DULUTH – If you’re looking for a last-minute campground reservation this summer, consider bringing a horse.

“We’ll never be at 100% capacity because there are so many equestrian sites,” said Minnesota Department of Natural Resource visitor services and outreach manager Rachel Hopper. “But on the Fourth of July weekend we were at 91.5% capacity statewide — that’s the highest I’ve ever seen it.”

It was even more packed on the North Shore, where in June and July reservable state campgrounds have been 96.6% booked.

“The North Shore is always the most popular,” Hopper said.

Despite, or more likely because of, the pandemic, Minnesota’s share of Lake Superior’s coastline has been attracting swarms of visitors, leading to sold-out resorts, booked campgrounds and disappearing vacation rentals.

State trails have seen double or triple their usual number of users, and among those crowds a greater diversity of visitors is showing up.

Summers are always busy Up North, but with COVID-19 throwing normal travel out the window, the high level of interest was not expected.

“We are in a much healthier place than we expected to be in March and April,” said Aaron Bosanko, marketing manager for Odyssey Resorts, which owns properties such as Beacon Pointe, Larsmont Cottages and Caribou Highlands. “We were coming into the season worried there wouldn’t be demand, and that has proved not to be the case.”

In June the state’s tourism bureau found that just 10% of regional travelers expected to take a plane for their next trip. For all the rest heading out of town by car or RV, “outdoor experiences” topped the to-do list, according to Explore Minnesota.

As a result, over the July 4th weekend northern Minnesota was one of the top trending searches on Airbnb. Vacation rental hosts in the region reported 50% higher revenue than compared with last year’s holiday weekend as travel to rural areas increased overall.

“We’ve seen people booking trips within 200 and 300 miles at most,” said Airbnb spokesman Sam Randall. “It started hyperlocal, less than 50 miles, and now more people are looking to get out of the city after being cooped up for three or four months.”

For some residents and businesses the escape-from-lockdown mentality has caused conflicts, especially as some visitors trash trails and campgrounds and huff and puff over requests to wear masks.

“The intensity level is through the roof — everybody is just super wound-up,” said Grand Marais Mayor Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux. “Our expectation is you should come here and behave yourself.”

But for those resort owners who were just months ago wringing their hands over empty rooms and mounting losses: “It has been a pleasant surprise, considering where we could have been,” Bosanko said.

Fewer workers

It’s still possible to find a room or a campsite, but as Trent Wickman at the Superior National Forest says, “you’re going to need to be more creative.”

Looking to spend some time at the Baptism River Campground soon? There’s a single Thursday night open on Aug. 20. Want to cozy up at a vacation rental through VRBO next weekend? There was just one left along the entire North Shore as of Friday.

Part of the issue is that there are fewer places for people to stay, leading to impromptu campsites setting up in some Grand Marais parking lots. (Don’t do this.)

More than a dozen Superior National Forest campgrounds remain closed until further notice, and about 15% of state land remains off-limits as well.

The plan is to reopen campgrounds and group camps at places such as Cascade River, Judge C.R. Magney and Gooseberry Falls state parks on Aug. 3, but that is dependent on staffing.

“The stay-at-home order included a state hiring freeze, and it takes a period of time to recall people,” said Hopper with the DNR.

Resorts also have to deal with smaller staffs. Many of the foreign workers the North Shore’s tourism economy depends on could not enter the country this year due to pandemic restrictions on work visas.

“It has always been a struggle to get housekeepers, and I don’t know if the international program will ever be what it was,” said Katie Krantz, marketing manager for Lutsen Resort. “We’re figuring it out with a lack of staffing this year.”

To help spread out the workload, some resorts have implemented three-night minimums and a 24-hour block between bookings, leading to less availability but catering naturally to the fewer but longer vacations many are taking.

“Our call volume is probably double what it has been,” Krantz said, ”and I think a lot of that is pent-up demand.”

New visitors

Bosanko said he isn’t holding his breath for a strong fall as the pandemic leaves too many questions unanswerable.

“We’re going to be responsive to whatever the demand happens to be,” he said. “This is a different booking pattern than we’ve seen in the past — more in the near-term, with not knowing what’s around the bend.”

Anna Tanski, CEO of Visit Duluth, said her group is also focusing on “driving as much traffic as we can in the short term.”

“We’re really trying to bolster summer’s business in the time we have left, and the opening of so many of our attractions certainly gives more reasons for visitors to come back,” she said. July 4th hotel occupancy reached 85% in Duluth, but it is still lagging well behind normal years on most nights.

Talking with fellow tourism industry leaders, Linda Jurek Kratt, executive director of Visit Cook County, said there has been a common thread around the state: “How many of us are so much busier than we would have thought. After being up in the air into May, now we’re producing record numbers.”

Hopper said as the pandemic pushes more people outdoors, it could leave a lasting legacy.

“We’re actually really hopeful this grows a new generation of outdoor recreationists, and the diversity starts to reflect the state’s population as a whole.”