COOK FOREST - In a year filled with social unrest and a pandemic, Pennsylvanians are re-discovering Penn's Woods.
"July 4th was the busiest I have ever seen the park in my eight years here. It was a little bit of a spectacle," said Ryan Borcz, park manager at Cook Forest and Clear Creek state parks.
Both Cook Forest and Clear Creek have experienced a 22 to 23 percent increase in attendance from 2019.
"We were full at both parks for overnight camping and cabins. We have been full at the Ridge Campground at least one night every weekend since Memorial Day," Borcz said. "In recent years Ridge Campground would be at capacity maybe three or four times a summer. Now we are doing that every weekend."
Borcz said Clear Creek is a smaller campground and it fills almost every weekend.
"Now it is filling on weeknights," he said. "That is pretty unique. It shows that we provide that open air, outdoor experience that people are seeking right now and you don't need to wear a mask unless you enter a shower house or the office.
"I think this surge in attendance is due to the COVID and the hot weather. The COVID has more people taking shorter trips and they are looking at options closer to home."
Borcz said recreational vehicle sales are up and recreational equipment like tents and kayaks are in high demand now.
"We have seen a lot of new campers and RVs," said Borcz. "It is exciting to have that new user group coming out and taking advantage of what we offer. I hope this provides people with a stronger appreciation and understanding of what state parks have in store for them."
The attendance increase is being felt all across Pennsylvania.
"That is a good thing. It is good for the revenue that the commonwealth can generate through overnight camping. Based on what I am hearing the revenue figures for state parks all across Pennsylvania are actually up considerably," said Borcz.
The surge highlighted several needs at the park.
"Parking is a problem but I do not want to develop parking areas all over the park just for these capacity weekends," said Borcz. "We want to maintain that natural state as much as possible. We need to expand parking at the old office area. There is a project in the works for that. I hope to expand that area in the next few years. That area is the canoe launch for the state park."
People often create their own parking areas and that can damage trees.
"When people park between the trees it impacts the root systems and soil compaction becomes an issue," explained Borcz. "This has been a dry year so the trees are under stress to begin with. I would advise people whenever possible to park on a hard surface."
Recently, along River Road, it was single-lane traffic flow at times. People tried to park off of the road but most parking areas were at capacity.
"When we reach capacity there is no way to stop traffic off of Route 36 onto River Road," said Borcz. "I am concerned about the safety of people who are walking or biking along the road. We strictly enforce the speed limit on River Road. On capacity days you cannot even drive the posted speed limit on that road due to the pedestrians."
With growth comes another problem
Another problem is the availability of cabins and campsites.
State park cabins can be reserved 11 months in advance.
"Believe it or not, some of the popular cabins, like the ones along the river in Clear Creek, will be booked 11 months in advance to the day," said Borcz.
Cook Forest hosts a number of nature programs.
"There has been an increased interest in our public programs but we are limited to no more than 25 participants per event. We are working within those parameters," Borcz said.
As with any nature park, there will be the occasional encounter with wild animals.
"We have had more issues with animals -- especially bears in the dumpsters -- this year," said Borcz. "The nuisance bears are on the rise this year compared to years past. They are looking for a handout and if that dumpster is available and full, they will find it. You really can't blame them, we are in their habitat."
Borcz added, "Fortunately, we have not had any incidents between the bears and humans. The park rangers and campground hosts warn people to stay away from the bears. It is an education outreach. It isn't anything we haven't dealt with before."
Borcz said park trash dumpsters are emptied twice each week and there are times when they are overflowing.
"It helps if people can pack things out and dispose of it at home," he said.
The added influx of visitors has created more work for the park staff.
"The staff has responded very well to the surge," said Borcz. "We have to do additional cleaning and sanitizing protocols and that takes a little more time. We have had to change the arrival and check in times for the cabins for the cleaning.
"We have a lot of volunteers who act as campground hosts and trail crews. They help with litter clean up along Forest Road. We are lucky to have our volunteers stepping up and helping."
Borcz is looking forward to a busy fall.
"I think this is a trend that will continue here probably well into the fall," he said.