Outdoor Recreation Season Arrives in Earnest

Widespread campground openings this month are providing more outlets for recreationists who have already been flocking to the outdoors

By Myers Reece
A national forest sign. Beacon File Photo

Campsites are opening and taking reservations across Northwest Montana this month as the outdoor recreation season emerges from both winter and COVID-19 closures, which will offer even more options for a local population that has already been getting outdoors in huge numbers this spring.

Developed campgrounds and cabin rentals in Flathead National Forest have been reopening in phases with the expectation of all sites opening by Memorial Day weekend based on seasonal availability and facility conditions.

Montana State Parks has opened its remaining sites except for Bannack State Park and is now accepting reservations for campgrounds that take reservations.

Meanwhile, city parks have been open in the Flathead Valley, but playgrounds remain off limits likely until Phase 3 of Gov. Steve Bullock’s reopening plan, while municipalities are also waiting for loosened restrictions before launching recreation camps and youth programs. Those timelines are unknown.

Land managers have reported heightened outdoor recreation activity during the pandemic, with residents escaping the constraints of their home-restricted lives in search of adventure, exercise, fresh air and mental solace. Generally good weather this spring has also contributed to the busy trails and recreation sites.

Due to that increased demand, recreationists are encouraged to make reservations well in advance for campgrounds that accept reservations and have backup options when visiting first-come-first-serve campgrounds. They are also reminded to practice social distancing and responsible behavior on all state, federal and municipal lands.

Pat Doyle with Montana State Parks said state park sites, with a few exceptions, have remained open for day use through the pandemic and reported a 60% uptick in day-use visitation in March from a year earlier. He said all indications are that April’s figures will be similarly high.

Doyle notes that state parks are often ideally convenient getaways.

“Places like Lone Pine and Whitefish Lake, Les Mason, they’re really easy and great places to recreate,” Doyle said.

State park campgrounds had an average of 75% occupancy over the first two weekends following the start of state park camping season on May 1.

“That’s historically high for us this time of year,” Doyle said. “We’re packed.”

Of the 55 state parks across Montana, only three have been closed, although two of them — Lost Creek and Brush Lake — opened on May 15. Bannack State Park remains closed because of its unique circumstances, including dozens of historically preserved buildings that don’t easily accommodate social distancing among visitors.

State park campgrounds that take reservations began accepting reservations on May 15. Not all amenities, however, are currently available at state parks and campgrounds, including visitor centers, shower facilities and more.

For more information, visit stateparks.mt.gov.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fishing access sites have also been open. Dillon Tabish, the information and education manager for FWP Region 1, said FWP doesn’t collect visitation data at fishing access sites, but anecdotal evidence suggests heavy usage of the sites this spring.

“Anecdotally the fishing access sites have seen the type of volume and use we would typically see in peak summer,” Tabish said. “That’s pretty much across the board.”

General river fishing season began on May 16, and Tabish said there is high interest in fishing this year. He also noted that FWP is seeing substantial usage of its corporate timberlands, including dispersed camping. The agency asks recreationists to be respectful of the rules on those lands and check to see where motorized use is allowed. Game wardens patrol the areas.

“The outdoors have offered a great escape for people to get outside and exercise and break the cabin fever, and we’ve had good weather,” Tabish said.

While Glacier National Park remains closed, the 2.4 million-acre Flathead National Forest offers 2,000 miles of trails to explore, if conditions allow. The forest’s developed campgrounds and 15 rental cabins have also been opening in phases this month.

As of May 18, two large full-service campgrounds — Tally Lake and Holland Lake — were among those open, and the rest should be ready for visitors by Memorial Day weekend, although all services may not be available until annual maintenance, which may include repairing broken water lines and managing other winter-related impacts.

Dispersed camping has been and remains open in the national forest. People are advised to avoid dispersed camping in fee campgrounds due to annual maintenance required for opening.

Lauren Alley, the national forest’s public affairs officer, reminds recreationists of early-season conditions. Alley said anybody recreating in the Swan Lake Ranger District should be aware of numerous downed trees over trails resulting from a major wind storm.

For more information about camping in Flathead National Forest, call the appropriate ranger district office or visit the “Camping & Cabins” section on the “Recreation” page of the national forest’s website at fs.usda.gov/flathead. To make reservations for campgrounds, cabins and lookouts, visit recreation.gov.

Rental cabins and lookouts will not be cleaned between uses. As in previous years, the national forest says it’s up to individual renters to bring their own cleaning supplies and clean before and after site use.

The national forest has a list of COVID-19 precautions for recreationists, including: seek trails with few people; stay close to home; leave plenty of space between you and other trail users and gently step to the side if another user approaches; avoid higher-risk activities that could require an emergency response. Alley also emphasizes the importance of leave-no-trace, pack-in-pack-out practices.

Alley said recreationists should take into account elevated outdoor recreation activity as they plan outings.

“People may go to a campground or trail where they’ve rarely seen anybody in past years, and they might see more people,” she said. “People are getting out and about quite a bit, so having a backup plan is a pretty good idea.”

City parks have been open, but municipalities like Whitefish and Kalispell aren’t planning to open playgrounds until the final phase of the state’s reopening plan. The city of Whitefish has a parks and recreation phased reopening plan available on its website at cityofwhitefish.org.

Chad Fincher, director of Kalispell Parks and Recreation, said all city green spaces and trails, as well as basketball and tennis courts, are open to the public. Begg Dog Park is also open. But the skate park, playground equipment and public bathrooms, all of which are difficult to sanitize according to state guidelines, remain closed.

While it’s not uncommon to see residents defying the playground closures, Fincher said his department isn’t an enforcement agency and can only provide information, along with signage, in the hopes that people will follow the rules.

Kalispell’s popular summer day camp for youth, Camp Woodland, typically starts when the school year ends and runs until school restarts in the fall. This year’s camp launch will depend on the state moving into Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan, as will the city’s sports programs. The second phase will allow gatherings up to 50 people.

“We will still try to meet the number of participants we traditionally have,” Fincher said of Camp Woodland. “We’ve heard from the community that they’re looking for some kind of family support because they will be going back to work and they need something for their kids to do and somebody to watch their kids.”

Gym pools were allowed to open on May 15, but the Woodland Water Park remains closed as city officials hash out a reopening plan, the timeline and details of which are uncertain at this point.

“The pool is an ongoing conversation,” Fincher said. “You have the financial impact of operating it at a lower capacity while still having the same expenses.”

The governor’s phased reopening plan, as well as a detailed FAQ, can be found at covid19.mt.gov.

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