COVID-era parks trend continues: ‘People are choosing to go outside more’

Multiple park usage statistics at the state and local levels were higher in 2022 than in pre-COVID 2019

Despite the perception of our ever-increasing phone addictions, more people are getting outside and enjoying fresh air compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ohio parks saw a jump in the number of patrons during the first two pandemic years. Though some areas saw slight dips from 2021 to 2022, preliminary data from local and state park districts indicates more Ohioans have stuck with the great outdoors compared to 2019.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources

The raw number of people who attend Ohio state parks in a year is difficult to measure because the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (and many local park districts) don’t charge admission fees, said Stephanie O’Grady, outreach specialist with the ODNR. However, the agency uses several other metrics to measure park usage in a given year.

For example, in 2022, over 882,000 people reserved overnight stays at ODNR camping facilities, slightly down from 913,000 people in 2021, which was the highest number in the last five years. But in 2020, that figure was 739,000, and it was 732,000 in 2019.

In July, ODNR’s busiest month, visitors booked 10,000 more campsites in 2020, and 18,000 more campsites in 2021. Overall, Ohio state parks saw a 20% increase in camping trips from 2019 to 2021, during the peak season of May to October.

Camping trips slowed slightly in 2022 by an average of about 4,000 stays a month during that same time frame, but remain higher than 2019 by about 18,500 visits.

The trend of more people boating did not slow at all in 2022. Watercraft registrations were up, going from almost 644,000 in 2021 to 653,000 in 2022. Pre-pandemic boat registrations were much lower at 586,000 in 2019.

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Greene County Parks and Trails

In Greene County, program participation numbers are on the rise, with most events and activities selling out, often resulting in large waitlists, said Robin Gregory, Greene County Parks special events and programs manager.

Most recently, the department’s Extreme Egg Hunt, a program for adults 18 and up, sold 758 spots in under 12 hours. It also currently has 350 people on the waiting list. Crafting classes sell out 50 to 60 spots in under a minute, and an R&B concert by Ginuwine at Caesar Ford Park sold out with 1,497 guests, Gregory said.

Many people found “new appreciation” for parks in 2020, as one of the few places they could go for recreation, exercise and mental well-being, without paying a fee for entry, Gregory said via email.

“Three years later, people continue to visit as it has now become a part of their daily lives,” she said.

In addition to smaller upgrades, the county has opened a new dog park at Hobson Freedom Park in Fairborn, and is also in the process of a $3.2 million upgrade to Caesar Ford Park in Xenia. Plans include a pull-through campsite, with access to electricity, shower house, shelter house, and the bike trail.

“The increase we saw during COVID has continued, and that’s why we’re responding with more shelter houses, more benches, more individually covered picnic tables,” said Jon Dobney, director of Greene County Parks and Trails.

This is the first time Greene County will have a Class A campsite, or a campground with modern amenities, Dobney said.

“It’ll be a popular place,” he said. “We’re pretty confident.”

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Five Rivers Metroparks

The 2021 spike was not universal across all agencies. Both ODNR and Greene County saw increases in visitors overall. Five Rivers Metroparks, however, saw an increase in visitors in 2020, rising from 3.4 million to 3.8 million. While 2021 visitor numbers remained above the pre-COVID levels, they did drop back to 3.6 million.

This is primarily because locations like Riverscape rely on events, while other Metroparks locations do not.

Metroparks’ 2022 numbers won’t be released until the spring, but as events keep returning to Metroparks locations, it is likely so will park visitors.

“The goal was to be a little bit better than the year before. Let’s do more events, and let’s get incrementally better. Because the pandemic is still around,” said Bill Tschirhart, Five Rivers Metroparks chief of administration. “So we have to be careful about that and the number of programs that we’re offering.”

In 2019, Riverscape in downtown Dayton had 373,000 visitors, which dropped to 119,000 in 2020. In 2021, attendance only rebounded slightly, with 173,000 visitors.

“2021 was never going to be as good as 2019. We weren’t going to suddenly snap back to pre-pandemic attendance, pre-pandemic programming,” Tschirhart said. “Festivals weren’t being held. 2nd Street Market wasn’t open indoors. And so those types of activities not being available for the public had a significant impact on attendance.”

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Conversely, Taylorsville Metropark in Vandalia, which features eight miles of elevated trails, hosted 60,000 more visitors from 2019 to 2021, from about 240,000 people to 303,000 people, Tschirhart said.

“We are seeing that in certain parks and locations where people are choosing to go outside more, they’re recognizing the benefits of being outside, making being outside, being in nature a part of their daily routine to get active to be healthier. And it’s stuck for a lot of people,” Tschirhart said.

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