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State park visitation swells again
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State park visitation swells again

Hell Creek State Park

A sign welcomes visitors to Hell Creek State Park in remote Garfield County.

Have a hard time finding a state campsite this summer, or did your favorite park seem more crowded?

That's reflected in statistics as visitation to Montana's state parks climbed by 11.1% through June compared to last year. Anxious to be outside as the COVID-19 pandemic persisted, more than 1.5 million visitors camped, hiked and boated in the first half of the year.

The information is contained in the midyear visitation report released by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks late last month, which analyzes data from January through June.

When compared to 2019 visitation, the increase is a whopping 44.1%. Of the 45 state parks that were seasonally open during the first half of the year, 27 experienced an increase in estimated visitation compared with last year.

“For the second straight year, the state parks system has experienced significant visitation growth for the first half of the year,” said Beth Shumate, state parks division administrator, in a press release.

Interestingly, some popular state parks still ranked high for visitation but saw drops when compared to 2020, including Lake Elmo in Billings and Cooney near Roberts.

The top five most visited parks between January and June were:

1. Giant Springs State Park, Great Falls – 212,329 visits (up 6.3% from last year)

2. Spring Meadow Lake State Park, Helena – 152,515 visits (up 91.5%)

3. Flathead Lake State Park (all units), Flathead Lake – 147,003 visits (down 8.4%)

4. Cooney Reservoir State Park, Roberts – 124,834 visits (down 16.6%)

5. Lake Elmo State Park, Billings – 106,754 visits (down 11.6%)

"Last year was a record-setting one for the Montana State Park system in spite of some initial shutdowns and temporary closures promulgated by COVID-19," the report said. "Notably, this year has been even busier for many parks as travel and tourism across the state have grown and the public continues to turn to the outdoors. A similar trend is being experienced across many public lands, including for those managed by FWP, such as fishing access sites, according to staff anecdotes."

Likewise, visitation to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks has spiked again this year as more people travel nationally rather than flying overseas or taking cruises as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

State park snapshots from around the state:

South-central: Cooney Reservoir State Park had the highest visitation in the region with 124,834 visits, a decrease of 16.6%.

Southeast: Makoshika State Park had the highest visitation in the region with 72,650 visits, an increase of 24.3%.

Southwest: Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park had the highest visitation in the region with 57,177 visits, an increase of 262.8%.

North-central: Giant Springs had the highest visitation in the region as well as the state at 212,329 visits; an increase of 6.3%

Northwest: Flathead Lake State Park (all units) had the highest visitation in the region at 147,003, visits, a decrease of 8.4%

West: Milltown State Park had the highest visitation in the region with 48,361 visits, an increase of 88.1%

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