Minnesota state parks -- sideswiped by the state government shutdown last summer and a reservation-system snafu this spring -- appear now on the cusp of summer to have regained their footing, with campsite bookings in advance of Memorial Day on a par with, or exceeding, those of recent years.
Long-range challenges remain to Minnesota's system of 75 state parks and recreation areas, eight waysides and 58 state forest campgrounds and day-use areas.
Urbanization, an aging population and a more culturally diverse state continue to test park planners, who worry that too few youngsters nowadays are participating in nature-based recreation, including camping and park visiting.
Nationwide, money for parks is also tight. A year ago, for example, California announced plans to shutter 70 of its 279 state parks because of budget cuts -- closures that might be averted somewhat, but nonetheless are indicative of the expense and demographic pressures affecting parks throughout the country.
By comparison, Minnesota state parks are thriving.
Construction of a new visitor center at Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore begins this summer, a joint project between the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Department of Natural Resources. When completed, the 11,000-square-foot structure will be a highway rest area open 24 hours daily and a park visitor center with interpretive exhibits -- joining other, equally impressive park centers along Lake Superior at Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse and Grand Portage.
Also scheduled this summer is construction of four camper cabins at Soudan Underground Mine State Park, adjacent to new Lake Vermilion State Park in northeast Minnesota. Roads in the new park also will be built, as will a day-use area on Armstrong Bay of Lake Vermilion, including docks and a picnic area.
Camper cabins have proven popular among park visitors statewide, particularly among people new to camping who don't own tents or other gear. The cabins are among a broad range of innovations administrators are undertaking to keep state parks relevant.
Since 1891, when the first Minnesota state park was established at Itasca, the quality and diverse mixture of parks here have helped nurture outdoor traditions including not only camping, but hunting, fishing, hiking, paddling and biking.
That said, last summer's government shutdown dealt the DNR a blow. Park administrators and managers bore no responsibility for the closures. But they took the brunt of the heat from visitors forced to change vacation plans. And it was the parks themselves that lost much-needed revenue -- as much as $1 million a week -- while the Legislature and the governor played chicken with the state budget.
Worse yet was the reservation system crash this spring, after the DNR contracted with a new vendor to handle park bookings. But the system now up and running (startribune.com/a1293) is more user-friendly than the old system, particularly for prospective campers booking online who wish to toggle back and forth between pages describing various parks with the page showing campsite availability.
Will campsite bookings at Minnesota state parks continue an upward trend this summer that saw the number of overnight visitors rise 9 percent between 2008 and 2010?
Probably, given that the relatively high price of gas will keep many vacationers nearer to their homes, rather than driving cross-country. Also contributing will be the gradually improving economy, which so far in 2012 has seen recreational vehicle shipments from manufacturers rise 10 percent from a year ago.
Here are a couple of ways you and your family can introduce yourself to Minnesota state parks -- and trails -- this summer:
• Saturday at 10 a.m. on the Gateway State Trail in the Twin Cities, a summer-long series of 17 free, guided, family bike rides called "Shifting Gears Saturdays" begins. To reserve a spot and find out where to meet, call 612-725-2724.
• The DNR's popular "I Can!" skill-building series is expanding to include not only camping, but paddling, climbing, fishing and archery. Equipment and experienced instructors are provided. Phone 651-296-6157, or go online at startribune.com/a1292.
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org