Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail

Managers at area state parks, including Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, above, recommend prospective visitors call before visiting to see just how crowded he parks is. Overcrowding has become an issue with parkgoers wanting safe places to visit during the pandemic. (File photo)

While the long holiday weekend meant an uptick in campground reservations for local state parks, many have already seen much busier than usual springs and summers, as visitors flock to get outside during the pandemic.

In Rice County, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park saw a roughly 400% growth in day use during March and April compared to that same time last year, according to Park Manager Laurel Quill. Last week alone, the park had over 10,000 visitors — as compared to 3,000 people that week in 2019.

“A lot of us want to go to parks to avoid crowds. Right now, unfortunately for Nerstrand, people are coming to the park and encountering something that’s overcrowded,” said Quill. Being one of a handful of state parks within an hour drive of the Twin Cities, she added that Nerstrand’s location was likely playing a large role in its crowding.

Further west in Sakatah Lake State Park, which spans Rice and Le Sueur counties just outside of Waterville, Nanager Dennis Reindl has also been seeing a busier than average spring and early summer.

“Day use has been significantly higher than in most years. As far as camping, once we opened the campground in early June it’s been full, but that’s typical for us. The campground is close to full pretty much every weekend during the summer,” said Reindl. “Instead of easing into that this year, it started off the bat completely full because of the timing.”

The park’s drive-in and bike-in campsites, as well as the camper cabin all opened June 8. Heading into the Fourth of July weekend, Reindl said the only difference between this and normal Fourth weekends was that more sites were booked for Wednesday and Thursday.

Campground capacity varies by park

In total, Sakatah Lake has just over 60 drive-in sites and Reindl added that all but four are open. Those that are closed for the season are ones that are closer together and don’t allow for as much distancing between guests. Statewide, the Department of Natural Resources has let parks make their own calculations when it comes to opening campgrounds.

According to an eight-page document from the agency dated June 24, “Campground maximum occupancy should be based on the number of bathrooms open and available with social distancing … Spacing between campsites should be adequate to allow for social distancing. Some individual campsites may need to be closed to prevent campground overcrowding.”

In deciding on capacity, parks and trails area supervisor Joel Wagar at Rice Lake State Park in Owatonna said staffing was another big factor. At Rice Lake, only 60% of campground sites are open.

“Our staffing levels are lower than normal. I haven’t been able to have all of the staff return for a variety of reasons and most of that is related to COVID-19, whether it’s not being able to bring back seasonal staff or having vacancies we haven’t been able to fill,” said Wagar.

He added that not having enough staff to properly and consistently clean the shower building — which services all nearly 60 drive-in and electric campsites — means that facility is closed at Rice Lake. As with Sakatah Lake, there are currently only vault toilets available.

‘Know before you go’

At Nerstrand, camping hasn’t opened yet at all for the season in large part due to staffing and the growth in day use.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll get some staff back on board and be able to move along in the reopening process,” said Quill. “We’re just waiting for approval to hire and with the day use that we’re experiencing, all of our available staff have been redeployed to deal with the crowds.”

In the park, a lot of this crowd control has involved redirecting traffic. With parking lots filling up, Quill added that there are a number of visitors parking illegally and making it difficult to keep paths clear for emergency vehicles. Once the park’s lots are full, staff say the park is at capacity and will recommend other nearby recreation areas to visitors.

While there are other parking options, including a neighbor down the road that Quill said will sell parking space in a yard, it’s often a better option for visitors to avoid the park when it’s that crowded.

“If you are going to a park that is so crowded that you need to pay to park in someone’s lawn, that park is too busy and you need to go somewhere else,” said Quill. “This is still a great place to pack a picnic, bring a hammock and relax somewhere away from the crowds — but just know that Nerstrand has been getting really busy, and it’s best to know before you go.”

For those planning a visit to a state park, Quill strongly encouraged calling before making the drive to see what crowds are like — especially for visitors planning on hiking the paths where social distancing is less feasible. “Some of the trails are quite crowded, just announce that you’re coming up behind someone and stay on the path when you do,” she added.

At all three parks, managers strongly encouraged guests to wear masks when interacting with staff and using public spaces. While some park offices aren’t currently allowing guests inside, walk-up window service is available during limited hours.

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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