LORE CITY — Sharon Samuels had spent nearly three months without visiting her grandchildren as a precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a very sad time,” the 70-year-old Middlebranch resident said.
But that absence ended this week when she and her husband met up with family at Salt Fork State Park.
“I wouldn’t go out of state right now,” Samuels said, referring to the pandemic and her age. “It’s too scary for us.”
The couple is an example of residents who have been flocking to Ohio state parks during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Daily attendance as well as overnight accommodations — campgrounds and cabins — have spiked during the pandemic, said Heidi Hetzel-Evans, communications manager for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Watercraft.
Nine state park lodges recently opened.
“People are slowly coming back to the lodges for weekends,” Hetzel-Evans said.
Nearly 90% of camping spots at state parks were reserved for the Fourth of July weekend as of Wednesday. That isn’t unusual for the holiday, she said.
But the number of daily visitors, including midweek, at Salt Fork and other Ohio parks has risen dramatically during the pandemic. Most of those folks are from inside the state, the park official said.
“Some weekends in spring were as busy as some (past) summertimes,” Hetzel-Evans said, noting overall park attendance cannot be measured because admission is free. “We saw immediately how important parks became.”
And weekend camping reservations are growing scarce for the rest of the summer.
“We’re seeing that folks are staying in Ohio for vacations and they are turning to some of our properties,” she said.
State parks are implementing health measures, including cleaning while encouraging visitors to practice social distancing and follow the state’s other COVID-19 protocols and recommendations.
Campers are encouraged to socialize with those in their group, Hetzel-Evans said.
Camp stores, visitor centers, nature centers, swimming pools, picnic shelters and retail stores are closed.
“It’s been a silver lining to really have so many Ohioans discover how great the state park system is,” Hetzel-Evans said.
Salt Folk is indicative of the trend in attendance.
“I’ve never seen our day-use areas as busy as they have been,” said Adam Sikora, park manager, referring to trails as well as the beach and other attractions.
“I’d say on a typical summer weekend, we have 30 to 50 vehicles in the parking lot at the beach and about 75 people,” he added. “Now I’d say there are over 1,000 people.”
“I think people are looking for outdoor recreation,” Sikora said while standing along the 3,000-acre lake and in front of the Kennedy Stone House, constructed in 1840 from sandstone quarried from nearby hills. “There are limited options to get the kids off the gaming system and get them outside.”
Salt Fork’s campgrounds also have been bustling.
“It’s been non-stop, just the amount of people,” he said. “When you turn over a campsite, a new camper’s coming in (midweek) and there’s no lag.”
Surging visitation also coincides with the recent release of the Park Passport, a guide to Ohio’s parks available for $10 at lodges and online at www.reserveohio.com/OhioCampWeb/ under the store section.
The concept is similar to the passport book popularized by the National Park Service, said Hetzel-Evans, who credited ODNR Director Mary Mertz for the inspiration to create a localized version.
In addition to learning about Ohio’s 75 parks, including history, fun facts and facilities, the passport book includes color photographs, maps and a designated spot for an exclusive ink stamp, which can be provided by staff at nature centers, park offices, marinas, lodges and camp stores.
When that is not possible, including during the pandemic, the book provides stickers to serve as a stamp replacement.
Mertz said the book will help people plan their trips.
“This passport will serve as a record and a road map for your journey through Ohio’s state parks — to remind you of all the great memories and inspire you to make more,” she said.
Hetzel-Evans said the passport also serves as a convenient inventory of the state park system.
“Some people have been to five or six, but this would be a way for people to realize just how many different parks we have and the variety and all of the things you can do,” she said.
Mohican, Hocking Hills, East Harbor, Alum Creek Marblehead Lighthouse and Kelleys Island are among the more notable parks.
Lesser known parks include John Bryan, which offers rock climbing; Wingfoot Lake, located in the Akron area; Buckeye Lake, featuring paved biking trails; and Quail Hollow, located in Lake Township and operated by Stark Parks.
Asked to offer her personal favorites, Hetzel-Evans said they include Caesar Creek, Delaware, Malabar Farm and Punderson.
Ohio residents may not be as familiar with those gems, she said.
Caesar Creek is nestled in a picturesque setting and features a pioneer village, new marina and a 104-foot swinging bridge, Hetzel-Evans noted.
Delaware has “one of the prettiest campgrounds” and a disc golf course, she said.
Punderson has an English tudor-style lodge rich with character and ornate architecture.
Malabar’s crown jewel is the historic home and former residence of Mansfield native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield, a dedicated conservationist and early proponent of sustainable farming techniques.
Discovering state parks
An informal survey of about a dozen visitors to Salt Fork on Tuesday revealed that most people who were boating, fishing, camping or hiking trails on a sweltering day came from within the state.
Several of them opted to remain in Ohio this summer as opposed to traveling to Florida and other states amid the health risks and restrictions associated with COVID-19. The travel organization AAA noted that Americans are making travel plans cautiously.
“Americans have spent the last few months dreaming about their summer vacations,” Bevi Powell, senior vice president at AAA East Central, said in a prepared statement. “There have been some changes in booking trends this year. Travelers are booking long-weekend getaways and impromptu trips, with many loading their cars and heading to their favorite sunny destination or national park.”
Dale Humphrey, 60, of Heath, explored Salt Fork on Tuesday by riding an electric bicycle.
“There are a lot of people who don’t realize how many state parks there are in Ohio,” he said. “I for one didn’t realize how many state parks there are within an hour drive from home.”
Lake Hope, Barkcamp and Mosquito Lake are among the ones he’s visited. He’s also mindful of the coronavirus, ensuring at least a six-foot separation during an interview.
More ambitious road trips this summer could include Yellowstone National Park, Humphrey said, depending on pandemic restrictions.
Matthew Livingston, of Pataskala, said he’s traveling in Ohio this summer instead of visiting larger cities, citing concerns related to the pandemic as well as protests.
A trip to Disney World in Orlando was canceled to the disappointment of his young daughter.
“I guess you’d say this year I rediscovered Salt Fork,” Livingston said.
Tom and Kathy Gross, of Cuyahoga Falls, relaxed at their campsite at Salt Fork with the company of their dog.
The husband and wife were awaiting the arrival of their teenage sons from a road trip that included stops in Colorado and Utah.
Reservations for this week at Salt Fork had been made in January. But the pandemic canceled their spring break plans for Stone Mountain in Georgia.
“That was when everything shut down,” Kathy Gross said. “We waited until the week before to cancel.”
Camping is inherently favorable to social distancing, Tom Gross said, relaxing in a chair under the shade of a pine tree.
Depending on what’s open, the couple has plans to travel out of state, including Shenandoah Mountain in Virginia.
But they also said Ohio affords options with its plethora of state parks.
“They have a lot of beautiful parks,” Tom Gross said.