During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people turned to the great outdoors as a safe way to have fun when so many other attractions were closed down.

Now, even as the pandemic is abating, local campgrounds are finding those pandemic visitors are still turning out in large numbers, and seasons are starting off strong in the first few weeks.

“it’s been an awesome year so far,” said Janis Chapin, manager of Miller Brothers Route 285 Campground located just outside Conneaut Lake. “We are seeing more seasonal campers this year than weekenders.”

Chapin said the campground saw a jump in attendance during the pandemic, especially among many first-time campers. Those same campers are still turning out, apparently having got hooked on their first visits from the past two years.

“I think a lot of people are finding a hidden treasure in us that they didn’t know was here otherwise,” she said.

Dan Bickel, park manager of Pymatuning State Park, expressed similar sentiments. While he said daily park activity, such as fishing or pleasure driving, is down, camping has stayed strong from previous years.

In fact, the camping season has been acting a bit unusual from what the state park is used to. Bickel said all the camp sites were sold out for Memorial Day weekend, which is typical. What wasn’t typical was that during the week after Memorial Day, which is typically not very busy, the park had only a few camp sites available.

During the pandemic, Bickel said many people bought outdoor recreational equipment, such as boats or, important in this case, campers. It would appear that those people are still interested in making use of those pieces of equipment, even as other summer options are now available.

“We’ve definitely have had repeat campers that were new to the activity in 2020, and that’s what we hope for in state parks,” he said.

Judy Palmer, owner of Crystal Springs Campground near Linesville, said she didn’t see a jump in attendance during the pandemic. But she also didn’t see a slump either.

However, attendance has leapt up this year compared to last, and she’s seeing several first-time campers from the past few years returning again.

“I think people are really starting to get into the camping business, and airline flights are over the top,” she said. “It’s a lot cheaper to stay closer to home and go camping.”

Chapin also accredited the price of something else as making a change in attendance. As mentioned, her campground is seeing more seasonal campers, rather than people just staying for a single weekend or two, something which she thinks is caused by high gas prices.

“I’m going to attribute that to the cost of fuel,” she said. “Nobody wants to haul at 7 or 8 miles a gallon too far right now.”

In addition, she believes more people are realizing all the features Crawford County has, which has increased interest in sticking around in the county rather than hitting the road. She said she’s seen an influx in people using the Ernst Trail during this season.

Even places that didn’t necessarily see a major change in attendance during the pandemic are seeing a major jump this year. Andrew Byrne, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said in May of this year, Woodcock Lake Park saw 54,000 visitors in May.

Comparatively, the park saw only 15,000 during May of 2021, 26,000 in May of 2020, 20,000 in May of 2019 and 32,000 in May of 2018.

“It’s a big hike,” he said. “We’re not exactly sure where the influx is.”

Nevertheless, he said the park staff are excited people are coming in and taking use of the sites at the park.

A big help in Pymatuning’s case is that the park is once more having a “normal” season this year, Bickel said. That means annual events, like the fireworks show on July 2, are back on target to be held in full, whereas they were cancelled or limited during the pandemic.

As for who is turning out to go camping, the three campgrounds gave various answers, though ones that sometimes overlapped.

“It’s definitely families,” Bickel said for Pymatuning. “We definitely see a lot of families.”

Chapin, meanwhile, said she was mainly seeing retirees, some of whom even bring their grandchildren along. She did mention that some of the attendees are younger families as well, however.

Palmer, meanwhile, didn’t see one group standing out over others.

“I would say it’s mixed,” she said. “We have some retirees here, we have some families.”

Regardless, however, the campgrounds are already looking forward to the upcoming season.

“We already filled with seasonals, and they’re here for the season,” said Palmer when asked her feelings on the season, “so I’d say good.”

Sean P. Ray can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at sray@meadvilletribune.com.

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