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Texas state parks see new faces as people look for ways to escape

Inks Lake State Park

Many people are heading outdoors to relax and restore under COVID-19 restrictions, and state parks, including Inks Lake in Burnet County, are welcoming new visitors. Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

The COVID-19 pandemic shook up state park operations, along with everything else, even leading to temporary park closures in the spring. However, when Gov. Greg Abbot allowed them to reopen, it wasn’t just park regulars returning.

“We don’t have any hard numbers, but from what the folks at our gate say, they saw a lot of new faces,” said Corey Evans, superintendent at Inks Lake State Park. “We did get phone calls from people who had never been to the park before and had questions.”

Throughout the the summer, people sought refuge at Texas’ 88 state parks, even as visitors have had to follow COVID-19 protocols such as wearing face coverings and social distancing.

“We have certainly seen a lot of interests in state parks, with people looking for a way to get out,” said Rodney Franklin, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department state parks division director. “We have learned there is a tremendous love for our state parks and love for nature.”

Due to being restricted to 75 percent capacity, parks did not experience a large spike in visitors, but they did stay full, according to both Evans and Franklin.

“When COVID hit in March, we saw numbers drop off a little. And then, of course, we closed all state parks in April,” Evans said. “When we reopened and went to 75 percent, we stayed booked throughout the summer.”

That includes both overnight and day-use guests. All guests must make online park reservations before their visits. It’s not uncommon for day-use visitors to make reservations two weeks out.

Many first-time visitors were escaping urban areas for calming, natural surroundings.

“Some people didn’t know where the nearest state park to them was,” Franklin said. “Others, they may have visited state parks as a child but hadn’t been back since. Now, they’ve come back out.”

While some park activities are temporarily on hold, such as interpreter programs and watercraft rentals, Franklin said park staff and volunteers have found innovative ways to continue serving the public.

“We delivered a lot of virtual programs during this time,” he said. 

Park interpreters have held programs online to connect people to the outdoors, something Franklin believes will continue even after pandemic restrictions are lifted. 

Something else both Evans and Franklin want to see in the future are return visits by these summer guests and even more new faces at state parks.

“It think that’s a matter of engagement,” Franklin said. “Answering those questions and making sure they feel welcomed.”

The Texas state park system, which will celebrate 100 years in 2023, is learning and adapting amid COVID-19. 

“The pandemic was a game changer for everyone, and it’s still with us,” Franklin said. “Please be patient with us because we’re still adapting as well. It’s good, though, that people remember that parks can be a place to restore their mind, body, and soul.”

Visit the TPWD’s parks page to learn more about visiting guidelines or make reservations at any one of the 88 state parks.