Did that spring break trip to Florida get canceled? How about that summer vacation, is it still on?

While the COVID-19 pandemic decreased flight availability and closed attractions all around the country, in our own backyard, Minnesota state parks have seen a surge in visitors.

Outdoors, with social distance recommendations.

“Anecdotally we are seeing — we have counters at most of the state parks that count how many cars come in and how many people — and in some cases park visitor use is up 800%. A lot of those people are buying day permits, not necessarily year permits. We are definitely seeing increased use of our state parks, which we’re thrilled about,” Assistant Communications Director for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Kim Pleticha said.

“If some of these folks that have never been at a state park before experience them now we hope they’ll become long-term users in the future. They’re the jewels of the state of Minnesota,” she added.

There are 75 Minnesota state parks and recreation areas ready for residents to explore. There are overnight camping opportunities, many options for hikes along a river or around a lake, bike trails, and nature adventures.

While many of the parks across the state have been open throughout the spring, a phased reopening of camping began June 1. Camper cabins and lodging have opened, or will so in coming weeks.

In addition, equestrian campgrounds are available at 13 different state parks.

What remains closed are group campgrounds, ranger stations, nature stores, visitor centers, and beaches and playgrounds.

“It’s like turning on a small city. Because of the limitations due to COVID-19, our parks didn’t have seasonal staff that we would normally have to accommodate the normal summer traffic. That’s why we’ve been slowly opening up things in a phased fashion. We’re hoping to have everything up to speed by sometime in July,” DNR regional information officer Harland Hiemstra said.

Nearest state parks are the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area in Jordan, Fort Snelling State Park near the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and Afton State Park on the St. Croix River.

“If the park is so crowded you have to pay for a spot a mile down the road, we really encourage you (to) find another park. We still have a pandemic going on and we still are really telling people to maintain social distance. It’s very hard when the park is so crowded. If you can find a spot in the parking lot, great, we welcome you,” Pleticha said.

Pleticha suggests the DNR app Recreation Compass to help identify other options in your area.

BUSY ON THE WATER

Corporal Andrew Burt of the Carver County Sheriff’s Office said he believes traffic numbers are up in local waters with more people working from home, children not physically being in school and the nice stretch of weather the state has seen this spring.

“I don’t have any official numbers but numbers seem to be high so far. Weekdays have been busier it seems. When I have talked to some of the In Towne Marina owners on Lake Waconia they have the same thoughts about increased traffic. There was a day in mid-May on a Wednesday that in the owner’s words, seemed busier than what they had seen it in a while and even busier than what they see on the Fourth of July. There was no rhyme or reason for it to be busy that day other than it was a nice sunny Minnesota day,” Burt said.

Lisa Dugan, DNR Recreation Safety Outreach Coordinator, said the boating season got off to an earlier start. Traffic seen on a Memorial Day weekend, the “unofficial boat season opener,” was the normal scene most weekends in May.

“Lakes are a great answer to have something to do,” Dugan said. County officials in Prior Lake and Minnetonka are saying boat ramps are full on weekdays and weekends. “It is important to allow more time and bring patience.”

Burt strongly encourages boat users to review the Minnesota DNR’s Boating Guide to learn or refresh their knowledge on the laws and proper boating etiquette.

“Boats can be dangerous when operated carelessly. Many times I hear frustration from people who witness boat operators that clearly have no idea what they are doing when it comes to operating a boat or launching/landing their boat at the boat launch,” Burt said.

Dugan said rivers such as the St. Croix on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border are busy daily. The highest number of incidents on the water are usually collisions with boats and objects or other boats.

Non-fatal boating accidents numbered 92 in 2017 and 2019. Dugan said looking back at five years prior, that number was consistently in the 60s. Now that number averages in the 80s and 90s.

“It’s hard to ignore that a lot of it is due to distracted driving. Drinking while boating is a behavior that needs to change. Have a designated sober skipper,” Dugan said. “Drinking while operating a boat represents 40-50% of the fatalities on the water.”

Dugan suggested checking out other lakes in the area if parking lots are full.

“There is definitely not a shortage of lakes,” she said.

Being prepared before you go on the water is also highly suggested this summer. There are still places that are closed. Be prepared by packing food and water and fueling up just in case.

“You can launch a boat with social distancing anyways. At the launch, we are asking people to try and stay six feet away to walk around. Once you’re on the water, it seems easy to social distance,” said Dugan. “Make sure to continue to wear lifejackets. Accidents happen quickly on a lake. Don’t just bring it, wear it.”

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