North Dakota state parks’ use swells amid pandemic

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MANDAN, N.D. (AP) – Lisa and Kevin Wagner stuck a fabric sign of the times in their campsite at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.

“I was social distancing before it was cool,” it reads.

“I got that for my husband for Father’s Day,” Lisa Wagner said. “I thought it was just cool.”

The state park south of Mandan was full up that weekend for camping — little surprise amid the coronavirus pandemic as more people have sought outdoor activities, the Bismarck Tribune reported.

North Dakota’s 13 state parks have seen ballooning numbers of campers per site per night compared to May, June and July 2019 — up 28% for that period, with May 2020 up 47% over the same month last year. Annual state park pass sales have so far exceeded 2019 sales by 16%, nearing 20,000 passes sold this year.

“I think you have people that are looking for different opportunities to be outside, take advantage of recreational opportunities, not only out of state, but focusing more on in-state this year,” said Andrea Travnicek, director of North Dakota’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Visitors appear to be enjoying many activities, such as modern and primitive camping, and recreation on trails and water, she said. Her department has been following state and federal coronavirus health guidance, ensuring bathrooms and park facilities are appropriately cleaned, and taking measures for group campsites, cabins and yurts, she said.

“People are looking to be outside, have a little bit more space around them and then take advantage of the activities that each of those state parks do have,” Travnicek said, pointing to horseback riding in Little Missouri State Park near Killdeer and fishing at Grahams Island State Park on Devils Lake.

Steven and Kim Fischer’s family was enjoying the shade in camp on a Friday afternoon with their 1-year-old golden retriever, Dakota, and friends Bryan and Joyce Doll.

The Bismarck family enjoys biking and walking Dakota in the park, where they were camping for three nights. They spent Memorial Day weekend at Sakakawea State Park near the Garrison Dam and a weekend in June at Fort Lincoln, and went to Minnesota, too, this summer.

They enjoy Fort Lincoln for camping near the water and walking the park’s trails. It’s been a typical summer for the family.

“Most of our summer’s been the same because we mostly just go camping,” daughter Kayla, 20, said.

Her 11-year-old brother Jake enjoys park rangers’ amphitheater programs, such as trivia contests. Park Manager Dan Schelske said those programs have been scaled “way back” due to the pandemic.

“That’s kind of one of the sad things about this year, too, is the kids can’t do that stuff,” Steven Fischer said.

Across the campground, Jason Brazell’s family, from Bismarck, was settling in for the weekend in their new camper.

They’ve camped at Fort Lincoln and Cross Ranch State Park near Washburn multiple weekends this summer, and also have gotten out on the Missouri River.

“If we’re not camping, then we’re on the boat on the river, and it’s just a matter of getting out,” Brazell said.

There was little else to do as the pandemic emerged in North Dakota, restricting and canceling activities such as after-school programs and sports, he said.

“We had to get out. You can’t just sit in the house,” he said.

He and his wife Christina’s son and daughter, 8-year-old Aiden and 5-year-old Addison, ride their bikes in the park and play on the playground. The family also enjoys the river, Cross Ranch’s quiet, grass trails, and fishing in the parks.

Rick and Birdy Gardner, from Perry, Fla., were preparing to leave the campground in their Airstream camper and head to Medora on their trip across the U.S. They had been in North Dakota for two weeks, seeing Turtle River State Park near Grand Forks among other sites.

“It was our favorite of our 30 stops so far,” Birdy Gardner said. The couple also visited Devils Lake, Rugby, Minot and Lake Sakakawea.

They have been on the road since late April, having planned a trip for May and rented their house as the pandemic emerged. They decided to stick to rural areas and keep to themselves, wearing masks and distancing when appropriate. They made their way through Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and into North Dakota.

“We’ve never seen your wonderful state before,” Rick Gardner said. They plan to be back in Florida in November, and go through Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and other Western states in 2021.

Camping at Fort Lincoln was up more than 18% for May, June and July compared to the same period last year. Schelske said day use visitation amid the pandemic was up as much as 15% at times, and was about 9% higher in July 2020 than in July 2019. Cabin fever has likely driven people’s interest, he added.

“I think they’re just needing to get out, and we’re providing opportunities for them to come out,” Schelske said.

The park is still holding its monthly themed hikes but spreads them out out over a week’s time to avoid a large gathering. Hikers can send the park a selfie to obtain credit for an annual state park pass availed after 12 hikes.

The park has been limiting people in its facilities and has reduced hours to provide more time to clean and sanitize buildings, Schelske said. Fort Lincoln’s fall Haunted Fort attraction has been canceled this year, with plans for it to resume in October 2021.

Fort Lincoln and other state parks haven’t seen pronounced misuse such as vandalism and littering amid the increased visitation, according to Schelske and Kristin Byram, a Parks and Recreation spokeswoman.

State parks take on 150-200 seasonal staff from May to mid-August to handle the summer season’s increased visitation. Travnicek expects this year’s higher visitation to extend beyond Labor Day, when summer tourism usually drops off. Fewer fall events such as college football games might keep people coming back to state parks, she said.

“I think we are going to see visitation remain up in September, October and possibly into November,” Travnicek said.

Some campground hosts might extend their stay, or new ones might come on. State parks are looking for volunteers to help with projects such as trail maintenance and painting.

The 2019 Legislature budgeted $150,000 for a state park survey, which Travnicek said will yield feedback on recreation options such as camping and cabin offerings and availability of activities. The survey could roll out this fall.

The pandemic has changed parks’ interpretive activities, leading to an outdoor video series on YouTube and new activities such as scavenger hunts, she said.

“I think it’s been really important in general for the citizens of the state and our visitors to be able to get outside, have some space and really enjoy some of the amenities that we have to offer as a state park,” she said.

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