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State parks see bump amid pandemic

The Western News | November 24, 2020 7:00 AM

With lockdown orders limiting recreation in urban centers across the county, residents headed for the hills in droves this year.

Between January and September, more than 3 million flocked to Montana State Parks — a 24.4 percent increase of last year's numbers — according to a Nov. 20 report issued by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“These visitation increases represent the busiest summer on record for the State Parks system. FWP staff, volunteers and AmeriCorps members went above and beyond to keep these sites open, and to safely host visitors in the face of the pandemic, said Martha Williams FWP director.

Flathead Lake State Park boosted 439,298 visitors — the highest visitation numbers out of any park — during the monitoring period. The figure represents a 33.5 increase in visitation over last year.

Locally, the Thompson Chain of Lakes State in Lincoln County ranked the fifth most visited park with 155,483 visitors, marking a 42.5 percent bump in last year's number.

Overall, FWP Region 1, which covers Lincoln County, was one of two regions in the state that saw an increase at all sites.

FWP officials noted that many of the parks that received an increase in visitors this year featured camping and water-based recreation. Unlike other years, the agency tracked visitation spikes at parks located in both remote areas and near larger cities.

Some of the highest percentage change in visitation numbers were seen in off-season months. While May, July, August and September saw increases of 39.7, 23.1, 16.2 and 38.3 percent respectively, February, March and April saw bumps of 55.1, 60.7 and 53.1 respectively. In June, FWP officials recorded a 1.9 percent drop in numbers.

A handful of state parks saw a decline in the number of visitors this year. FWP officials attributed the drops to restrictions on travel, social gatherings and group activities. Some visitor centers closed due to the coronavirus. Officials also shuttered Bannack State Park entirely earlier this year.

In years to come, FWP officials plan to bolster their data collection methods. The numbers presented in this year’s report only reflect estimates for the number of visitors who access parks via vehicles. At several parks, officials noted that many visitors walk or bike in.