Campground reservations ‘a shot in the dark’

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A canoer sets up, ready to head out at George Wyth State Park in Waterloo, Iowa, in May 2021. (Photo by Silvia Oakland for IowaWatch)

Iowa’s state park campgrounds reservations are largely filled up on weekends in June and July, just as the unofficial kickoff to summer and camping season hits Monday, Memorial Day.

This is the situation at most of the 72 campgrounds listed on the Department of Natural Resources website, according to an IowaWatch review Wednesday of each location. DNR counts more than 4,500 campsites.

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

Campgrounds saw increased activity, too.

Todd Coffelt, DNR bureau chief for state parks and preserves, said in May 2019 there were 13,936 reservations in their online system. Last year at this time, the DNR had 6,482 due to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ spring 2020 plan temporarily shutting down state park campgrounds for COVID safety measures.

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

This year, Coffelt said, there were 25,065 reservations as of early May — and counting. “We’re seeing increases in reservations, but we have new users that have new equipment, and a newfound appreciation for Iowa’s resources,” he said.

Campers set up at George Wyth State Park in Waterloo, Iowa, on May 22, 2020. (Photo by Suzanne Behnke for IowaWatch)

Camping fans feel the increase.

“This year, it’s been harder to try to find spots,” Ryan Houska, an avid camper from Des Moines who runs the “Camping in Iowa” Facebook group, said. “You have to be right at your three-month window to get a decent spot anymore and even then, it’s still a shot in the dark.”

Iowa allows campers to reserve spots three months in advance, and some parks are already at 75%, according to “Camping in Iowa.”

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

Houska does not believe everyone will continue to camp once major attractions open up.

“People that just bought a camper realize that it’s just not for them, there will be a ton of used campers for sale,” he said.

Erin Huiatt, owner of online family website Des Moines Parent, and her family took vacations in the summer and consider themselves avid travelers. Last year, the Huiatts decided to take up camping.

“We actually invested in a pop-up camper,” Erin Huiatt said. “We went on quite a few trips we were able to get scheduled, and it was just a great way to safely be somewhere like, you know, go to a different location, experience that location but safely, because you are in your own area.”

Trails extend throughout George Wyth State Park on May 22, 2020, near Waterloo, Iowa. (Photo by Suzanne Behnke for IowaWatch)

Some campgrounds within the state parks are reservable and others are on a first come first serve basis and accept walk-up reservations.

Last year, the state parks celebrated their centennial and with the rapid increase in visitors and reservations, Coffelt hopes for the future of the state parks and their influence.

“These parks have been here for 100 years now, and they’ve always been here. So sometimes we may overlook the potential of the importance, but I think what we learned was they are places to go, that are healthy for you, healthy for your soul and mind and body,” Coffelt said.

Coffelt encouraged Iowans to seek out openings in their system during the week, which IowaWatch’s review shows to be more open at many campgrounds.

“During the week is really an opportunity to go when nobody else is there and to go to parks where no one else is,” Coffelt said.

For more information on availability or to reserve a campsite, visit here.

PREVIOUS REPORT IN THIS PROJECT: Lone rangers: Number of state park officers
declines despite growth in visitors

ABOUT IOWA’S STATE PARKS

This project, Iowa’s State Parks, is a partnership between IowaWatch – the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism and the Iowa Newspaper Foundation with the goal of looking closely at one of Iowa’s most valued resources (especially in the last year): the state parks system.

IowaWatch led the writing and reporting with state parks visited by Silvia Oakland, a Wartburg College journalism student, Danielle Gehr, a former IowaWatch intern and now an Ames Tribune reporter, John Naughton, a freelance writer and former Des Moines Register reporter, and Emery Styron, a freelance journalist. The Cedar Rapids Gazette staff contributed as well with visits to state parks.

The writer of this piece is Wartburg College senior Silvia Oakland, who will graduate May 30, 2021. She served as editor of the Wartburg Trumpet for two years and is the 2021 Pat Pisarik Journalist of the Year.

IowaWatch and the INF will continue to partner on this series.