IN AFTON STATE PARK, Minn. -- On Tuesday, May 19, while hiking in this oak-laden expanse of bluffs, ravines and grassy ridgetops that adjoin the St. Croix River, Erika Rivers was uncertain when Minnesota state parks would again be open to overnight camping.
The second oldest state park system in the nation, Minnesota's latticework of 66 state parks and nine recreation areas, encompassing nearly 4,400 campsites and a cascade of archaeological wonders and spectacular vistas, is arguably the crown jewel of all such nature-based destinations.
Each year, nearly 10 million people visit Minnesota state parks, with 1.1 million camping overnight.
But except at a relative handful of remote state park sites where camping is allowed, no one has pitched a tent or parked an RV in a Minnesota state park since March 27, when Gov. Tim Walz issued a stay-at-home order and closed the parks to overnight use in hopes of stemming the spread of the coronavirus.
Now, as Minnesotans tiptoe back to normalcy, the governor on Wednesday, May 20, greenlighted the reopening of state parks to camping, beginning June 1.
Anticipating the governor's announcement, Rivers, 48, Department of Natural Resources state parks and trails director since 2014, said on Tuesday that restarting the $32 million operation she oversees will be gradual -- and complicated.
"A vast majority of state park employees are seasonal, and when the COVID-19 crisis hit, we had not yet called them back in preparation for the summer camping season," Rivers said. "Now we need to get those people back on staff. There's mowing, brushing and hazard tree assessment to do, and our visitor centers have to be opened, at least partially, some of which are older and will require maintenance."
As Rivers spoke, veritable caravans of cars entered and departed parking lots near the Afton State Park visitor center.
During the lockdown, state park day-use skyrocketed in the central and southern parts of Minnesota, as cooped-up residents sought respite while hiking, biking and horseback riding.
From March 1 to April 15, state-park visits were 66% higher than in 2019, and day-use and annual park-permit sales spiked. But the additional revenue couldn't offset losses from 13,000 voided camping reservations, netting the DNR a $1.4 million shortfall for the period.