Power of the outdoors, post-pandemic, and a gorgeous Memorial Day weekend

The pandemic bump in outdoor pursuits continues and will likely show up on a Memorial Day predicted to have nearly perfect weather.

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The 606 Trail, shown here when it reopened after the pandemic shutdown on June 22, 2020, with people exercising near Western Avenue on the North Side, sustained the pandemic bump in use.

The 606 Trail, shown here when it reopened after the pandemic shutdown on June 22, 2020, with people exercising near Western Avenue on the North Side, sustained the pandemic bump in use.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Traffic jams caused by people seeking an outdoor getaway around the complex of Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks are nothing new on holiday weekends.

With perfect weather forecast for this Memorial Day weekend, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources expects parking in that area to be filled by noon daily.

Similarly, Montrose Harbor will likely have no parking by late morning over the holiday weekend.

That’s expected.

A group of around ten hikers climb up into a canyon

Christine Meissner, in orange headband, leads a group into the French Canyon of Starved Rock State Park in June 2019.

Provided

But it made me wonder about a larger question of whether the pandemic bump in people enjoying the outdoors has stayed up. The tentative answer is yes. But it will probably take another year to grasp the full impact.

This spring John Cuculich emailed about foxes in Naperville and wondered, “I think people got out more during the pandemic, and it seems like the preserves and trails are more crowded each year. Do you think more people are using the forest preserves now that things are back to normal?”

I would say yes, based on my regularly visited outdoors spots: In Chicago, that’s Montrose Harbor and Palmisano Park, more than once a month each; the state sites of Kankakee River SP and Des Plaines State Fish and Wild Area, at least monthly and several times a year to Starved Rock/Matthiessen; Cook County Forest Preserves’ Vollmer Road Grove, every few weeks; and the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve and Monee Reservoir monthly.

As to usage numbers, the most notable increase came from the FPD of DuPage County.

“Preserve visitation in general is most definitely up since the onset of Covid,” communications lead Beth Schirott emailed. “Prior to Covid, we averaged over four million visitors a year and we’re currently averaging six.”

The Chicago Park District has a mixed bag. Programming numbers (summer camps, etc.) are not back to prepandemic levels, but 606 usage remains well up, “roughly 1,183,000 in 2019 to 1,340,000 in 2021,” according to Michele Lemon, director of communications.

Palmisano Park is one of many public outdoor places that people learned to appreciate more fully during the pandemic. Credit: Dale Bowman

Palmisano Park is one of many public outdoor places that people learned to appreciate more fully during the pandemic.

Dale Bowman

The Cook County Forest Preserves used website traffic and interactive map usage to judge interest.

“Those numbers were much higher the year Covid broke than before,” director of communications Carl Vogel emailed. “While they have not kept up to that level, they remain higher than in the prepandemic year. Comparing 2019 to 2020, website sessions were up 47 percent and for our online map they jumped 187 percent. From 2019 to 2022, the website sessions were up 26 percent and [for the online map] were up 62 percent.”

Because of the year-long nature of licensing for fishing and hunting, it will probably be a couple years before that can be judged properly. Early indications are hunting drops to prepandemic levels, while fishing seems to hold some of its pandemic bump.

On a practical level for this weekend, Lisa Sons, natural resource coordinator at Starved Rock/Matthiessen, had this advice for visitors coming from a distance: “Arrive at the park early (trails open at 7 a.m. and restrooms open at 9 a.m.) to beat the traffic and congested trails of later in the morning and afternoon. Or they can plan to arrive after 4 p.m. when most of the visitors have left for the day (trails remain open until sunset which is 8 p.m. and the restrooms close at 5 p.m.). ...

“A Plan B is also wise in case the park is closed to further traffic. Visitors can enjoy other sites in the area, such as Buffalo Rock State Park, Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail, Illini State Park, and Dayton Bluffs (an Illinois Conservation Foundation site) in Ottawa.”

The complex of Starved Rock and Matthiessen (waterfowl along a trail) state parks routinely draws so much traffic that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources uses social media to announce on many summer weekends when parking is filled. Parking is expected to be filled by noon daily over the Memorial Day weekend. Credit: Dale Bowman

The complex of Starved Rock and Matthiessen (waterfowl along a trail) state parks routinely draws so much traffic that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources uses social media to announce on many summer weekends when parking is filled. Parking is expected to be filled by noon daily over the Memorial Day weekend.

Dale Bowman

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