Those busy state parks and trails that hum with activity through summer might slow in fall, providing a window for different action: new or continued renovation or repair.
A system of 75 state park and recreation areas covering nearly a quarter-million acres and 25 state trails of upward of 1,500 miles perennially makes for a significant to-do list. Managers assess needs and forecast projects, knowing the work in part is contingent on an assortment of funding sources, from bonding bills to constitutionally dedicated dollars like those from the Legacy Amendment.
"Our state parks alone are like small cities with roads, bridges, buildings (including historic buildings), trails, utilities, water and sewer systems and campgrounds," said Rachel Hopper, visitor services and outreach manager in the Parks and Trails Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Parks and Trails has a 2022-23 biennial budget of $275 million.
Managers struggle to keep pace with maintenance and other needs, Hopper said, as the number of daily visitors and overnight campers system-wide remain strong. Nearly 10 million people visit the parks and recreation areas annually, and the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased that use. Some already-popular parks like Afton experienced record visits.
"We are continuing to see impacts from the pandemic," wrote Stacy Smith, a DNR development consultant, in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. "Visitation to parks and trails facilities has increased, but it has been difficult at times to accommodate the increased use. We have shortages in the labor force, and the delays in the supply chain are creating months if not a year delay in some projects."
A thread through current projects is improving accessibility for visitors with disabilities to campground trails at aging parks, and to public waters.
Here is a snapshot of some projects highlighted by the DNR:
Itasca State Park (Park Rapids)
Construction began this month on a segment of new paved trail that will connect the headwaters to the park's camper cabins, aka Bert's Cabins. The path will continue to the entrance to the Ozawindib camp. The project will improve traffic safety by getting cyclists off Wilderness Drive on the two-way segment in the area. The path is expected to be completed next spring and will enhance the ride, too, for people pedaling around Lake Itasca.
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area (Crosby, Minn.)
A short paved trail is getting built that will connect Portsmouth Campground to the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail. The project also includes a trail accessible for people with disabilities to the beach near the campground.
Scenic State Park (Bigfork, Minn.)
The campground at the park in northern Minnesota was closed for the summer to accommodate work on a new shower building at Chase Point Campground and improvements to campsites, water spigots and vault toilets that make them easier to use for people with disabilities. The park also is replacing its existing wastewater pond with a new septic system.
William O'Brien State Park, Marine on St. Croix
This park also is making accessibility improvements to Riverway Campground, Riverside Trail and other areas in the lower area of the park, east of Hwy. 95. For example, the trail could get widened or the surface evened to have less slope, easing use for visitors in wheelchairs or using walkers or pushing young children in strollers. Some campsites will get parking locations that have an access corridor to accommodate visitors with ramps in their vehicles. The sites also will get leveled in places, or less uneven: sites aren't considered accessible for campers with disabilities beyond a maximum slope grade. The work is expected to begin next spring and conclude in fall 2024.
Gateway State Trail, metro
What's called the L'Orient (Street) Realignment is accommodating work to expand I-35E, which includes the removal of a railroad bridge south of Arlington Avenue. The 0.6-mile corridor realignment reroutes the popular east metro trail from Arlington Avenue (where the trail now crosses the highway) south through an existing tunnel under Maryland Avenue and reconnects with the existing trail.
Parkside Public Water Access (Grand Marais)
Work continues east of the harbor in a collaboration with the city. A new breakwater and better access for people with disabilities were built in the last year. A new non-motorized watercraft dock is expected next spring, among other improvements.
Tetonka Lake access (Waterville, Minn.)
The DNR is redesigning and redeveloping a heavily used area to accommodate improved aquatic invasive species prevention, stormwater management and easier accessibility for people with disabilities at the 1,358-acre lake.