SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Up in the northeast corner, there are some state parks that have surprised more than a few people this year, said Ali Jo Tonsfeldt, a park manager with the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Department.
Tonsfeldt, manager of Fort Sisseton State Park, said the park along with Sica Hollow State Park, Roy Lake State Park and Pickerel Lake State Park all had first-time visitors this year during the coronavirus pandemic.
They may have decided to come because they thought the area would be a good place to be outdoors and social distance. Tonsfeldt said they did all expect “the stunning beauty of the lakes and the beauty of the sunrises and sunsets. It’s a different beauty than in western South Dakota.”
Visitors were also “blown away” by the buildings and the history of Fort Sisseton. The history prompted great questions and people who stayed far longer than the original planned 30-minute stop, Tonsfeldt said.
“I sat down and talked with people for two hours,” Tonsfeldt said. “I’ve been here three years and it had been a long time since I had a conversation like that.”
The four parks like the majority of others in the GFP system had an increase in campers and/or visitors through September.
Fort Sisseton had fewer visitors (1% fewer) than campers, but 6% more campers. Pickerel Lake had 5% more campers and 19% more visitors. Roy Lake had 34% more campers and 23% more visitors.
But Sica Hollow’s numbers were through the roof. The park had a 199% increase in campers and 88% increase in visitors. Visitors increased from 11,218 in 2019 through September to 21,083 through September in 2020. Campers increased from 125 to 134 in a small campground.
“It’s mind blowing,” Tonsfeldt said of the figures.
Expectations for 2020
The 2020 numbers follow a difficult 2019 when floods and other disagreeable weather deterred visitors and challenged GFP staff.
Still, Tonsfeldt and Shane Bertsch, the GFP district park supervisor at the Lewis & Clark Recreation Area in Yankton in southeast South Dakota, weren’t really expecting the big numbers during the pandemic of 2020. Yet they know people were being encouraged by health officials to get outdoors.
Bertsch said he began to think 2020 could be busy back in March.
“Normally in March, we may have 20 to 40 (day users) a day. We were seeing 300,” Bertsch said. “Toward the end of March that was an indication. People wanted to get out.”
Tonsfeldt said a bunny hunt earlier this spring that included finding hidden stuffed bunnies in the park and sending photos of them to park staff drew families and even older adults. That’s when she and park staff knew that 2020 could be busy.
Bertsch’s district includes the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area, Chief White Crane, Pierson Ranch, Springfield and Sandy Creek and includes the counties of Clay and Yankton and others near the cities of Yankton and Vermillion. The areas include the Missouri River and several lakes.
From Jan. 1 through September this year, camping in the district was up 18% over last year. Camping at Lewis and Clark increased by 16% from 38,547 to 46,023. It did drop by 36% at Sand Creek, a much smaller campground, from 128 campers to 82.
Day use visitation at Lewis and Clark increased by 53% from 630,375 in 2019 to 966,651 through September of both years.
Who came to the parks?
Bertsch tracked the home state residences of campers in the southeast district.
In 2020, 48.2% of campers came from South Dakota compared to 49.4% in 2019.
Iowa and Nebraska were the other two top states in both years. Of all campers through September, 16.6% were from Iowa, 31.3% were from Nebraska and 3.9% were from other states.
The breakdown for 2019 is: 18% from Iowa, 29.1% from Nebraska and 3.5% from other states.
Bertsch said the increase in Nebraska was due in part that restrooms were closed in Nebraska state parks, so tent campers, for example, chose South Dakota.
Up in the northeast district, close to the North Dakota and Minnesota border, the parks drew many South Dakotans but “we had a surprising number of people from Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota,” Tonsfeldt said.
Park visitors and campers included families, Tonsfeldt said.
Parents came with children and grandparents came with grandchildren, she said.
People came to enjoy the outdoors and they weren’t on their cell phones, Tonsfeldt said.
More good numbers?
South Dakota state parks are open through the winter.
Bertsch said five camper cabins are open during the winter at Lewis and Clark. “If we do need more, we can open them up,” he said.
The area even has tent campers during the winter, Bertsch said.
People will still venture out if the weather is decent enough. “As long as the snow is not too deep, they can go for a walk,” Bertsch said of the bike trail and other areas in the parks.
Even if there is snow, visitors can still snowshoe in the parks, Tonsfeldt said. Cross country ski rentals are also available in some parks.
Fort Sisseton is also the host of a Christmas event each winter. The pandemic will change how the event is handled, she said.
The staff at Fort Sisseton, like the GFP staff, has been creative this summer and will continue to be during the winter, Tonsfeldt said.