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State park visits dip but gas prices may help rebound

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Knutson family
About 40 members of the Knutson family gather each year to camp at Itasca State Park. The high price of gas has forced them to do things differently this year, including car pooling. Some in the family have scrapped out-of-state camping plans this summer because of the cost.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Nearly half-a-million people visit Itasca State Park each year. For about 40 members of the Knutson family, camping near the shore of Lake Itasca is an annual tradition.

Abby Kjos of Brooklyn Park, is a member of the extended clan. She says the high price of gas forced her and a family member to do things differently this year.

"We car pooled for a reason to get up here, because of the price of the gas," said Kjos. "I didn't want to drive my vehicle and her vehicle, so we all had to pack in the minivan."

Petersen family
The Petersens from Alexandria says they've decided to cancel a planned camping trip to Colorado this summer because of fuel prices. Pictured, left to right, are Shari, daughters Tara and Mallory, and Mark.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

It's a spendy trip for family member Mark Petersen of Alexandria. He pulled a huge camper behind his diesel truck, which gets about 11 miles per gallon. 

Petersen says getting together with family is worth it, but sky-high gas prices have forced him to scrap plans for a camping trip to Colorado this summer.

"Last year we went to Yellowstone, the year before we went to the Black Hills," said Petersen. "We're not planning any trips like that because of the gas prices, so state parks in the state of Minnesota, we can afford that."

DNR park officials expect gas prices will force more Minnesotans to stick closer to home this summer. That could translate to more park visitors, but so far, camping is down from last year. 

Itasca State Park Manager Matt Snyder figures the drop this spring wasn't necessarily because of the economy.

"We feel more of that is due to the weather and conditions we had earlier this spring with the slow start up," said Snyder. "Fishing weekend is usually a bigger weekend for us than it was this year due to the slow ice-off and all of that."

Matt Snyder
High gas prices could force more Minnesotans to stick closer to home this summer, translating into more park visitors. But so far, camping is down 10 percent from last year. Itasca State Park Manager Matt Snyder figures the drop this spring was because of the weather, not the economy.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The cool spring was good news for indoor lodging at Itasca. In May, lodging was up nearly 70 percent from last year. Snyder says people are still spending money in the park, too. He says gift shop sales are on par with last year. 

Snyder says there appears to be a new trend with park visitors. Itasca has seen a 50 percent increase in visitors coming in on bus tours. 

"I don't know if that's being driven by gas prices, where people feel it's more affordable to get on a bus and come for a group rate rather than an individual aspect," he said.

Typically, about 15 percent of visitors to Minnesota's state park system are from out of state. Park officials say with gas prices continuing to climb, it's likely there will be fewer travelers from outside of Minnesota.

Roger Sondrol is formerly from Crookston but now lives in River Falls, Wisc. Sondrol says he and his wife aren't happy about the price of gas, but they're still willing to drive the 700-mile round trip to spend a few days at Itasca State Park. 

Sondrol pulls a 25-foot camper to the park each year and gets about 15 miles per gallon. Sondrol says his mileage used to be worse, but he's learned to ease up on the gas pedal.

Smith family
The Smith family includes, left to right, daughter Sophia, Michelle and Jake, and son Isaac. They had planned a trip to Manitoba, but instead, are dipping their toes in the headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca State Park.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"If you slow down a little bit, you're going to increase your mileage, so it makes a big difference," said Sondrol. "We've got plenty of time anyways, so there's really no reason to go that fast."

There's been a fairly stable number of people visiting Minnesota state parks over the past decade. But if you consider the state's population growth,  visits on a per capita basis are actually going down. 

Pat Arndt who works in public relations and planning for the state park system, says it's still unclear how gas prices and a shaky economy will affect parks this summer.

"I know we are focusing our marketing efforts on close-to-home vacations, because there's a park within 30 miles of nearly everybody in the state," said Arndt. "We're just not sure what all of this is going to mean, if it means increased visitation for us because people aren't taking the bigger vacations, or not. Intuitively, we know that people are going to just be spending more time close to home."

For the Smith family of St. Paul, dipping their toes in the headwaters of the Mississippi is one of the highlights of their camping trip. 

Michelle Smith says they originally planned to be in Manitoba this week. But they decided the travel costs were just too much.

"It was about twice as far for us to drive, and so we just decided, why drive all that way and not be able to really enjoy anything," said Smith. "To do things costs money, too, so we might get there, but we may not be able to do anything.  So we decided to come here."

Husband Jake Smith says this is the family's first trip to Itasca and he has no regrets.

"At first we were bummed about it, but so far we really enjoy this," he said. "It hasn't ruined our vacation at all, but it definitely changed our vacation."

Nationally, the high price of gas will keep many people closer to home this weekend. The travel group AAA reports that for the first time in a decade, fewer Americans will hit the road for the Fourth of July holiday.