KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Nature lovers frequented Missouri State Parks in record numbers last year, a trend officials predict will expand as pandemic restrictions ebb and flow.
Data from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources shows Missouri State Parks saw roughly 22.5 million visitors last year, nearly a 7% increase from 2020. This sets an all-time attendance record for the 92 parks and historic sites throughout the state.
Top story: Wainwright-Molina set record; Pujols pitches for first time in Cardinals rout
David Kelly, director of Missouri State Parks, said 1.3 million guests spent the night in a cabin or campsite last year, and they’re staying longer and longer. He said overnight guests are more likely to purchase merchandise and rent out campers, which helps boost revenue.
About 25% of campers and lodgers visit from out of state, Kelly said, especially at parks that sit near border states. This includes Weston Bend, located near Kansas, and Roaring River State Park, located near the Oklahoma and Arkansas borders.
“In many states, you can pay anywhere from $8 to $10 just to drive into a state park, and we don’t have that in Missouri,” Kelly said. “If you come to Missouri State Parks, if you’re new to Missouri, you may be surprised that you don’t have to pay to get in. If you go to other states, and you’re from Missouri, you might be surprised that you do have to pay.”
Missouri State Parks saw a 24% increase in campsite rentals from the previous year, with a little over 380,000 camping units rented. The state saw a 17% spike in lodging units, about 54,000 lodging units rented, and something officials say they do not anticipate will slow down.
“It’s a real affordable way to get out with the family at no cost,” he said.
Missouri State Parks do not require an entrance fee, so visitation figures are only estimates.
But overnight stays are recognized as strong indicators for a park system’s demand – good news for park administrators, who have seen both campsite and lodging rentals reach all-time highs in 2021. Park administrators expect state attendance to rise again this year, and are uncertain when it will dwindle down again.
To accommodate this high demand for parkland, the state is planning to open a new park in south-central Missouri’s Douglas County, Bryan Creek State Park, this summer.
“We’re really excited to get that open and think it’ll be a draw to south central Missouri,” he said.
Missouri State Parks are funded by a park sales tax, which was voted on in 2016 and passed by 80% statewide, something Kelly says is “unheard of.”
“That, essentially, costs the average Missourian $8 a year, the sales tax does, for state parks,” Kelly said. “I go to Colorado to visit my wife’s family and it costs us $8 in Colorado just to visit a state park one time.”
He said Missouri’s state park funding incentivizes out-of-state residents to visit, something he believes persuades visitors to return.
“We asked people coming in the car if they’d been before, and 25% were new, 25% hadn’t been there in 20 years, and about 50% had been there recently,” he said.
Parks with the highest attendance records include Roaring River State Park in Cassville with about 1.9 million visitors, Bennett Spring State Park in Lebanon with nearly 1.7 million visitors, and Lake of the Ozarks State Park in Kaiser with about 1.6 million visitors.
Trending: Alderman raises noise concerns about Bellefontaine Neighbors church
As far as cabin rentals go, Bennett Spring Concession in Bennett Springs, west of Lebanon, reported over 10,000 lodging units rented, a 12% increase from the previous year. For campsite rentals, Table Rock State Park near the Missouri-Arkansas border, came out on top, with over 382,000 camping units rented, a 24% increase from 2020.
Lewis & Clark State Park in Rushville, northwest of Kansas City, reported a 63% increase in attendance, with zero-percent changes in its campsite and lodging rentals.
Weston Bend State Park in Weston, just northeast of Kansas City, actually saw a 26% decrease in state park attendance, but a 41% increase in campsite rentals. Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and State Historic Site in Lawson, northeast of Kansas City, reported a 7% increase in park visitation, with a 34% increase in campsite rentals.
Both Weston Bend and Watkins Woolen Mill State Parks reported a 0% change in their lodging units.
Kelly said Missouri State Parks issued revenue bonds last year for the first time since the 1980s, which will help fund at least 28 different projects in 22 state parks, some of which include expanding camping and lodging opportunities for park visitors, and upgrading campsites to meet customer demand.
“I think it just kind of became a perfect storm,” he said. “Perfect timing.”