Gary Garth, Special to USA TODAY
Published 10:00 a.m. ET Sept. 6, 2020 | Updated 11:44 a.m. ET Sept. 7, 2020


The coronavirus pandemic has canceled a lot of things, but your summer vacation doesn’t have to be one of them.


As the summer of COVID-19 winds down, Shane Bertsch has seen something he would not have expected six months ago:

Packed campgrounds and crowded hiking trails.

“This has been the busiest camping season we’ve had in the nearly 20 years I’ve been here,” said Bertsch, district park supervisor at the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area near Yankton, South Dakota, where he has worked since March 2001.

The area, which is open year-round, flanks the Missouri River near Gavins Point Dam and offers camping, fishing, boating, swimming, hiking, biking, equestrian trails, disc golf and more. The Missouri River separates South Dakota and Nebraska.

Bertsch cites an unusual source for the flurry of camping and other outdoor pursuits: “I think it stems from COVID. People have just been anxious to get out.”

“We’ve also gotten a lot of use on our hiking and biking trails,” he said. “I’ve seen more people use our hiking trails than I ever have before. And we’ve seen some beach traffic.”

Shane Bertsch is district park supervisor at the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area near Yankton, South Dakota. (Photo: Courtesy of Lewis and Clark Recreation Area)

Outdoor recreation – camping, hiking, biking, boating, fishing, wildlife watching and more – was social distancing before it had a name.

Still, most public outdoor recreation areas, including the 928-acre Lewis and Clark area, which is named for famed Corps of Discovery explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, have set COVID-19-related guidelines.

Most visitors, Bertsch noted, appear to be following to the area’s social distancing recommendations, including limiting the number of people inside the visitor’s center to a maximum of 10.

And like most public outdoor use areas across the country, the staff at Lewis and Clark Recreation Area have focused on keeping their facilities as clean as possible. Visitors, Bertsch said, have seemingly appreciated the extra effort.

Shower and restroom facilities are cleaned multiple times a day, as are drinking fountains and other high-traffic areas.

“Lewis and Clark has always been known for having clean restrooms,” he said. “This year staff is really keying in on making sure that all touch points in the restrooms are being cleaned and sanitized.”

All park staff also don masks when within 6 feet of visitors. Welcome center and gate staff are also masked when aiding visitors.

“We do want visitors to adhere to social distancing,” Bertsch said. “A few have expressed some (COVID-19) concerns, and a few are wearing masks. But with camping and hiking and boating, they can social-distance and easily stay in their own family groups.” Bertsch said some visitors wear masks into the welcome center or when they use the restroom.

“We have noticed that day-use family recreational activities have increased – boating, kayaking, disc golf, hiking.”      

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Visitor statistics reflect Bertsch’s observations.

The 928-acre Lewis and Clark area which borders the 31,400-acre Lewis and Clark Lake. (Photo: South Dakota Department of Tourism)

Since March the state department of game, fish and parks has seen an increase in visitation (people entering the park for the day) and camping in the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area district and in state parks and recreation areas statewide. From Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area recorded a record 883,144 visitors, an increase of 59% from the same period in 2019.

For the same period, the park’s camping unit numbers (one night’s stay in a camper, tent or camping cabin) jumped 12% from 2019. Bertsch said the number of camping units occupied for the recreation area for that period was a record 39,384. The park has 418 designated campsites and 19 camper cabins.

“I first noticed the increase in visitation toward the end of March,” he said. “Normally we would have maybe 60 to 80 people out on a cool March weekend. This March there were over 600 visitors enjoying the park on a weekend. We saw a lot of new users out discovering the park this summer, too.”

Park shower buildings were closed because of the pandemic through mid-May, but vault, nonflush toilets were kept open. “As soon as the weather started warming up in late March and early April, we started to see the increase in camping over last year.”  

What the outdoor crowd hasn’t done is apparently travel farther than usual. Bertsch said that during a normal year about 50% of his visitors are from South Dakota, 47% travel from neighboring Nebraska or Iowa, and 3% arrive from other states.

This year between January and July 49.4% of the campers that visited the park were from South Dakota, 47.1% were from Iowa and Nebraska and 3.5% were from other states, Bertsch said. “So, in reality, we are seeing some of the same trends, just many more visitors and campers from the representative states.”

What the remainder of the 2020 camping season will yield is unknown. But while the public continues to wrestle with the threat of COVID-19, the great outdoors will continue to provide a safe respite.


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