Findings released this week from a new sweeping survey focused on Minnesota state park visitors — who they are, how they feel about their experiences, and where they're inclined to go — are a revealing look at a system of 75 parks and recreation areas that annually has nearly 10 million visitors.
Some takeaways from the summer of 2022 study:
• More people of color are visiting the parks since the last Department of Natural Resources (DNR) survey in 2017.
• Visitors far and away hit parks for the day (vs. overnight campers).
• The northeast remains the most popular region and generates the most revenue.
While the agency still is analyzing data from the study, which involved more than 2,000 parks visitors and also focus groups, principal planner Gratia Joice of the Parks and Trails Division said the information will help prioritize spending for a system that got a boost last legislative session, with new funding to — among other areas — maintain and upgrade parks infrastructure (for example, wastewater and drinking water systems, trail signage and improving access for visitors with disabilities).
"I think it definitely plays a part in a larger puzzle," Joice said.
More diverse visitors
The study found 11% of visitors are Black, Indigenous or other people of color, an increase from 5% in 2017. Joice said other data supports the increase: 45% of people who identified as people of color said they were new park visitors within the past five years. It's possible the surge of park visits, including many first-timers, during the COVID-19 pandemic was a contributing factor too, she added.
The newest visitor snapshot aligns with an increasingly diverse state, where 22% of the population identifies as a race other than white, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center. Communities of color are driving the state's population growth.
Day use vs. overnights
As much as 90% of parks visits were day-use, a 4% uptick from the last survey. Interestingly, one-third of those day visitors were at the parks as part of an overnight trip, staying elsewhere at cabins or some other accommodation. Out-of-state tourists account for 15% of all daily and overnight visits.
Spending on those visits …
Some of those day visitors were plunking down dollars for lodging elsewhere and related trip expenses. According to the study, parks visitors spend more than $688 million in local communities each year — on average $67 per day by visitor (day-use or camper).
… and spending in the northeast
More than half the money generated by the state park system happened in the northeast, where visitors to its parks spent $377 million. The central region accounted for $166 million, followed by the northwest ($76 million) and south ($69 million).
Of the five most-visited parks in 2022, three are on the North Shore of Lake Superior: Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry and Tettegouche.
"That [data] paired with what we know about how people are spending money, paired with some of these points about willingness to travel, paints a picture that it is a destination for people in Minnesota and outside Minnesota," Joice said.
The activity: primarily hiking and walking
Hiking was the top activity. Coincidentally, support for more hiking trails and also changes that include trail improvements — maintenance, better directional signage — also ranked high for visitors.
While, in general, the natural setting of the park or its trails are most valued by visitors, some noted the presence of park staff. Currently, depending on the park, offices are closed periodically. Staff's presence also made the park feel safer, according to some people of color in the study's focus groups.
"I definitely think [park staffing] will be part of the conversation as we decide how to spend money going forward," Joice said.
Responding to some open-ended questions about "one thing that could be changed" elicited remarks about the camping reservation system — a sore subject in recent years among some parks visitors after the reservation system went to a 120-day window. Some campers, too, have used a loophole in the system to overbook sites, especially at coveted parks up the North Shore. Said one respondent: "Sites are booked, but people don't show up."
Some respondents wanted a return to first-come, first-served camping. Parks and Trails upgraded the online system's interface in May and hinted at more changes to come.
Overall, Joice said there is excitement about the study results. "We think there is a lot of good information there to make state parks even better for our visitors."