State parks booming as reopening continues

Photos by Kayla Renie/The Herald
Josie Hartmann, 12, left, her cousins, Hunter Happe, 9, and Hope Happe, 11, brother, Luke Hartmann, 10, and cousin, Hazel Happe, 2, all of Evansville, play in the sand at Lincoln State Park in Lincoln City on Thursday. State parks are experiencing a surge of visitors.

By ALLEN LAMAN
alaman@dcherald.com

It’s like the good ol’ days down at Lincoln State Park.

If you grew up in the area years ago, frequenting the beach at the site was just what you did during warmer months. You planned your weekends around the regional attraction.

“And it’s kind of been like that the last few weekends,” said Michael Capps, a naturalist at the area spot. “The guys that have been around for a while look at each other and think, ‘Man, we haven’t seen that since high school or college.’”

All state parks have experienced a recent boom. Lodging numbers have pushed to capacity. Day use has increased, and guests who might not normally visit the Indiana outdoor areas are flocking to them to safely spend time outside.

“Our occupancy at campgrounds drops, usually, those first two weekends after Memorial Day,” explained Ginger Murphy, deputy director of the division of state parks for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “This year, it has gone up. We have been close to 100% both of those weekends, and probably will be this next weekend and Father’s Day weekend as well.”

See a gallery of photos here

That tells you people want to be outside. And Murphy has the numbers to back it up.

According to provided information, the weekend after Memorial Day, cabins and campsites across the state’s 32 parks reached 99% capacity. For comparison, in 2018, that weekend saw a 66% capacity, and in 2019, it fell to 63%.

Cabins and campsites hit 98% occupancy last weekend — noticeably higher than both 2018 and 2019 — and this upcoming weekend currently sits at that same, above-average number. Father’s Day weekend already sits at 89% capacity, and will likely fill completely if the weather continues to be nice.

Tracy Kable and her fiance, Orlando Martinez, both of Huntington, look at the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Plaza with their dog, Zoey, at Lincoln State Park in Lincoln City on Thursday. Their plans to visit Myrtle Beach and West Virginia were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Avid campers, they decided to visit Lincoln State Park instead for the first time. "We always hike no matter what, even before the pandemic," Martinez said. "Outside, it feels pretty safe."

Capps hasn’t seen anything like it since he started working at Lincoln nearly 30 years ago. Many guests are traveling to his site from Owensboro, Kentucky, where state park campgrounds remained closed until Thursday.

“I worked here in college in the early 1990s, and we would have to park people below the dam then,” Capps said. “Now we’re doing it again. And I’ve worked here since ’93, full time, so I don’t ever remember parking anybody below the dam since ’93.”

At Patoka Lake, staff fielded lines of traffic entering the grounds last weekend, and all of the more than 300 parking spaces inside the site’s popular Newton-Stewart recreation area boat ramp were completely full by Saturday afternoon. Brian Finch, a wildlife specialist with the division of state parks, explained that the area has filled up for three consecutive weekends.

“So, that’s a pretty big deal,” said Finch, who has worked at the lake since 2016. “And to do that three weekends in a row is unheard of, at least ... in my time here, and I believe even for my supervisor’s time here.”

In a separate interview, Murphy said: “It’s a good problem to have. But we do have parking capacities. You want people to have good experiences, and those parking lots are set to ensure that the number of people that are using the property allows for a good experience for everyone.”

Other ramps have filled, too. Finch also detailed how all 455 modern campsites — part of the largest campgrounds in the Indiana state parks system — are typically booked on a holiday weekend, and that was the case during Memorial Day weekend this year. The popularity, though, has sustained even outside that stretch.

This weekend marks the fourth in a row that those campsites have been completely booked.

Zach Frye and his partner, Mariah Chanley and her son, Christian Meyer, 2, all of Branchville, eat lunch together under the shade at Lincoln State Park in Lincoln City on Thursday. "We probably wouldn't normally be here," Chanley said. "But we wanted to do something new because everything else is closed."

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, state park properties are each adapting in their own way. Social distancing practices are encouraged and masks should be worn in any indoor facilities. The number of people that can be inside nature centers at one time is limited. Restrooms and other facilities are being cleaned and sanitized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.

“At this point, I think we’re almost fully back open, completely,” Murphy said of the parks, noting that playground equipment can be used beginning today, as can fire towers and observation facilities.

Virtual programs were offered in the spring, but activities are beginning to return to normal.

“Patoka is huge, Lincoln’s history is pretty amazing,” Murphy said. “Just the story of Lincoln and the connections with Abraham Lincoln. And every one of our properties has something like that, that makes it unique.”

She continued: “Whether it’s natural resources or history, or special outdoor recreation opportunities. And we’re just excited to have people discover them. Or discover them again, if it’s been a while since they’ve been there.”

More information regarding all state parks can be found here.




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