In the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, record numbers of people "stayed home" in tents, campers and RVs they took with them to Tennessee's state parks.
Camping in the last two months of 2020 reached historic highs in state-run parks, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation that oversees them. Four of the top 10 camping months ever in state parks happened in 2020, most likely driven by visitors seeking the outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement, TDEC Commissioner Jim Bryson attributed the surge to the search for well-being.
"The impact of COVID-19 simply underscores a growing awareness that the outdoors are a sanctuary for mental and physical health," he said. "The appeal of louder, busier, and crowded entertainment venues has given way to the space, freedom and connection the outdoors provide."
Three Southeast Tennessee state parks — Fall Creek Falls State Park near Pikeville, Harrison Bay State Park in Chattanooga and Tims Ford State Park in Winchester — were among the top four for visitations in the state this fall.
"In October 2020, Fall Creek Falls, Harrison Bay and Tims Ford State Parks were in the top four for campsite nights sold at Tennessee State Parks," TDEC spokesperson Eric Ward said Wednesday. "In November 2020, these three parks were in the top five for campsite nights sold at Tennessee State Parks."
Those parks set statewide marks in November, too.
"Harrison Bay and Fall Creek Falls had the highest occupancy in all of Tennessee State Park campgrounds for November," Ward said. "All three of these parks are very popular for camping, but Fall Creek Falls is consistently the most in-demand park for camping and has the greatest number of available sites."
Tennessee State Parks operate more than 3,000 campsites, ranging from RV sites with full hookups to backcountry spots deep in the woods.
Statewide, Tennessee parks saw 62,124 nights of camping in October, which notches a one-month record for camping stays in the system and tops the mark of 57,472 nights set in June this year, according to state figures.
TDEC officials said November tallied 36,000 camping nights sold, the highest number for that month ever and exceeding November 2019 by 15,000 nights.
In July 2020, there were 56,033 camping nights sold in Tennessee, which makes June, July and October of this year the top three months ever recorded, officials said. There were 48,350 camping nights sold in September, making it the sixth best month ever. The November total for 2020 was the overall 32nd best month ever, according to state figures.
Many Tennessee residents stayed in their home state and camped nearby.
In October at Chattanooga's Harrison Bay State Park, camping visitors were from Cleveland, Chattanooga, Harrison and Ooltewah in Tennessee, and Ringgold, Georgia, Ward said. At Tims Ford State Park in Winchester, visitors using campsites and cabins were from the park's hometown, as well as from Murfreesboro, Fayetteville, Nashville and Tullahoma. Campers and cabin guests at Fall Creek Falls were from Nashville, Knoxville, Murfreesboro, Sparta and Woodbury, he said.
For visitors to Tennessee's largest and most-visited Fall Creek Falls State Park on the Bledsoe-Van Buren county line, where a new, $40.4 million lodge is taking shape and should be finished in 2021, the only way to stay overnight now is in one of the 30 cabins arranged around and near Fall Creek Falls Lake or in one of the park's 220-plus campsites.
"When we had to close back in the spring — which was kind of a weird time for us all — as soon as we opened the parks back up we started seeing record visitation numbers," Fall Creek Falls park manager Jacob Young said Wednesday. Young, park manager for four years, has worked for state parks for nearly 16 years.
Full campgrounds when parks reopened later in April and May aren't unusual at Fall Creek Falls, but "maintaining [those numbers] seven days a week and high visitation numbers to the waterfalls and trails seven days a week, we started seeing a lot more people," Young said.
"It continued all the way through the summer and then we got into September and October; of course, we had to cancel a few of our fall events, and we honestly thought that would cause camping to fall off a little bit but it did not," he said. "We stayed at 100% or very close to 100% [occupancy] all the way through October and it continued through November."
On Monday, there were 67 camping units filled at Fall Creek Falls, and all 30 cabins were rented, he said. "That's unheard of for this time of year. It's great. It's just new and different for us."
There have been a lot of first-time RV users and campers, Young said.
"The reason we know we're seeing a new crowd is the guest surveys," he said. Complaints started appearing in the surveys that had never been raised before.
