The cold, wet spring not only has doused fishing license sales — down 25 percent from last year — but it also has washed out camping, hiking and biking excursions to Minnesota’s state parks and trails.
“We’re down,” said Courtland Nelson, director of parks and trails for the Department of Natural Resources. Sales of annual $25 state park passes are off 15 percent from last year, and $5 daily passes are down 34 percent.
While fewer campers and day-users overall are exploring the state’s 76 parks and recreation areas, use of state trails probably has been dampened even more by the poor weather.
“Trail use is way off,” Nelson said. “I spent Memorial Day weekend on the Root River Trail; there was some use, but nowhere near normal.”
Ron Erickson, manager at Interstate State Park at Taylors Falls — the fourth most-visited state park — said he has noticed fewer visitors this spring.
“When the weather is good, people come. When it’s bad, they think a lot longer about it, and sometimes they don’t come,” he said.
But others don’t let poor weather dissuade them.
“Our hard-shell campers, those in recreational vehicles that have reservations, they come anyway,” Erickson said. “Tenters are less likely to come if it’s going to rain or be cold.” Still, Erickson expected most of the park’s 37 campsites to fill this weekend.
At Gooseberry Falls State Park on the North Shore — the No. 2 most-visited park — visitor numbers are down only slightly, said Audrey Butts, park manager. But there have been benefits to the spring rains: “The falls have been just beautiful, way better than typical for this time of year,” she said.
Not all state parks have seen a decline in visitors. At popular Itasca State Park, Memorial Day weekend was busy, as usual, said Jeff Karels, assistant park director.
“We had a handful of open campsites,” he said. “The walleyes have been hitting, and we haven’t had the rain you’ve had in the south.”
Peak state park usage is June, July and August, so there’s plenty of time for campers to flock to campgrounds, hiking trails or bike paths. “I think it will be an awesome summer,” Karels said.
Officials know what it will take to lure Minnesotans back outdoors: sunshine.
“When we get the first weekend when it’s 75 or 80 degrees and sunny, there will be an explosion of people going out to the parks,” said Erickson. “There’s pent-up demand.”
But just as Minnesota motorists must battle construction season, park and trail users could encounter renovation and repair projects. Among them:
Tettegouche State Park: A $7 million visitor center is being built at the state’s seventh-most visited state park, meaning visitors will find a temporary entrance and park office at the North Shore park. The building is a joint project with the state Transportation Department, and will function as a park visitor center and state rest area. When the old visitor center was built in 1986, the park had about 28,000 visits yearly. Now it gets around 335,000. The building will include a great room with fireplace overlooking Lake Superior, a gift shop, amphitheater, lakeside patio, picnic shelter and restrooms open 24 hours daily. A solar energy system will generate about 36 percent of the building’s energy needs.
Jay Cooke State Park: The iconic swinging bridge, wrecked after historic floods last June tore through the popular park 20 miles southwest of Duluth, hasn’t been rebuilt yet, though visitors should be able to cross it late this summer. But the park reopened last fall and the Hwy. 210 bridge between Carlton and Thomson has reopened, allowing access to the park. The road currently ends at the park office. And access to the trail system on the south side of the park is limited, due to the swinging bridge’s closure. Most other trails are open.
With 320,000 annual visitors exploring 2,350 rocky, wooded acres, Jay Cooke ranked among the top 10 most-visited state parks until a deluge last summer dumped more than 7 inches of rain and pumped floodwater 6 feet over the 88-year-old swinging bridge, wrenching its cables and decking.
Gooseberry Falls State Park: A main trail near the visitor center is being rebuilt, and the historic dormant log and stone visitor center built by the Civilian Conservation Corps near Hwy. 61 is being restored to preserve it, though its future use is uncertain.
Willard Munger Trail: A segment of the trail from the parking area near Willard Munger Inn to 93rd Avenue in West Duluth is under construction this spring and summer as crews repair damage from last June’s floodwaters.
Bear Head Lake State Park: Using money won in a national best-park contest, a new trail center at this northern park near Ely is expected to be open this summer.
Root River Trail: The 4½-mile segment of the Root River State Trail between Lanesboro and Whalan will be closed for repairs, beginning June 17, and is expected to be completed by July 12.
Gitchi-Gami State Trail: The planned 86-mile trail is being built in phases. A section under construction near Lutsen should be completed in July.