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Happy campers wrap up summer season

From left, 9-year-old triplets Marie, Diane, and Kaia Meyer of Golden Valley fill out Jr. Park Naturalist booklets Saturday at Whitewater State Park in Altura. Children must complete the educational workbooks along with three interpretive classes to receive a badge that displays their accomplishment.

WHITEWATER STATE PARK — Sitting at a picnic table at a Whitewater State Park campsite Saturday morning, it took 9-year-old Diane Meyer a split second to name her favorite part of camping.

"The food! Hot dogs and brats, and s'mores," she said with a giggle.

Meyer, her two sisters, her parents, Kari and Erik Meyer, and the family dog, Ella, were one of 112 camping groups that filled Whitewater State Park during Labor Day weekend. The family from Golden Valley was enjoying what is likely their last camping trip of the summer, although Erik said they might sneak in one more in October.

Whitewater, near Elba, had a busy summer, said Park Manager Brent Anderson. The number of campers finally climbed back up to normal, rebounding from the effects of the 2007 flood, which closed the park in 2007 and 2008, and the three-week government shutdown last year.

"From the time of the fishing opener, around the middle of April, until now, I don't think we've had a weekend where we haven't been filled," Anderson said on Saturday. "And week days, which for us is Sunday through Thursday, we've been averaging anywhere from 50 to 60 of our sites occupied. ... So, I would say it's been a very successful summer at Whitewater this year."


Busy through October

Although after Labor Day weekend marks the slowdown of the park's week-day occupancy, Anderson said he expects the weekends to remain full up through what's known as "MEA weekend," or the Thursday and Friday in mid-October, which K-12 students get off for the annual state teachers union conference.

The summer also was a busy one for Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park near Preston, said Arol McCaslin, the park's assistant manager.

Including its horse camp sites, Forestville has 133 campsites. As of Friday morning, all of the reservable sites were taken, McCaslin said. All Minnesota state parks set aside 30 percent of their campsites on a first-come, first served basis.

"We still got a few first-come-first serve sites left, but not a whole lot," he said. "It's been real steady. Even during the week we've had a lot."

Rochester area parks

Campers from the Rochester area also took advantage of the Olmsted County parks, which stayed busy throughout the summer, as well.

Josh Drilling, a park and natural resources specialist at Chester Woods Park, said May through Labor Day typically stays busy each year. The park has 52 campsites.


"It was extremely busy this summer. The campground was full every weekend, and we've seen an increase in week-day camping," Drilling said, adding that the hotter summer brought more people than usual to the Bear Creek Reservoir for swimming.

Day and overnight visits in state parks have increased significantly during the past 10 years, which is encouraging to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Park and Trails Division, said DNR Information Officer Amy Barrett.

In 2001, the number of overnight visits was 921,037, and in 2011 it was 1,008,856, which is an 18 percent increase, she said. Day visits increased from 7,575,289 in 2001 to 8,135,373 in 2011.

From Jan. 1 to July 15, including the big July 4 holiday weekend, 127,679 people stayed overnight in the state parks — the highest number in five years for that period of the year, she said.

"It's a very encouraging trend, given the concern that's been prevalent across the country about a decline in outdoor recreation participation, especially among young people. So, we're hoping that we're turning the corner on that here in Minnesota," Barrett said.

In addition to camping and swimming, the parks in southeastern Minnesota also drew a lot of people for fishing. Back at Whitewater State Park on Saturday morning, John Crook, of Farmington, was setting up camp and getting ready to go trout fishing with his children, Emily, 13, and Alex, 10.

Crook said Labor Day weekend probably would be the family's last camping trip of the summer.

"But not for sure. We don't want to give it up," he said.

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