"It was simple things," Young laughed. "At our central dump station, our hose 'was too high off the ground,' or 'your sewer intake is too high off the ground,' and we had never had that complaint before, and what it was is a lot of folks are going out and buying new campers, they've never been before, and they're learning some of the tricks of the trade."
Leveling campers and RVs for the terrain is a learning experience that new campers will perfect as they go, he said.
Another oddity Young saw is the appearance of families with children who are working remotely and homeschooling on the road from state park campgrounds, he said.
"It's all caused an increase in camping," he said. "Some are social distancing and some are choosing a new lifestyle. It's been an interesting year."
Most of the Fall Creek Falls campgrounds underwent a $1.8 million renovation back in 2007 when campsites were improved, entrances were widened for RVs, some sites made accessible to the physically challenged and many sites modernized for an increasingly higher-tech public. Park campers in those days noted RVs were getting larger and spaces big enough for them had become hard to find.
Fall Creek Falls fans come from all over the U.S., Tennessee and nearby communities if you read their comments on the park's social media page.
"My family and I go to Fall Creek Falls twice a year every year to camp and we love it," nearby resident Kara Helton said in one post. "We only live about 45 minutes away."
Other families made camping there an even longer tradition.
"Yes I live in North Alabama and my entire family has been coming to FCF every year for over 30 years camping," park fan Lisa Bennett said in a post. "Buzzards Roost is my favorite spot in the park."
Others who have never seen the park visit based on word of mouth.
"We have reservations for 3 day[s] of camping next week," first-timer Lori Brawner Manera said in a post back in October. "[W]e are so excited to finally be visiting we have heard nothing but good things about the park."
A similar post on Harrison Bay State Parks social media page praised the camper's view.
"A perfect sunset and a fantastic campsite!" the Coleman family wrote last week in a post with a red-hued photo from their RV parked along the shoreline of Harrison Bay. They identified themselves in their profile, "Cruisin' with the Colemans," as travel and food bloggers.
Ward said state parks offer a natural setting for social distancing.
"Visitors seem to be coming to Tennessee State Parks recently to enjoy a naturally distant vacation," he said. "The very nature of camping can provide enough physical distance and outdoor space to create a safe travel option."
People with RVs camp more and longer in the winter because it's not as cold as tent camping, Ward said. "Visitors can stay longer in the winter months — normally, the maximum stay for camping is 14 days. However, from Dec. 1 to Feb. 28-29, the maximum stay is increased to 28 days."
Outdoorsy folks are generating revenue.
TDEC spokesperson Kim Schofinski said in a statement that the pandemic accelerated outdoor recreation trends that have been growing steadily over the last several years.
Recent statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show the outdoor recreation economy accounted for 2.1% of gross domestic product in the United States for 2019. In Tennessee, outdoor recreation value added as a share of GDP was 2.4%.
If they went camping, Ward said, many people had a taste for the best in 2020, while other means of living in the wild remain popular, too.
"In terms of popularity, premium campsites have consistently outsold tent-only sites this year," he said. "These premium sites are usually occupied by RVs, but a tent camper could rent a premium site and pitch a tent on that site. Premium sites are consistently selling out throughout the week, where tent-only sites usually only sell out on weekends. We have also seen increases in our primitive, tent-only and backcountry camping options across the state."
And people are already planning ahead, he said.
"We are seeing trends of people booking their summer 2021 and fall 2021 vacations now," Ward said. "Holidays like Memorial Day are quickly filling."
Now is the time to plan for warm weather, he said, adding Tennessee State Parks offers a 10 percent Tennessee resident discount to make spending the night in the outdoors more affordable.
Back at Fall Creek Falls, Young said some 2020 changes are welcome.
"It's different for us, but it is nice to see the crowd spread out over the whole course of the year," he said. "We were used to seeing visitation from the first of April 'til the end of October and then an extreme slowdown over the winter.
"We're seeing more winter visitors than we've ever seen and it's kind of nice because it's a good crowd, they're coming to get outdoors, they keep the place up and they're not causing trouble and we're really enjoying seeing this group of people out here this time of year," Young said.
As 2021 approaches, all Tennessee state parks and most park facilities are open, though some may have occupancy and usage limits because of COVID-19, officials said. Signs at the parks will encourage social distancing and provide information about cleaning standards.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.
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