Interest in Pennsylvania’s state parks has only grown even as pandemic restrictions lift
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
This article was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Equipped with new kayaks, bikes, and camping gear, thousands of freshly minted outdoor enthusiasts continue to flock in record numbers to Pennsylvania’s parks.
Eliree Yakpasuo and Elijah Garlington perched on a rock Monday at Tyler State Park, hugging each other while craning to get the best picture of Neshaminy Creek as a fly fisherman cast his line in the foreground.
“I learned about the park when somebody posted on Instagram,” Yakpasuo said. “I saw the waterfall and said, ‘Wow, that’s so pretty. Let’s go.’ ”
So the 22-year-olds, who had the day off, drove north from Philadelphia to the 1,711-acre bucolic Bucks County park graced with dirt and paved trails, woods, a covered bridge, and disc golf course favored by picnickers, hikers, anglers, bikers, and horseback riders.
“I love it here,” Garlington said. “It’s peaceful.”
The couple are not alone in their newfound affection for the park. On March 21, Tyler State Park officials had to close the parking lots to additional visitors because they were full, which happens on occasion, usually in the late spring and summer months. But it marked the earliest day ever that they had to close.
The park drew 118,353 visits in March, according to the latest state data available, marking a nearly 30% rise in use from pre-pandemic levels for that same month. Those figures made Tyler the third most visited park in the state in March by crowds drawn by mild weather and a desire to escape pandemic restrictions.
Equipped with new bikes, hiking boots, and camping gear, thousands of freshly minted outdoor enthusiasts continue to flock to Pennsylvania’s parks this year, even as pandemic pressures lessen.
Cindy Adams Dunn, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), said the rise in visits to parks across the commonwealth could outlast the pandemic. Last year, people sought parks to escape shutdowns, Dunn said. And that likely made new fans of thousands of people who had rarely ventured outdoors in the past, but now routinely share mountaintop selfies of their hikes on social media.
“As we’ve gotten to understand the COVID pandemic, more people have adapted, more are vaccinated,” Dunn said. “There’s a lot more freedom now to move about so actually I think we’re going to see a very busy year. I do think we have a lot of first time park and trail users, and they have stayed engaged.”
Dunn said the trend is reflected not only in the state’s camping reservation systems and trail counters, but in the economy.
“Bike sales were up 100.5% last year. Kayak sales were up 85%,” she said nationally.
As of May 4, statewide camping reservations for Memorial Weekend were near 90% full, with Saturday night 94% full, both in line with trends in recent years.
As people continue to flock to parks close to home, Dunn suggested people in urban areas such as Philly venture farther afield to avoid the crowds.
Big gains at Nockamixon
Because some park facilities closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, The Inquirer compared 2019 to 2021 as a better gauge of visitor trends.
Overall, Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks drew at least 1.77 million visits in March 2019, compared to 2.71 million visits in the same time period in 2021 — nearly a 53% increase, an Inquirer analysis of data showed. Early numbers show visits continued to climb into April.
Some parks do not keep attendance records.
Pennsylvania also has 20 state forest districts totaling 2.2 million acres. They were not included in the analysis.
In the Philadelphia region, Nockamixon State Park in Bucks County saw the biggest increase in visitors. In March 2019, it drew 29,821 visits. In March 2021, it drew 92,994 — marking a 212% increase. The 5,286-acre park includes three waterways that feed into Lake Nockamixon, popular with boaters and anglers. It has cabins for overnight stays, and also draws picnickers and hikers.
Rounding out the top five parks with the biggest visitor increases in the region were White Clay Creek in Chester County with a nearly 200% jump, Washington Crossing in Bucks County up 121%, Marsh Creek in Chester County up 66%, and Neshaminy in Bucks County up 54%.
“We are seeing visitation from surrounding states,” Dunn said. “Just looking at our reservation system, we can already see campsites filling up. People can reserve a cabin or a campsite up to 11 months in advance. So we are seeing people reserving earlier because perhaps they couldn’t get a cabin or campsite last year, or they bought new equipment last year and want to get out and use it.”
As a result of the demand, the DCNR hired an additional 25 rangers on top of 100 full-time salaried rangers and 100 seasonal positions.
Presque Isle on Lake Erie, Pymatuning in Crawford County, Tyler, Nockamixon, Moraine in Butler County, and Ridley Creek in Delaware County were the six most visited parks in March.
‘Nice and quiet’
Dunn said her agency is hoping people “spread out a bit and try something new,” including state forests, instead of visiting the most heavily traveled parks. She also recommended visiting during the week when parks are much less crowded.
Back at Tyler State Park, Barry Kramer, a 62-year-old retired New Jersey schoolteacher from Doylestown, walks the trails daily. He, like many others at the park, said Monday that he began exploring its rolling vistas during the pandemic.
Pete Fuhr, 58, of Bensalem, had the day off and was fly fishing for trout.
“It’s nice and quiet on the weekdays,” Fuhr said.
About a mile and a half away, Cheryl and Gary Moore, of nearby Furlong, were riding their horses through the park’s picturesque covered bridge over Neshaminy Creek.
“You can find someplace different to ride every time you come out,” Gary Moore noted.