Montana state parks set a record pace this summer and Lake Elmo topped them all.
The Billings lake, benefiting from a long, hot summer, drew 153,000 visitors from May through August, making it the busiest of the state's 54 parks. Visitation increased 52 percent from 2011, the largest increase in the Billings region.
Also in the Billings region, Plenty Coups State Park saw a 1 percent increase with 18,448 visitors, while Cooney Reservoir saw a 7 percent decrease to 87,034 guests.
Jennifer Lawson, spokeswoman for Montana State Parks, said fire restrictions that prohibited camp fires may account for lower numbers at some parks, including Cooney and Medicine Rocks near Ekalaka. Also, the counter at Medicine Rocks wasn't working part of the summer.
Statewide, visits to state parks increased 7 percent over 2011 and 16 percent over the five-year average, Lawson said.
"Nearly 1.3 million people visited Montana state parks during the summer season," she said.
At the current pace, state parks are set to top the record 2 million visitors counted in 2009 by year's end, she said.
Visitor numbers are good news for local communities and local economies, said Chas Van Genderen, administrator of the state Parks Department.
"We've just concluded our best summer season yet," he said. "The numbers tell us how much Montanans and out-of-state visitors value state parks as a place to spend time with family and friends camping, fishing, swimming, hiking and enjoying Montana's outdoor heritage."
The season peaked in July with more than 445,000 visitors. August was second, followed by June and then May.
Of the state's six regions, Kalispell area state parks saw the highest overall visitor numbers at 303,135. The Helena/Bozeman/Butte region saw the largest percentage increase, welcoming 22 percent more visitors.
In Eastern Montana, Tongue River Reservoir had the highest visitor numbers for the region at 41,300. Hell Creek State Park had the largest percentage increase at 54 percent. Brush Lake also had a significant increase, but data is incomplete.
Other parks in Eastern Montana had a tougher season, likely the result of a long hot season and wildfires, Lawson said. Makoshika State Park near Glendive was off 4 percent from 2011 -- down to 36,118 visitors. Numbers were down 19 percent at Rosebud Battlefield near Kirby and 30 percent at Medicine Rocks.