Devil’s Lake State Park is on pace to set record attendance totals this year.
Visitation to Wisconsin’s most popular state park has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2010, going from 1.7 million annual visitors at the time to 2.6 million in 2016, according to estimates from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Steve Schmelzer, the park’s superintendent, said he expects the ascent to continue in 2017.
“We’re right in the neighborhood of 2.8 million (visitors) right now,” Schmelzer said. “Last year through October it was 2.6 million visitors, so we’re a couple hundred thousand visitors up.”
“Almost every year we’ve had more visitation than the previous.”
Schmelzer said he’s not sure what exactly is driving the attendance increase, but added that the trend is in step with national parks. He said the increased prevalence of social media and location sharing may have influenced the record count.
“Parks in general are getting more popular and more usage,” Schmelzer said. “If you look at attendance data for national parks, it has also increased substantially.”
National parks recorded record attendance in 2016 for the third year in a row, according to statistics from National Parks Service. Federal properties received nearly 331 million recreation visits in 2016, breaking 2015’s record by 23.7 million visits.
Minnesota Parks and Trails Division information officer Amy Barrett said park attendance in the neighboring state also has been up over the past decade. She said the state’s legacy amendment — which temporarily increased tax dollars to fund environmental programming in 2008 — along with the state of the national economy and Parks Division’s increased social media presence, influenced the trend.
“Families were really looking for something affordable to do,” Barrett said. “They maybe weren’t going on out-of-state airplane trips or expensive resorts. Everybody was cutting back, so I think that conveniently drove a lot of people to check out state parks.”
Barrett said the uptick in park visitors has led Minnesota to pursue several cost-saving measures. She said state park managers often oversee multiple properties, and parks are exploring self-service options to free up staff and other resources.
Schmelzer said the increased attendance at Devil’s Lake also has led to changes. Construction crews have expanded the entranceway on the park’s north shore and are finishing up an additional lane on the south shore as well. An automated park pass kiosk also has recently been installed on the south shore entrance.
Schmelzer said the electronic vendor is one of several automated pay stations that have been installed on state properties. He said the kiosk accepts credit cards and will be operational 24-7.
“There are several locations throughout the state where they have a pilot project for automated self-registration, and one of them is the south shore,” Schmelzer said. “It’s kind of like one of those parking kiosks that you see in Madison.”
The park also has upgraded infrastructure and facilities with help from the Friends of Devil’s Lake group and the Devil’s Lake Concessions Corporation. The groups donated $105,000 to Devil’s Lake State Park in September to construct a new boat rental facility on the north shore.
The Concessions Corporation plans to use the building to expand its guided kayak tours and begin offering hiking and boating tours. The group also may explore partnerships with local outfitters to offer other recreational opportunities, like scuba diving and rock climbing.
Schmelzer said other new facilities — like the winterized shower and bathroom building by the park campgrounds — will allow the site to open earlier for the camping season and remain open longer, further increasing future attendance counts.
“We’ll probably keep it open at least through November depending upon demand,” he said. “That will probably bring in a lot of campers.”
Baraboo Chamber of Commerce Director Bobbie Boettcher said Devil’s Lake has a major impact on the local economy, bringing in millions of tourism dollars each year. Boettcher said she expects the impact to increase following the rerouting of Highway 12, as visitors traveling from the south or west will have to travel through town to reach the park.
“It’s one of our key tourism attractions, no doubt about it,” she said. “Baraboo in some ways is on the map because of the lake and the amount of tourism traffic that we have come in here.”