By Seth Morin and Jess Seabolt -- TheStatehouseFile.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Warm sunny days following a particularly harsh winter have led to increased attendance at state parks, private campgrounds and other tourist destinations across Indiana.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources reports that attendance at state properties from January through June is up about 8 percent over the same period last year.
Christie Sorrels, the DNR’s director of business, said the year started off slowly due to the cold and snowy winter and spring. But she said the summer has made up for the sluggish start.
“Despite some of the rainfall, the weekends have been great for camping,” Sorrels said. “We have made up for the slow start with positive visitation and revenue numbers.”
Brown County, home to Indiana’s largest state park, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state. Carollynne Meyers, from Glenview, Illinois, just north of Chicago, said she has been to Brown County multiple times.
She said her family loves to hike and had just trekked along Trail 8 – one of the park’s longest paths – earlier Wednesday. Meyers is at the park for a family reunion and decided to stay longer.
“We’re very outdoorsy,” Myers said. “I mean, it is beautiful so we like all the outdoorsy stuff and the hiking.”
“Actually, my husband is doing some mountain biking and fishing as we speak,” she said.
Myers said her family is staying at the ranch near the park’s Nature Center and plan on doing some horseback riding, as well.
signAbout 100 miles northwest at Turkey Run State Park, revenues are up 7 to 8 percent, said Steve Stockton, the park’s assistant property manager. Turkey Run – located in Marshall County – receives roughly 1 million visitors annually.
Stockton said there have been some days when weather has closed the pool, which has cut attendance. But he said the park’s affordable cabin prices help to draw in visitors.
“If you are looking for a great value, I believe that we are it,” he said. “The thing that brings in the most is the trails. We are known for our rugged and beautiful trail systems not just in the state, but in the country as well.”
Stockton said from May to October, the campground is full every weekend with people going to the nature center or to the pool.
“There are lots of things to do in your backyard instead of going to a big theme park,” he said.
Kris Cage, office manager for White River Campground in Hamilton County, said she believes local travel is what’s helping to boost attendance there.
She said lots of Hoosiers are staying closer to home in an effort to save money and avoid high gas prices. White River Campground provides special events to try to draw in those travelers.
“We have about 10 nights out of the season when family fun nights provide entertainment, along with kids’ days and other special activities,” Cage said.
Staying local is what drew the Field family from Brownsburg to Brown County State Park this week.
“We just wanted a quick getaway,” said Dawnelle Field, who was a the saddle barn with her husband, Travis, their young children.
She said that the family wanted a place to go “within just a quick drive” so they could make their experience worth the trip.
On Thursday, young Maddie and Ethan Field got the chance to ride ponies for the first time. After getting off the horses, the two said they really liked their rides and Maddie said that it was fun because “I never did it before.”
The DNR also plans special events to attract visitors – with something planned for nearly every weekend.
This Friday and Saturday marks Native American Weekend at Summit Lake State Park in New Castle. Festivities will include learning about Native American history and culture through artifact exhibits, animal pelts, crafts and an atlatl demonstration. Saturday night will include a campfire with storytelling and an interactive drum circle.
Tippecanoe River State Park will have its annual Christmas in July this Friday. Activities include a “Christmas Scavenger Hunt” where items will be placed throughout the park for visitors to find and storytelling later on that day.
The park will also have Kim Hoover, an expert in wildlife rehabilitation, discuss several native animal species on July 28.
“Activities at properties do play another role in increased attendance,” Sorrels said. “But weather is the number one factor.”
And that weather has been pretty good. Indiana had several days with higher than normal temperatures in May and June with relatively pleasant weather in July. That came after a winter with colder than normal temps and higher than average snowfall.
Dwayne Cooper said he loves to visit Brown County State Park because of how beautiful and peaceful it is, regardless of the season.
“I love it in the fall and it’s the closest (state park) to me,” Cooper said.
The park includes roughly 70 miles of horse trails, along with 20 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Cooper has hiked through the park multiple times. But on Wednesday – with high temps in the lower 70s – he and his daughter decided to go horseback riding and have a picnic.
Phil Bloom, director of the DNR’s communications division, said the nice weather is driving many people to the parks.
“The nice weather inspires people to go outside and to visit Indiana’s state parks and other tourist attractions,” Bloom said.
Seth Morin and Jess Seabolt are reporters for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.