State parks see 11.1% jump in visits as COVID-weary Iowans head outdoors

By: - September 5, 2020 9:00 am

Waders enjoy a day at Ledges State Park near Boone on Aug. 8, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The centennial year for Iowa’s state parks has seen healthy jumps in park use as Iowans flock to outdoor areas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through July 31, park-goers had logged 10,039,047 visits to the 61 state parks. That’s up 11.1% from the same period a year ago, when 9,035,398 had visited.

The  campgrounds specifically saw an even bigger jump. The number of camping guest days hit 551,861 through July 31. That was up 16.9% for the same period in 2019, when the number was 472,351. Iowa has also seen a surge in hunting and fishing licenses as virus-weary Iowans seek diversions outdoors.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first state park, Backbone near Strawberry Point in northeast Iowa.

As the season unfolded, DNR Director Kayla Lyon could already see the heavy traffic on roads, trails and at campgrounds. 

“Folks are utilizing our state parks like never before,” Lyon said during a visit to Pine Lake State Park near Eldora. “Even though our centennial looks different than what we had initially planned, we have seen that Iowans have an overwhelming connection to our state parks and how they contribute to their physical and mental well-being,” she added.

A large tree limb fell on a camper at Walnut Woods State Park on Aug. 10, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The number of visits has remained strong after the Aug. 10 derecho, but a few parks are closed or have cordoned off some areas due to heavy wind damage. Palisades-Kepler State Park is closed due to extensive tree damage, and the campgrounds, beach and north shelter at Pleasant Creek State Recreational Area in the same county are closed. 

Lake Macbride State Park is Johnson County is open, but the north and south campgrounds and the lodge are closed. 

Rock Creek State Park in Jasper County is open, but the campground and other facilities in the east side of the park are closed. The marina area and the west side of the park are open. 

DNR recommends checking with its parks website for the latest conditions. 

Iowa hasn’t been alone in the pandemic push to get outside. Minnesota also has reported a jump in visitors at state park, which one posting four straight weeks of visitation higher than any week in 2019, KSTP reported.

Missouri parks were so busy, there was a debate over whether they all should left open. South Dakota logged 111,000 extra visitors in April alone, the Argus-Leader reported.

The Iowa DNR encouraged people to spread out during the Labor Day holiday and go to another park if they encounter heavy crowds.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.