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State park visits trend upward in Minn., N.D.

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MAPLEWOOD STATE PARK, Minn. - The next few weeks will be some of the busiest this year at Minnesota and North Dakota state parks, as tens of thousands of people head out to enjoy camping, hiking, fishing, canoeing and, hopefully, some of the best weather this region gets between snowfalls.

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Late last month, Joyce Reinert, the matriarch of her extended clan, was ready for the family's annual camping reunion, firmly ensconced with a lakeside spot at this park east of Pelican Rapids.

The 62-year-old Sartell woman showed off her sturdy wooden walking stick, covered with state park emblems. And she talked about her pride and joy: The Taj Ma Tent.

It has a raised bed, a chair, ceiling fan and rugs on the floor, she said.

"I'm into everything comfy," she said of her camping style.

Reinert loves the outdoors, and she wants to pass on that love, "because you have trails, and swimming, and it's good for the kids to be outside."

On the other side of the 9,200-acre park, 35 children from the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center were hiking to the Hallaway Hill Overlook.

"They like it. They're scared they're going to see a bear," said chaperone Haley Slimmer.

Clambering up the sometimes steep trail to the overlook, Dru Collins, 8, of Detroit Lakes kept her eyes glued to what she could see in the viewfinder of her camera, taking photos every few steps of the way.

"I've never been to a state park. I want to see the animals. I think on the bus ride I saw animals," Collins said.

An upward trend

Officials with the Minnesota and North Dakota state park systems said visitations have been trending upward the past few years, though they said fickle weather can turn a promising summer season into a snoozer.

In 2008, there were 815,185 visitors counted at North Dakota's 13 state parks. But from 2010 to 2013, visits topped 1 million a year, with a high of 1,111,250 in 2012, Parks and Recreation Department records show.

Those are numbers that hadn't been seen since the early 1990s, said Gordon Weixel, a Parks and Recreation spokesman.

"It's coming back," he said.

Some North Dakota parks saw visits dip in 2011, but that was weather-related, Weixel said.

Nearly every park had a problem with flooding.

"It was the year of the big flood on the Missouri (River) and the campground at Fort Abraham Lincoln was closed most of the year due to flooding. The soils up at Little Missouri were saturated and the highway slumped, so it was difficult to access the park," he said.

The road at Graham's Island State Park on Devils Lake was still low in 2011, "and being able to use it was a hit or miss kind of thing, so a lot of campers and visitors avoided it" until it was raised in 2012, Weixel said.

Graham's Island had 108,553 visitors in 2009, but only 53,173 in 2011. That bounced back to 91,536 in 2013.

There were 152,689 visits at Icelandic State Park northwest of Grand Forks in 2010, but that dipped to about 109,000 in 2011 and 2012. Recorded visits plummeted to 27,184 in 2013, Weixel said, as roadwork made counting tough. He said visits were probably 100,000 that year.

Visits at Turtle River State Park in Grand Forks County have grown from 69,426 in 2008 to 79,588 in 2013, records show.

Meanwhile, visits as Fort Ransom State Park south of Valley City have been mostly steady, with a high of 42,529 in 2011 and a low of 34,758 in 2012. The park recorded 36,237 visits in 2013.

Here to stay(cate)

Thanks to the "staycations" that became popular during the Great Recession, Minnesota saw state park visits hit nearly 9.2 million in 2009 and top 9.5 million in 2010.

But a three-week state government shutdown in summer 2011 dropped Minnesota state park visits to 7.77 million, records show.

Visits have bounced back, with nearly 9 million flocking to Minnesota parks in 2012 and 8.7 million in 2013.

Whether this year sees similar numbers depends on if the cool, wet weather gives way to a hot, dry summer and long, pleasant fall.

For example, at Maplewood State Park, like other parks across Minnesota, some campsites will be unusable until standing water dries up, and a couple of roads had to be re-graded due to erosion.

Pent-up demand to get outside means park visits have come in pulses this year.

"If the weather is nice, boy, people are just coming out," said Chris Weir-Koetter, strategic program manager for parks and trails in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' northwest region.

"I was at Buffalo River (last) Monday and the pool was full. It was in the 80s," she said. But Thursday, there was rain and "the pool was empty."

Demands of the working world also play into people recreating closer to home, Weir-Koetter said.

Weekends are full. Weekdays? Not so much.

"They might have time for a couple of days, but they don't have the time for a week vacation," she said.

The DNR has added more information on campsites and trails to its website, she said.

Minnesota parks also offer more services now, she said. Visitors can check out GPS trackers to go geocaching, or binoculars, kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards. Handicap access is being improved.

Shower and toilet facilities are being upgraded in some parks. Arrays of solar cells and more-efficient lights are being installed in others, Weir-Koetter said.

Some state parks even have Wi-Fi.

"Wi-Fi was quite controversial. Are people coming to commune with nature?" or should they leave their electronics behind, was the debate, Weir-Koetter said.

Connectedness won out.

"We felt it was important," she said. "They (campers) can communicate with family."

Getting unplugged

Maplewood State Park has a handful of camper cabins with electricity that can sleep five or six on bunk beds, assistant Park Manager Jeff Fjestad said.

Tara and Brandon Rausch of Rogers, Minn., were staying in one Thursday with their daughter and son, Taylor, 6, and Riley, 4.

"We are going to a wedding in Fargo on Saturday," Brandon said. Staying at the park makes the trip "a little family vacation."

The family goes to several state parks every year, Tara said.

"Kind of taking it easy, unplugging," she said. "It's not too wet here. It's been marvelous, actually."

Meanwhile, Riley showed off a plastic box he's filled with sand, twigs and leaves, hoping to take home a few insects.

"Whenever he gets a bug, he's going to put it in there," Brandon said.

Weir-Koetter said people will always have a hunger for nature: to hike a trail, or perhaps see a part of Minnesota that still looks like it did in the mid-1800s.

"It's a treasure people have at their back door," she said. "It's a good thing people had the foresight to reserve these places."

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