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Devil's Lake State Park, Baraboo-area state natural areas overflow with cars on holiday weekend
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Devil's Lake State Park, Baraboo-area state natural areas overflow with cars on holiday weekend

Devil's Lake hikers (copy) (copy)

Visitors hike and fish May 2 at Devil's Lake State Park near Baraboo. The park drew large crowds over Memorial Day weekend. 

Devil’s Lake State Park and natural areas near Baraboo proved to be popular Memorial Day weekend destinations this year, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and closures.

Missy VanLanduyt, recreation partnerships section chief with the state Department of Natural Resources, said attendance at both Devil’s Lake and Mirror Lake state parks Saturday and Monday was comparable to last year and above average on Sunday. Specific attendance numbers were not available and are typically tracked by month.

“I think the general input is people were doing OK,” VanLanduyt said about social distancing guidelines. “There were a lot of instances where people were not social distancing and were showing up in large crowds, which, you know, people were then giving gentle reminders to practice social distancing and to be in groups of six or less.

“I think the bigger issue has been litter,” she said. “There’s a considerable amount of litter that people are leaving behind, so that seems to be what the biggest issue was across the board.”

Devil’s Lake enforced capacity restrictions on Sunday by gating entrances, while Mirror Lake did not. Though restrictions vary by property, VanLanduyt said they typically are capped at about 75-80% of a park’s total capacity.

She said the DNR doesn’t know how many people were turned away after the gates closed, but there were “a considerable number of people” parking on roads leading to the park. None of the people who parked outside and walked in were turned away.

The DNR has kept Pewits Nest, Parfrey’s Glen, Gibraltar Rock and Dells of The Wisconsin River state natural areas closed since April 10, even after reopening Devil’s Lake and dozens of other state parks on May 1.

“We had quite a few issues there with vehicles parked on the road,” Lt. Eric Van Den Heuvel of the Sauk County Sheriff’s Department said of the state natural areas.

Parking lots at the natural areas remain barricaded, but that didn’t stop people from trying to access the properties on foot by parking along adjacent roads. The sheriff’s office received six calls over the weekend related to parking at Pewits Nest, where officers cited two vehicles for violating a no-parking zone and towed two others that had parked in a tow-away zone, Van Den Heuvel said.

VanLanduyt said the DNR didn’t have to eject anyone from the natural areas last weekend, but added that people using those areas is a recurring problem. The sheriff’s office doesn’t help the DNR enforce attendance limits at state properties, Van Den Heuvel said.

Many cars also were parked along Highway DL, which borders Devil’s Lake State Park on its north side.

“No citations were issued there because it’s not signed (as no parking), but it was just a traffic issue there,” Van Den Heuvel said.

Skillet Creek Media, a company run by Derrick Mayoleth that frequently blogs about the park, noted the situation on Twitter on Sunday with a photo.

“DL outside of Devil’s Lake State Park has NEVER looked like this in 20+ years…” the tweet read.

The DNR is “not necessarily” going to change any of its rules or close any parks based on last weekend, VanLanduyt said. However, she noted it’s still trying to remind people to practice social distancing, travel close to home and “pack in, pack out” — in other words, bring everything you need and leave nothing behind. If necessary, it will restrict admissions.

“The capacity tool in and of itself has been working to the extent that it can, so I think we’re going to continue to have that, for sure,” she said.

The DNR closed 40 properties in April due to crowding, litter, vandalism and health concerns related to COVID-19.

“I think the one thing we want people to know is that if we have a capacity restriction, it’s for a reason, and that’s to limit overcrowding and to limit the spread of COVID-19,” VanLanduyt said. “And people parking outside of properties and walking in are not doing anything to help that.”

While the park itself is open, all restrooms are closed through June 2 and shelters, playgrounds, other buildings and campgrounds remain closed, according to a DNR news release.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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