last year,” he said. Usually they have around 4 million visitors, but there were around 4.9 million people there last year. “We’re seeing that uptrend again this spring,” he said of higher month-to-month numbers at this point in time.
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He said it was a combination of factors.
“First and foremost,” he said, “the pandemic reintroduced people to their local parks.” With most of the events and venues closed, people took vacation home. Since Lake Erie has beaches, people traveled there for an oceanic vacation in the freshwater lake. “It’s a nice and safe thing to do as a family,” he explained.
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He added that people see the value in local parks and need places to bird watch, go boating, fishing and hiking. “You saw that better during the pandemic,” he said.
Josh Bruce, manager of Reeds Gap State Park, has been running the Mifflin County facility for about three years. “Last year was crazy,” he said of the traffic influx into the park. With COVID-19 completing so many events, people in state parks have been socially distant.
The venue is open all year round but is mostly popular during the spring, summer, and fall months, he said. The park had 39,039 visitors in 2020, up from 29,566 in 2019. It is a popular spot for picnics and gatherings in the summer.
Brian Whipkey is the Pennsylvania Outdoors columnist for Gannett. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.