Camp sights: Campground hosts are eyes and ears at state parks
Not sure where to find firewood? Need tips for hikes or help setting up a tent? Campground hosts have your back.
ALTURA, Minn. — For inexperienced campers, it can take some reassurance to feel at home outdoors.
In Minnesota, campground hosts are there to help people feel at home at the state’s campgrounds.
For campers who do feel at home while camping, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has some opportunities for them to host.
Campground hosts are campers who volunteer to camp at state park and state forest campgrounds. They help campers find their way around the park, respond to questions or problems. However, much of the campground hosts’ work is done before campers even arrive.
On the Friday kicking off the July 4 holiday weekend, Pat and Jim Parlin walk around the vacated campsites at Whitewater State Park in Winona County in Southeast Minnesota.
They pick up a couple small pieces of litter and make sure each site has its facilities in order — campsite facilities at Whitewater range from having only a fire ring and picnic table to full electric and water hookups for recreational vehicle campers.
They check the bathrooms and showers. Making sure facilities have toilet paper is one campground hosts’ less glamorous and more overlooked duties. Those duties are ones DNR and park staff don’t necessarily have time to perform but make camping at state parks and forests a more pleasant experience, said Arielle Courtney, DNR Parks and Trails Division partnership development consultant.
“We couldn’t provide the experience for visitors that we want to without the hosts,” Courtney said. “They really enhance the customer experience.”
What is a campground host?
If Whitewater State Park officials could create from scratch a pair of campground hosts, they would probably look a lot like the Parlins. They each have been visiting Whitewater Park for years — even before the two met each other.
Pat grew up on a dairy farm outside nearby St. Charles. She recalled the school holding swimming classes at the beach in Whitewater Park. Jim is from Austin.
The two are retired teachers. While they were working, they took advantage of their summers off to travel with their children, visit various state and national parks and spend weeks camping.
They started with tent camping but by the time their third of four children arrived, they opted for the space and ease of a pop-up camper.
The two are knowledgeable about the park and able to answer most questions visitors have. Over the years, the couple has hiked all the trails, fished in the river and taken in the sights during multiple seasons over years of visiting the park.
Now they’re joined by their adult children and grandchildren during their annual summer stay.
However, the fact that they volunteer their time to help curate a good experience for campers is just as valuable as their availability and knowledge, said Sara Holger, lead interpretive naturalist at Whitewater State Park.
“Because they’re genuine volunteers who love what they’re doing, that sets a tone that I don’t know if you would have with paid staff,” Holger said.
Park officials approached the Parlins sometime in late 2012 or early 2013 to ask them if they were interested in being campground hosts.
“It seemed like something fun to do,” Jim said. “Whitewater has a lot of things to offer.”
“We’re pretty partial to Whitewater,” Pat said. “It’s a gem of Southern Minnesota.”
A month of free camping doesn’t hurt either.
The park is beautiful, close to family and doesn’t have mosquitoes, Pat said.
It’s also a chance to meet people every year without having to go anywhere.
“I’m pretty outgoing,” Pat said. “Jim is more quiet, which as a couple I think we complement each other.”
Jim said it’s fun to hear stories from people visiting the area including experiences of people visiting the area for Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester. Most visitors are from Minnesota and are often pleasantly surprised by the park, its beauty and other amenities.
“They also just don’t believe that you can go camping in Minnesota and not be bothered by mosquitoes,” Jim said.
Courtney said the Parlins’ knowledge and history with the park was a factor in asking the Parlins to be hosts. Courtney noted they likely have experiences with the park going back further than staff members have. That’s something they offer that became even more valuable after the retirement of longtime park manager Brent Anderson, she added.
The campground host site at Whitewater State Park is near the entrance to the Minneiska Campground at Whitewater State Park. It’s the newest park campground in the park having replaced a campground area lost to flash flooding.
The Parlins were among the first people to camp there to test the facilities before the grounds opened to the public.
“It’s really filled in nicely,” Jim said of foliage and trees separating the different campsites.
Their cell phone reception is limited but they keep a radio nearby to stay in touch with park officials for emergencies. The most likely emergency is severe weather. The couple haven’t yet been on duty as hosts during severe weather events. However, they did nearly lose their camping gear and tent several years ago in flash flooding there. The two had left their campground to visit family and returned to find their campsite was underwater. An observant neighboring camper had saved their gear.
That is one of the most important roles campground hosts play. Just being present and observant.
“They’re really the eyes and ears of the campground,” Courtney said.
As volunteers, campground hosts don’t do any rule or law enforcement.
Courtney said run-ins with people breaking rules or being disruptive is rare. That’s been the Parlins’ experience too, they said.
“I do have to say for the most part, campers are very respectful,” Pat said.
How to become a campground host
The DNR’s campground host program has been around for about 30 years, Courtney said. The exact start is hard to nail down. Some host programs existed long before as part of individual parks’ volunteer programs. Today, each park has slightly different requirements for campground hosts.
Holger said Whitewater generally asks hosts to stay a month. She said the park is a popular spot for volunteer hosts. Park officials don’t have trouble finding volunteer hosts, she added.
“I know some parks aren’t so lucky,” Holger said.
People interested in being hosts apply with the Minnesota DNR. The department performs background checks on applicants.
Each year, the DNR gets dozens of inquiries about host opportunities, Courtney said.
Most campground host slots are filled by returning hosts. About 30% of hosts have been volunteering for more than six years, Courtney said.
Some host sites are easier to fill than others. Each park has their own requirements for how long they want hosts to be on site.
“We always have spots open but it may not be the specific location or the amount of time someone wants,” she said. “If you’ve got your heart set on Itasca and you’re new, that might be a little more difficult.”
The most difficult campground host positions to fill are at state forests. Those have few amenities at their campsites, Courtney said. However, they also tend to attract the most independent type of campers.
Filling positions got slightly easier in 2020 as opportunities for people to work remotely expanded, Courtney said.
“It’s a way for people to have total nature immersion for a long period of time but to kind of give back too,” she said.