Summer is almost here, but it might already be too late to get top-notch camping in a state park


Kelsy Wehrmeyer (right) of Atalissa, April 2 sets up fishing rods for an outing with her son, Kace, 10, as they camp with family at the northern campsite in Lake Macbride National Park, near Solon . (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette)

As the unofficial kickoff of the summer and camping season arrives this Memorial Day weekend, reservations for Iowa State Park campgrounds are already largely filled on weekends. June and July.

This is the situation at most of the 72 campgrounds listed on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website, according to an IowaWatch review this week of each location. The agency has more than 4,500 campsites.

In 2020, Iowans flocked to state parks when many sought the outdoors for safe activities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, 2020 set a record for visitors to the park with 16.6 million, according to the Iowa MNR.

Todd Coffelt, Iowa DNR’s bureau chief for state parks and reserves, said in May 2019 that there were 13,936 camping reservations in the online system. But around this time last year, the Iowa DNR had only 6,482 due to Governor Kim Reynolds’ Spring 2020 plan to temporarily close state park campgrounds for health safety measures.

“Last year we closed the parks for two months, April and May, so people couldn’t pay or plan in advance for the state’s response to the pandemic,” Coffelt said.

Campsites are closed on May 9, 2020 at Lake Macbride National Park, near Solon, as part of the state’s response to the pandemic at the time. (Andy Abeyta / The Gazette)

This year, Coffelt said, there had been 25,065 bookings at the start of May – and it’s not over yet. “We’re seeing an increase in bookings, but we have new users who have new equipment and a new appreciation for Iowa’s resources,” he said.

Camping enthusiasts are feeling the increase.

“This year it’s been more difficult trying to find places,” said Ryan Houska, an avid Des Moines camper who runs the “Camping in Iowa” Facebook group. “You have to be right at your three month window to get a decent seat and even then it’s still a photo in the dark.”

Iowa allows campers to reserve places three months in advance, and some parks already have 75% capacity, according to “Camping in Iowa.”

“I think there has been an increase in the number of campers since COVID started last year. We were fortunate to have a friend who developed a lot by Brooklyn that he set up for a few campers on 37 acres, ”Houska said. “When the governor closed the campgrounds last year, we were still able to get out and relax at the private pond.

Houska doesn’t think so many people will continue camping once other major attractions open.

“People who have just bought a motorhome find that it just isn’t for them; there will be a ton of used motorhomes for sale, ”he said.

Erin Huiatt, owner of the online family website “Des Moines Parent”, and her family regularly took summer vacations and considered themselves frequent travelers. Last year, the Huiatts decided to go camping.

“We actually invested in a pop-up motorhome,” Erin Huiatt said. “We’ve done quite a few trips that we could plan, and it was just a great way to be safe in a place like, you know, going to a different place, discovering this place but safe, because you are in your own region. “

Some state park campgrounds are pre-booked and others are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis and accept reservations without a reservation.

Reservation tags are attached to the April 2 posts at the North Campground in Lake Macbride National Park, near Solon. (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette)

Last year, the Iowa State Park System celebrated its centennial. With the rapidly increasing number of visitors and bookings, Coffelt hopes for the future of state parks and their influence.

“These parks have been around for 100 years now, and always have been. So sometimes we can overlook the potential of significance, but I think what we’ve learned is that these are places to go, which are healthy for you, healthy for your soul, mind and body. Coffelt said.

Coffelt encouraged Iowans to look for openings during weekdays, which the IowaWatch review shows to be more open than weekends at many state campgrounds.

“During the week it’s really a chance to go when no one else is around and go to parks where no one else is,” Coffelt said.

For more information on availability or to book a campsite, visit the Iowa DNR website and search for “Places to Go.”

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