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This is the year to fall in love with the great outdoors

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“January and February of this year were the best ever [months] in the 27-year history of Keystone RV Center,” says Eric Kendle of his Franklin County recreational vehicle (RV) business. “Business was flowing tremendously and then, just like that, the spigot got turned off.”

When COVID-19 struck, Kendle was forced to shut down in the midst of the industry’s traditional busy season (March-May). As restrictions were loosened, Kendle learned quickly that customer interest in owning an RV had not faded. In fact, it had spiked. 

The rise in RV ownership also provides a boost to PA’s private campgrounds and state parks — both have seen bookings skyrocket this year as people look towards vacationing outdoors and closer to home.

“There are 233 members in our association and a majority of them have been reporting to us that reservations have been going very, very well,” says Beverly Gruber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association. “In fact, reservations were going great in January and February. But when COVID hit in March, phones went dead. People were scared to death when this first hit.”

In DCNR’s recently released May report on the number of visitors to Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks, attendance records were shattered. There were 1.6 million more visitors in May 2020 (5.8 million) than in 2019 (4.2 million), an increase of 36 percent. Brady added that 18 parks experienced 100 percent increases and an additional 25 parks saw increases over 50 percent. 

Reservations are through the roof,” says Terry Brady, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). “I got a call from a Pittsburgh reporter who thought our reservation system was broken because he couldn’t get a reservation at any parks in the Pittsburgh area. The fact is that he couldn’t get a reservation because all of those parks have been slammed.”

People are realizing how affordable it is to go camping and they have a desire to spend time with their families in the great outdoors.Eric Kendle

The same seems to be true no matter where you want to stay in Pennsylvania, especially on weekends. (Helpful hint: reservations are plentiful if you are willing to travel on a weekday; all parks have day-use facilities as well.)

“Since the governor allowed us to reopen on May 1, business has been way ahead of any other past comparable camping season,” explains Tyler Grim, owner of Canyon Country Campground in Tioga County; his parents own Stony Fork Creek Campground just seven miles down the road. “If I could put in 100 more sites [his campground has 80 sites and 6 cabins], they’d be filled. It really doesn’t look like it is going to slow down any time soon.”

While Kendle noted the cyclical uptick in the RV business this year as a major factor in his increased sales figures (revenue increased by 86.5 percent in February 2020 over February 2019), he knows other forces are contributing, especially among first-time owners.

Knoebels Park Campground in Elysburg, Northumberland County

“Owning an RV is going mainstream and the number of people coming into this for the first time is incredible,” he says. “People are realizing how affordable it is to go camping and they have a desire to spend time with their families in the great outdoors.”

And then there is the coronavirus, which has probably had the biggest impact on the dramatic spike in outdoor recreation bookings. When asked, all interviewees agreed that camping is the ultimate way to practice social distancing.

“When you own an RV, you have everything you need all in one space: kitchen, bathroom and shower,” explains Gruber. “You really don’t have to come in contact with anyone. Even if you [just] own a tent, you can still have minimal contact with others.”

For the state park system, COVID-19’s impact on attendance was immediate.  

“At the outset of the pandemic, our state parks and state forestlands were getting pounded by visitors in some areas,” recalls Brady. “Outdoor activities were among the few things people could do. While surrounding states and local parks were closing their park boundaries, we closed the facilities but not the grounds. Our state trails, state forest roads, lakes and streams, and open spaces proved a strong draw to the home-bound.”

Sara’s Campground on Lake Erie

Visiting a Commonwealth park — if you’re in PA, you’re never more than 25 miles from one — offers a sanctuary for individuals looking to get exercise while enjoying nature’s beauty. 

“There truly is something for everyone to do,” says Brady. “In addition to the serenity of simply sitting around a campfire or having a meal at your site, there’s so many fun activities. Whether you hike, bike or kayak, activities at Pennsylvania’s state parks occur in a wholesome, family-oriented, and outdoor environment.”

There are so many remarkable state parks that it can be hard to choose.

Bird watching, boating and beach activities are just a few reasons to visit stunning Presque Isle State Park in Erie. Check out this Keystone Edge story to learn why this park ranks as one of the very best in the entire United States.  

Sunset at Presque Isle State Park

With an ice mine, a swinging bridge and a rugged hike to a geographical formation known as Balanced Rock, Trough Creek State Park near James Creek in Huntingdon County is a hidden gem within the state park system. Some sections of this wilderness are so rustic you’ll swear you’ve stepped back in time. An added bonus to the beauty of this wooded wonderland is nearby Raystown Lake, a 26-mile, man-made waterway that provides plenty of open space for one to commune with nature. 

Two campgrounds, an inn (for those who prefer a bed to the ground) and an expansive lake make Bald Eagle State Park in Centre County a great place to visit. The 5,400 acres provide nature lovers the perfect opportunity to practice social distancing while enjoying the great outdoors. The huge day-use lake sits at the base of majestic Bald Eagle Mountain. Enjoy breathtaking views of the countryside while cooling off in the lake, which is manned seasonally by lifeguards.

Numerous hiking trails that lead to cascading waterfalls make Ricketts Glen State Park one of the most scenic spots in all of Pennsylvania. This massive state park is located in three Pennsylvania counties — Luzerne, Sullivan and Columbia — and is home to the Glens Natural Area, a National Natural Landmark. Visitors can hike the Falls Trail system to explore the glens, which contain a series of free-flowing waterfalls, each cascading through rocky clefts.

Our rural communities, which are the fiber of the state, have some of the most beautiful vistas anywhere in the world.Beverly Gruber

Finally, there is the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon in Tioga County’s Colton Point State Park. Located on the western side of the Pine Creek Gorge, the canyon is 800 feet deep and nearly 4,000 feet wide — a visit here is time well-spent in the PA Wilds.  

“There are so many things to do at the canyon,” says Grim. “You can hike to the canyon from here, then go kayaking with a local outfitter or jump on the Pine Creek Rail Trail, which is a 75-mile bike trail. Visitors can take a horse-drawn carriage ride at the canyon or venture over to Wellsboro to have dinner and ice cream on a historic train.”

While the coronavirus has crippled many sectors of the state’s economy, it has benefited rural tourism as PA residents and out-of-state visitors shift their travel priorities.

In the Potter-Tioga region, where the Grim family’s campgrounds are located, tourism is already the number one industry. According to Grim, who serves on the Visit Potter-Tioga Visitors Bureau’s board of directors, between 2008 and 2018, the region averaged $201.4 million annually in tourism revenue.

Image via DCNR

Pennsylvania’s state parks also contribute millions of dollars annually to the state’s coffers. 

“Studies have shown that Pennsylvania’s state parks, with more than 6,200 camping venues, routinely host more than 33.6 million visitors who spend more than $738 million on their trips, which includes a $191.4 million impact from out-of-state visitors,” says Brady. “The direct effects of this were $174.5 million in wage/salary income and 8,439 jobs; those jobs generated $354.6 million in secondary sales.”

Gruber, who is a life-long resident, says that the best reason to discover your outdoor moments is simply to enjoy the incredible beauty of Penn’s Woods.

“Our rural communities, which are the fiber of the state, have some of the most beautiful vistas anywhere in the world,” he says. “Once you’ve experienced Pennsylvania’s magic during a vacation here, you will want to come back again and again.”

JAMES MENTZER is president of Mentzer Communications LLC and a freelance writer who is the author of three books, including Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well.  He resides in Harrisburg.

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Erie, Explore PA, Features, Outdoors, Pennsylvania Wilds, Sustainability, Travel


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