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Thanks in part to the pandemic, visits to Missouri state parks rebounded in 2020

Thanks in part to the pandemic, visits to Missouri state parks rebounded in 2020

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JEFFERSON CITY — After heavy flooding in 2019, visitation to Missouri state parks rebounded last year as scores of people isolating during the pandemic sought the great outdoors.

Visitation last year rose to 21.1 million, according to state figures published Friday.

That’s the second-highest number recorded in the past 20 years, state records show. In 2017, an estimated 21.6 million people visited Missouri parks.

With many other activities nixed because of public health orders, visiting state parks became a popular option last year, said Mike Sutherland, director of the division.

“Especially in the spring and mid-summer, folks didn’t have a lot of other activities to do and so they wanted to get outside, wanted to do some activities where they could social distance in a responsible way,” he said.

“We saw a lot of new visitors coming to Missouri state parks, along with traditional visitors who have come in the past,” Sutherland said. “Those two things combined really led to high visitation (last year).”

Some parks on the outskirts of metropolitan areas were among the hottest destinations, Sutherland said.

For instance, at Castlewood State Park, in west St. Louis County, there were 781,767 visitors last year, up from 593,212 in 2019, when a bloated Meramec River led to a decline in visitation.

Visitation at Castlewood last year was the highest recorded since 2016, when there were 796,000 visitors.

At Don Robinson State Park in Jefferson County, a more recent addition to the state’s park system, there were an estimated 113,806 visitors last year, up from 77,500 the year before.

“They didn’t ever have to worry about the parking lot being full before, and this year it was full frequently,” Sutherland said.

Visitation to Rock Bridge State Park, on the southern edge of Columbia, ballooned to 709,000, up 40% from 2018, when the park logged nearly 507,000 visits.

Indoor attractions in the capital city, meanwhile, suffered amid the pandemic.

Visitation to the Missouri State Museum in the Capitol fell 67% in one year, to just 108,000 visitors.

Visitation to the Governor’s Mansion, closed to visitors for much of the year, took a nosedive, dropping 85% from 2019, with just 3,800 visitors last year.

Because admission to Missouri State Parks is free, total visitation to the state’s parks is only an estimate.

In 2019, park visits dropped to an estimated 18.5 million — the first time since 2015 that annual visitation fell below 20 million. But heavy flooding that year, which closed numerous parks and portions of the Katy Trail, was a factor in the decrease.

Jack Suntrup • 573-556-6186 @JackSuntrup on Twitter jsuntrup@post-dispatch.com

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