A marker that the rabid fervor for activity in the outdoors is unabated came in the first 24 hours after Three Rivers Parks District opened early registration in mid-October for some of its cross-country skiing programs.
More than 300 people registered for lessons and also club sessions that meet to glide through the season. Ten of the 15 slots for family lessons booked, and a new beginner program for women filled immediately.
As the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic stretches into its eighth month, some state and regional parks and trails managers are bracing for a replay, of sorts, of summer in their territory. Winter weather be damned.
Three Rivers, for example, already is known for its snow sport venues at Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington and Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove. The Hyland system, like Elm Creek, keeps trails and hills humming with its snow-making when the natural kind is in short supply. The reserve’s miles of groomed trails and Hyland alpine hills drew as many as 278,000 visits from Nordic skiers, downhillers, and snowboarders last season. Now, managers imagine more.
The Leave No Trace Center and Penn State University collaborated in April to assess how the pandemic was affecting people’s outdoor habits and their impact on natural resources. The study had a telling result: Nearly 38% said they intended on staying more active because of the pandemic. Wrote researchers: “The most salient changes include utilizing local public lands more often, diversifying their recreation activities, and participating in more fitness-based activities.”
Learning on the fly
Three Rivers learned from its early unknowns in the throes of COVID-19 in March: Adapt to the moment. Managers followed the guidance from the state’s Department of Health and the parameters of stay-at-home orders, said parks district associate superintendent Luke Skinner.
Like the state parks and trails, Three Rivers kept its locations across the metro open to the public early on, and then methodically, with safety protocols and consistent communication about rules for visitors, opened up. The district figured out how to open areas meant for groups, such as swim ponds, natural resource programming, and play spaces. The district didn’t expect to offer so much, Skinner said, but it realized it could operate safely outdoors.
“Our goal from the start was, how can we provide as many amenities to get outside in a safe way as possible,” Skinner said, adding that the community “craved” the structured programs.
“We took this incremental, adaptive approach, never wanting to close down completely.”
While colder temperatures will tamp down on the summer crush, many people still are using and expected at Three Rivers parks. Evidence is in those record early registrations, Skinner said, and what he is hearing from others in the field across the nation.
“As far as winter crowd, we are expecting big numbers again,” he added. “We’re trying to get ready for it across the system.”
Trailheads and chalets will not be the customary hangout spots and high traffic areas. At the Hyland chalet, for example, traffic will get directed one way, and there will be limited seating. Some people will be able to reserve tables, spaced safely, in 30-minute blocks to warm up and regroup.
A different approach to summer gear rental will get applied for winter recreation, Skinner added. The district turned to advance rental of canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards, with built-in time for cleaning. Snow gear renters will secure equipment and time slots, limiting contact with staff and spacing out the crowds on trails and hills. Regular annual pass skiers can glide at any time.
The hope is people will pre-pay online, arrive, and get right onto the snow.
“Don’t expect to come inside to get your boots on. Come booted up,” he said. “You’re going to have to be way more self-reliant.”
Be ready to go
That online, do-it-yourself approach was a difference-maker at state parks and recreation areas, said Rachel Hopper, visitor services and outreach section manager for the Department of Natural Resources.
Parks were lightly staffed, at winter level, while the pandemic surged and visitors arrived in numbers never seen: All told, visitation across the system increased 7 % from January through the end of August from the same period in 2019. Parks close to the metro like Afton and those near Rochester (like Whitewater) bulged, and then more so once camping rolled out June 1.
Staff leaned on QR code displays and other self-service kiosks to manage, freeing them up for different roles like, say, traffic control, Hopper said. The moves were valuable as weeks progressed. More than 636,000 permits were sold through September this year, a 41% increase over 2019, bringing in $9.1 million. Online sales increased by 1,000%. From cart-in to drive-in and on, there were 263,832 camping reservations from June to September, a 5.6% increase from the same period in 2019.
The buzzwords for visitors to parks and trails, like those in Three Rivers parks, remain “plan ahead,” Hopper said. Plan, for example, that some parks will have closed offices; plan that camper cabins reservations will remain staggered to allow for cleaning; and plan that some parks might not offer snowshoe rental after all for safety reasons. Individual park and trail web pages are best to find updated details.
Snowmobiling, winter riding on all-terrain vehicles, fat biking, and cross-country skiing on park trails are expected to be more robust than usual, too.
“Things do look different this year,” Hopper said, “and will continue to look different.”
Visitors over the last seven months certainly included a different look. There have been many newcomers to public lands, and parks managers are glad.
“One of the biggest wins is that people are getting connected to the outdoors,” Hopper said.
Ben Lawhon, the Leave No Trace Center’s education director who helped study people’s changing outdoors habits, doesn’t see that abating. He said trends of people recreating close to home are holding. Whether they continue to look for new activities is harder to say.
“Alternatively, as this drags on, we very well may see people continue to try new things in the outdoors,” he added, “because spending time outside is still considered a safe thing to do.”