State parks seeing surge of guests during COVID-19 pandemic

State parks seeing surge of guests during COVID-19 pandemic

PITTSBURGH — While certain industries are feeling the impact of restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, others are seeing record-breaking sales.

Outdoor activities such as biking, kayaking and camping are big right now. In fact, bicycle sales are up more than 120% and kayak sales are up 85% in the last several months according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

Western Pennsylvania and the rest of the state are seeing the good and bad that comes with a surge in local tourism.

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(Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

“We just wanted to see some nature and waterfalls,” said Wendy Mundell of Squirrel Hill, who decided to go to Ohiopyle with her parents.

It wasn’t the first time the family drove 70 miles to see nature. They have visited Fallingwater before, but never went the down the road to check out the town of Ohiopyle and the state park. The family said they couldn’t believe what they were missing.

Kathy Brower of Uniontown brought her two granddaughters to Ohiopyle so they could run off some energy. Brower said her family’s typical summer plans include visiting the Pittsburgh area, but not this year.

“We’d like to go to Sandcastle every summer. I was a pass member last year, but it just didn’t feel comfortable,” Brower said.

So far this year, 45 million people have visited Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks. During the entire year of 2019 there were 37 million visitors.

Ohiopyle State Park Operations Manager Kenneth Bisbee said it’s been overwhelming.

“Our weekdays look like weekends, the old weekends, and our actual weekends are beyond anything we’ve ever seen before. We usually have fewer than 100,000 visitors but we were like at 106,000 and 160,000 visitors for June and July.”

DCNR says they expect these historic numbers to grow heading into fall, another popular time which usually draws higher attendance.

Some parks are seeing 50% more visitors. While the state parks and forests are great places to go to social distance, DCNR is recommending people have backup destinations if their first choice is overcrowded.

CAMPING OUT, IF YOU CAN

Husam Owais of Point Breeze and his wife and three children decided to take a last-minute camping trip on a weekday and were lucky to get a spot.

“We thought a Monday, it won’t be that busy, but the lady at the front said it was pretty hard to get a site out here because everyone is coming out, so that is shocking,” Owais said.

State parks have 5,000 campgrounds. DCNR reports an 85% increase in overnight reservations. Campsites can be reserved online. Some visitors assume the website is down when in fact all campsites are booked. Bisbee said people must plan if they want a spot on the weekends.

“I know at Ohiopyle, our campground, has been (at) capacity for the whole summer and in the foreseeable future all of our facilities are reserved,” he said.

In 2019, DCNR had 92,000 overnight visits from mid-May to August. So far this year they have seen 170,000 in that same time frame. July saw nearly 97% more reservations than the last year.

DCNR says during August, the state collected $3.7 million in camping reservations compared to $2.1 million in 2019. The money collected from overnight reservations and day rentals supports the state parks infrastructure projects and the state’s budget.

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OTHER OVERNIGHT OPTIONS

State parks are not the only ones benefiting from more visitors, so are the surrounding communities. People are renting out their homes on popular sites like Airbnb.

Creek Haven, a three-bedroom cabin overlooking a small waterfall about 20 minutes from Ohiopyle is a popular spot for those who don’t want to sleep in a tent.

“We’re about three weeks out fully booked,” said Airbnb host Jessica Cruse. “They can just bring their families and be here and be in this little space all by themselves and not have to worry about coming in contact with others.”

That is a win-win for families trying to stay safe during a pandemic, and for rural areas seeing some tourism revenue. Airbnb reports hosts across the state earned nearly $10.5 million dollars in June, with many of their guests coming from within 300 miles.

The top trending destinations for local travel in the state included Poconos, State College and Erie. Airbnb enacted new cleaning protocols for the pandemic. Cruse said she thinks that is another reason why people want to stay in a home like hers instead of a hotel.

Pennsylvania is fifth in the nation for outdoor recreation according to the DCNR. The department says it brings in $2 billion dollars in tax revenue to the commonwealth and $29 billion in consumer spending.

THE NEED FOR STATE PARKS

Small towns near the state parks really rely on visitors. In Ohiopyle, Falls Market is the one-stop shop, a restaurant and general store located directly across the Yough River.

“We just have a wealth of natural resources and we’re glad to see people get out and enjoy them,” said Falls Market owner, Pamela Cruse.

Her business has been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, so she got creative and decided to sell more items inside of her store, such as items frequently forgotten by first-time campers. Then she opened a takeout window for the restaurant.

“We’re doing everything on the fly,” Cruse said. “It’s not our traditional model, but you know we’re working with it and we’re making that happen and thankfully people are coming up here to go white water rafting, swim in the river (and) enjoy the hiking and biking.”

MORE VISITORS MEANS MORE CHALLENGES

While having more visitors is a good thing, rangers are worried about a spike in incidents and injuries. DCNR said there have been 92 search and rescues from January thru August compared to 87 in all of 2019.  As for injuries, rangers are seeing biking accidents, slips near the water and near drownings in non-swimming areas.

There are other problems. They are seeing more litter and people parking anywhere they want. Bisbee said if visitors cannot find a spot, it is against regulations to park on the grass or the side of the highway.

“We’re having issues with parking along the guardrails and on the highway,” he said. "That creates a real safety hazard. (We are) really worried if somebody is going to get seriously injured or killed.

“We’ve had some trees that are 60 to 100 years old, very stately sugar maples in our falls area, and it’s (parking) going to kill those trees,” Bisbee continued. “And it’s going to kill the grass, which you know we can replant grass, but we can’t replant those 60-100-year-old trees.”

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Not all state parks have seen an increase of visitors and boosts in local tourism. Point State Park saw nearly 400,000 fewer visitors which is a decline of more than 80% from last year. DCNR says the coronavirus is playing a big role in that because of fewer festivals and restrictions on the number of people at gatherings.

“I love the fact that people are either discovering or rediscovering us,” Bisbee said. “After a long period of time and I hope that that continues after this pandemic is over.”

A STATE PARK CHARGE

While state parks are free for everyone to enjoy, there is new legislation allowing state parks to decide whether they want to charge for parking and admission. The DCNR secretary says there is a constitutional amendment that gives all Pennsylvanians access to clean water and nature, so she doesn’t think it’s feasible to charge. She also added that many state parks are set up around state highways which would make it challenging to charge an entrance fee.