Last weekend, Scott Kroll, 29, of Warminster, and his fiancée, Taylor Blair, decided to camp at Cherry Springs State Park in remote Potter County, Pa. to enjoy the fall foliage and night sky viewing free of light pollution.
But they couldn’t find a camping spot anywhere near the park, billed as “nearly as remote and wild today as it was two centuries ago,” and had to stay elsewhere. Then, when they arrived the next morning, the parking lot was full.
It’s become a common scenario at many state parks during the pandemic.
Overall, there has been an increase of over 7.4 million visits — up 26% — to state parks between March and September compared to the same time last year, even though parks were either closed or barely open in March and April because of stay-at-home orders.
Most of the state’s 116 parks continued to see growth in September — a time when visits usually trail off — according to an Inquirer analysis. Almost 100 saw double digit growth, starting with a record Labor Day.
Cherry Springs some saw of the most explosive growth last month. It drew 26,745 visitors, a 231% increase over the 8,090 visits for the same month last year. Officials say demand remains in October though numbers aren’t yet available.
“It was the most crowded we’ve ever seen it there,” Kroll noted. “The field ... was covered with people in chairs and on blankets. People with telescopes, too. We had to be careful to not step on people it was like lawn seating for a concert. It was absolutely crazy.”
But Kroll said it was worth it: the night sky was “breathtaking.” And foliage throughout the state has been among the best in years.
Other locations also saw visits swell. Hickory Run, in Carbon County, known for Boulder Field and Hawk Falls, saw an increase of 137%, growing from 35,221 to 83,310 visits year-over-year for September.
Closer to Philly, Norristown Farm Park was up 87% year-over-year for September, Fort Washington 55%, French Creek 54%, White Clay Creek 41%, Neshaminy 34%, Ridley Creek 33%, Tyler 30% and Benjamin Rush 26%.
Other popular destinations such as Lehigh Gorge, Tobyhanna, and Rickett’s Glen all saw significant increases.
“I’ve been here 15 years and it’s really something that I haven’t seen the likes of,” said David Sariano, director of business services for the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks, which falls under the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
“What we’re seeing is the destination parks being hit hardest,” Sariano said. “For Cherry Springs it’s the night sky. And for Hickory Run, it’s the water attraction.”
Citing Outdoor Industry Association figures, Sariano noted that outdoor recreation is a big economic driver for the Commonwealth, translating to 251,000 jobs and $29.1 billion in consumer spending, all of which brings in state and local tax revenue. And camping this year has created big revenue gains.
However, Sariano said camping reservation gains have been offset by loss of revenue from swimming, concessions and other money drivers at the parks. Currently, the state is under an interim budget that has kept funding at last year’s levels, but costs have risen. The legislature will not tackle the budget until after the Nov. 3 election, and cuts are expected though uncertain.
“We’re really strapped because we’re not able to hire all of our positions because of the budget,” Sariano said. “On the other hand, our demand is through the roof. That’s raised a lot of staffing stress.”
Sariano said staff follow COVID-19 protocols, including extra cleaning and enforcement for things such as social distancing and masks among visitors. At the same time, rangers are responding to more calls for help and emergencies.
Locally, Philly has also continued to see increased use of its 10,000 acres of parkland into the fall, said Maita Soukup, a Parks and Recreation spokesperson. Relatively benign weather and warm days have helped.
“Bike paths are crowded,” she said. “Hikers are visiting at the same clip we saw this summer, and more families are coming to spend time outdoors and experience nature right here in the city. We expect that as long as the weather remains nice, this usage will continue.”
She said visits are up not only at Wissahickon Valley Park, but also at Pennypack, FDR, Tacony Creek, and Cobbs Creek parks.
“More visitors means more trash and debris being left behind,” she said.
Overcrowding at the Wissahickon and Pennypack parks became contentious in the spring and summer as residents complained of crowds blasting music, illegally swimming, and leaving behind mountains of trash. But neighbors say the rest of the park has been much better since the city started manning entrances, enforcing rules and posting signs.
For visitors like Kroll, some parks are worth crowds.
“We sat there for about an hour and could see every star in the sky,” Kroll said of his night at Cherry Springs. “We could see the Milky Way with the naked eye, which was absolutely breathtaking.”