As Memorial Day weekend approaches, Minnesota’s 75 state parks and recreation areas are prepared to kick off a summerlong celebration of their 125th anniversary, while reporting a continuing upsurge in visitors.
The 2016 season also is the first in the system’s history in which all 4,500 state park campsites can be reserved up to a year ahead. Previously as many as 30 percent of sites were awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
“We did a pilot study of the new system and also surveyed our customers about their opinions of a 100 percent reserved-campsite system, and the results were overwhelmingly positive,” said Erika Rivers, parks and trail division director with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Added Rivers: “Many families said they don’t want to pack their cars and get the kids ready to go camping if they can’t be assured of getting a site. They’d rather plan ahead.”
The DNR has heavily promoted the new reservation system. But some people haven’t gotten the word and have been disappointed to learn that a campsite they wanted on a drive-up basis already had been reserved. Still (see graphic, right), some sites remain for the long Memorial Day weekend, one of the busiest in state parks.
Widely considered one of the best, most scenic and most geographically diverse systems in the nation, Minnesota’s parks might be more popular than ever. Sales of one-day park visitor permits are up 41 percent this spring over last year. Annual permit sales have jumped 24 percent. And occupancy so far in 2016 has increased 39 percent from to a year ago.
In an interview, Rivers, who was appointed parks and trails director in 2014 after previously serving as an assistant DNR commissioner, discusses the new reservation program, the system’s 125th anniversary and the need for accelerated maintenance of park buildings.
Q In which region of the state are park campsites still available for Memorial Day weekend?
A Some are in the northwest part of the state. A few are out west. Parks in the northwest sometimes get a little less use because they take longer to get to from the Twin Cities. But there are some gems in that region: Lake Bronson, Old Mill and Hayes Lake, for example, are beautiful parks in a region that has a mix of prairie and aspen. Also, Zippel Bay on Lake of the Woods is a great park. It has occupancy available, as well.
Q How will the new reservation system accommodate campers who can’t plan far ahead?
A In many instances, sites will be available. We’ve found that about 40 percent of our campsites are still open three weeks in advance of a planned booking. Additionally, either by phone or online, campers can make a same-day reservation. That way they can leave home in the morning and be assured of a site when they arrive — and there’s no fee charged for same-day reservations.
Q Some state parks elsewhere have struggled in recent years, whereas Minnesota’s system is increasingly popular. Why?
A There are many reasons. One that we can’t control is the weather. We’ve had several years recently of very good weekend weather. That encourages camping. Additionally, the Legacy Amendment passed by voters in 2008 has helped us in two critical areas.
One is that we’ve been better able to take care of what we have, in terms of building maintenance. Additionally, we’ve been able to develop programs that encourage park visitorship. Our skills classes, like I CAN CAMP and I CAN CLIMB, give people who otherwise don’t have a lot of experience in the outdoors a skill set for new adventures in parks. In this way we’re addressing the gap that exists in some young families who haven’t been exposed to outdoor recreation.
We’re also investing in technology on our website. As one example, people can go on our site and select “bird watching’’ and “swimming” and the region of the state they’d like to visit, and they’ll get a list of parks that offer that combination. Also, we try to keep a finger on the pulse of outdoor recreation. Stand-up paddle boarding is popular, as is mountain biking, and we are making these increasingly available at our parks.
Q State parks have a maintenance backlog stretching years. How big is the problem?
A Many of our buildings are 50 to 80 years old. In the Legislature this year, DNR had a $72.5 million capital request, about $33 million of which would be designated for asset preservation. State parks have about 60 percent of the state’s buildings, so a large portion of any allotment likely would go to our building maintenance.
Q You were the lead planner for the new Vermilion State Park on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota. When will that park open?
A The first phase of campground construction should be finished late this summer or in the fall. We’re hoping to open that campground next year.
Q What 125th anniversary celebrations are planned for state parks?
A One of the first is a “Total park takeover” we have planned for June 11, which is National Get Outdoors Day. Our goal is to sell every campsite in the system, all 4,500. On our website will be notification of other activities throughout the state, in which people can try the “I CAN” system to learn camping and other skills. We’ll also have hiking, paddling, biking and many other activities across the state, including geocaching, and on the last weekend of July, our 125th anniversary celebration will be held at Itasca, our first park.
Q Minnesota state parks also will soon have their own license plate.
A A couple years ago the Legislature gave us our own plate, and we’re in the process of selecting the top three designs. A public vote will be held to determine the winner. I think people will be eager to buy them. The cost will be $50, plus a $10 fee. But that will include a year’s entry into state parks, negating the need to buy an annual $25 sticker. The other $25 will be a donation to the state park system.