Some Wisconsin State Parks Offer 'Space For Place' During COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated on April 28:

Gov. Tony Evers announced that 34 Wisconsin state parks, forests and recreational areas will reopen on May 1.

The parks will open with new conditions designed to minimize overcrowding. Bathrooms, towers, shelters, playgrounds, nature centers, headquarters, contact stations and concession buildings will all remain closed. Camp sites will remain closed until May 26.

Learn more here.

Updated on April 9:

Thursday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers directed the Department of Natural Resources to close 40 state parks, forests, and recreational areas at the end of the day. The press release stated that this is "due to unprecedented crowds, litter, vandalism and out of an abundance of caution to protect public health and safety and help flatten the [coronavirus] curve."

In the southeast region of the state, these parks, forests and recreational areas will be closed until further notice: Big Foot Beach State Park, Harrington Beach State Park, Havenwoods State Forest, Kohler-Andrae State Park, Kettle Moraine State Forest Lapham Peak, Loew Lake, Mukwonago River, Northern Unit, Pike Lake, Southern Unit, Lakeshore State Park, and Richard Bong State Recreational Area.

Evers said, “I wanted to keep state parks open for the public to enjoy during this challenging time ... Unfortunately, growing difficulty with ensuring social distancing compliance, dwindling cleaning supplies and mounting trash are some of the challenges faced by our state parks staff. We have to address the growing public health and safety concern and protect Wisconsinites.”

The release also noted, "If the public does not follow social distancing guidelines and vandalizes property, more state parks may have to close."

Original story, April 3:

Under Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order, outdoor activity is considered essential — and our state park system is here to help us stay active. For this week's Bubbler Talk, Mike from Wauwatosa was curious about what restrictions are in place for hiking in Wisconsin's state parks to help combat the spread of COVID-19.

"I have a family of four and a lot of things are shut down, so we’ve been trying to figure out what to do to get outside but still kind of be within the public guidelines that are out there,” he says.

Sarah Hoye, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), helps explain: "Under the safer-at-home order, outdoor activity is considered essential activity, and we all know that there are numerous health and wellness benefits to being outdoors."

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During the coronavirus pandemic, all Wisconsin state park entrance fees are waived. Pictured is the closed main building at the entrance of Harrington Beach State Park, with its self-service fee station wrapped in plastic and notices taped to its service windows.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski / WUWM

“Getting out, being able to be in the fresh air, having a quiet walk can really help some of those anxieties you might see people having at a time where’s there’s a public health emergency," she adds. "So the goal is to allow people a place for space, relaxation and to overall improve health and wellness.”

Currently all state parks, trails and forests are open with entrance fees waived.

"Waiving entrance fees helps out with social distancing," Sarah says. "So in a lot ... locations there are self registration stations or electronic kiosks, so we really wanted to make sure people didn't have to congregate, that they wouldn't have to wait in line or be close to each other to make those payments."

But for the state parks to remain open to the public, Sarah says the DNR needs everyone’s help.

"Visitors, we would really encourage you to work together to help maintain that proper social distancing." - Sarah Hoye, Wisconsin DNR

“Visitors, we would really encourage you to work together to help maintain that proper social distancing of six feet of space between each other while passing,” she says.

Proper social distancing also means no congregating in parking lots or by restrooms. Pit toilets are open but park offices, visitor centers and other non-essential buildings like ranger and research stations are closed. All campsites are closed through April 30, and no new reservations are being taken before June 1.

While private RV parks and campgrounds are also classified as essential businesses, it is best to check with each business individually to see if they remain open. If they're open, they must practice social distancing guidelines, which can include the closing of many amenities. If you are interested in specific current Milwaukee County Park guidelines, you can find them here.

Credit Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

"Right now we don’t have running water ... so you need to bring your own hand sanitizer. Another thing that we don’t have are the trash bins out, so we are encouraging you to pack in and pack out — if you bring in trash take it home with you,” Sarah says.

The intent of Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order is to keep people close to home — so don’t travel too far to go to a state park.

“Stay within your community," she says. "You don’t need to travel across the state to go to a park, to go fishing, to go hunting. You really should stay close to home so we can help flatten the curve on this thing.”

At Harrington Beach State Park about 40 minutes north of Milwaukee, the Albiero family is enjoying time outside collecting beach glass off of the shore of Lake Michigan.

"We just live a little bit down the road in Port Washington so we’ve been coming here just about every evening, if we can manage it,” Jeff Albiero says.

Jeff, his wife Kirstin, and their four daughters Harlow, Reeve, Parker, and Monroe come to Herrington Beach often for outdoor activity — even before the pandemic mandated social distancing. 

"It gives us a break from being at home and learning and gives us some good outdoor time," Kirstin adds.

The Albiero family (from left: Kirstin, Monroe, Reeve, Harlow, Monroe and Jeff) show off the beach glass they've been collecting at Harrington Beach State Park. The family has been visiting the grounds from Port Washington for some outdoor activity almost every evening since social distancing had been mandated.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Jeff says they’ve definitely noticed a lot more people using the park, but they haven’t been nervous about sharing the trails.

“We haven't been worried one bit," he says. "I think, if anything, people are walking past each other and kind of moving to the side of the trail … I think everyone's been doing a really respectful job of that."

However, this hasn’t been the case for everyone. Karin Markert is part of the Ice Age Trail Segment Hikers. The group, made of hikers from all over Wisconsin and northern Illinois, used to meet up almost every weekend to hike up to 12 miles — but times have changed.

“I’ve heard friends that have gone to Devil’s Lake [State Park] and won’t go there anymore because there’s too many people and they’re not all being careful with social distancing," Karin says. "Kids running around, touching everything, which we’re starting to get a little more paranoid now.”

It seems like even the cars are practicing social distancing within Harrington Beach's park grounds. Remember, staying six feet apart also means no congregating around cars in parking lots.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Sophie is also an avid hiker, who says her time on the trail is her "sanctuary and [her] sanity." And while she also enjoys seeing more people outdoors, she’s had difficulties hiking.

"I literally had to step off of a boardwalk at one point into the water because they were chitter chattering and ... you can wait or you can move over in some respect, but that wasn’t allowed for me. I had to get off of it,” Sophie recalls.

Sarah says the DNR is monitoring each park day-to-day for people congregating or if places get packed. If this persists, it will adjust rules if needed.

“The real goal is to keep our parks and trails open for the public, so we really need the public’s help with keeping that social distancing, keeping the areas clean, not congregating. So we all need to work together while we do our best to help slow the spread of COVID-19,” she says.

Before you visit a state park, Sarah recommends making a plan, following existing property rules, and be sure to pick up pet waste. The DNR has the supplies to maintain current operations and protect their workers, but like everything nowadays, it’s a "rapidly changing situation."

A trail within Harrington Beach State Park.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

“Everybody’s looking for something to do to and stay active and get outside and enjoy some fresh air so it’s really nice that they kept them open," says Mike, who submitted the Bubbler Talk question. "So I just hope they don’t get abused and they end up closing like they have in other states.”

Karin also hopes the trails stay open, but she’s trying to get in as much hiking as possible just in case the parks close.

“It’s just my big stress reliever right now, getting me out of the house. There’s not much else we can do," she says. "As long as we maintain a safe distance and being careful, I think it’s probably one of the best activities to maintain, but who knows. I mean, things are changing quickly.”

So please remember to be kind to your state parks and practice proper social distancing with your fellow hikers. For more updates on state park regulations, you can visit the DNR's website.

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.

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