HUDSON -- As the pandemic hit the nation, businesses and schools closed and workers went remote, the great outdoors became a greater attraction than ever.

Park visitations doubled at Willow River State Park during the spring months in March, April and May, said Willow River and Kinnickinnic Parks Manager Aaron Mason, and Kinnickinnic saw a similar increase in March that continued through the summer.

“Parks became a ‘go to’ activity for those looking to get out of the house,” he said. “Outdoor recreation was also perceived as a safer option for families looking to stay socially distanced.”

At the end of August, Willow River had seen 560,000 visitors.

Statewide Mason said all state parks saw increased use due to the pandemic.

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The pandemic did disrupt summer programs, with many events canceled and programs put on hold for most of the season, Mason said. Still, summer visitation and activity held steady.

Camping at Willow River saw an uptick as well, Mason said.

“We are usually extremely busy June through August and were so this year as well,” he said. "It is hard to tell if the pandemic had much impact on the summer visitation numbers but they were certainly not down.”

Across the state parks, campsite occupancy was up from 60% in 2019 to 71% in 2020 June through August. The number of reservations this year exceeded 117,00, compared to more than 91,000 in 2019.

Annual passes

Park offices were closed, and day passes were not available for purchase at the parks. This led to an increase in annual pass sales, Mason said.

Last year, the Department of Natural Resources sold just over 387,000 passes in the entire calendar year. In 2020, 441,000 had been sold by Aug. 9.

This did create an enforcement challenge for park staff, he said, as some visitors did not purchase a pass for their visit.

As the season changes, Mason said he expects the increased visitation to continue as many are still working and learning remotely.

“There seems to be a significant increase in demand for outdoor recreation, especially hiking and camping. Fall is often the most popular time of year for these activities,” he said.

For those looking to get out, state parks provide yearlong options.

Camping at Willow River is open into the fall, and it is often the best time for it, Mason said. Some sites are also available for winter camping.

If the snow cooperates, Mason said Willow River offers 15 miles of cross country ski trails and 5 miles of snow-shoeing and hiking trails in the winter.

The park also opens for some hunting Nov. 15.

Learn more about Wisconsin state parks and all they offer at dnr.wisconsin.gov.