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As Campgrounds Reopen, Montanans Eager To Get Outside

Camp at Cloverleaf Lakes in Carbon, Montana, taken in 2008.
Troy Smith
Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Camp at Cloverleaf Lakes in Carbon, Montana, taken in 2008.


Montanans who’ve been stuck in the house due to the coronavirus pandemic are finally getting some fresh air on the state’s campsites. That’s led to some unusually high visitor rates in some areas, while in others, campers are getting to know corners of the state they might not have otherwise thought to go.

Marguerite Gaillard is a 19 year old Americorps volunteer from Bozeman. She’s an avid camper and spent this past Memorial Day weekend with her mom and a family friend at Freezeout Lake near Great Falls.

But the trip looked a little different from her normal weekends camping. They made a point of keeping their distance from other campers and even each other to an extent.

"This time, we were pretty careful. We took separate cars. We brought our own everything, brought our own dinners and lunches and food items," Gaillard said. 

Gaillard says she plans on camping about as often as she would any other year but with this new set of precautions. She also says that she sees camping as a great way to get out of the house without coming into close contact with other people.

She’s definitely not alone. Montana State Park System Marketing and Communications Manager Pat Doyle says people are camping at state parks at unheard of rates. After state park campgrounds opened on May 1, campsites hit a 75 percent occupancy rate, which crescendoed to nearly 100 percent by Memorial Day.

"A lot of that obviously has to do with the coronavirus, people having a huge desire to get outside and recreate at our state parks, which is outstanding," Doyle said. 

He says that while the spike in campers has overall been positive, it’s also been tough on the staff. Usually, the lower numbers at the beginning of the season give camp hosts, maintenance workers and park rangers time to ease into things.

But this year, summer-level crowds arrived with the opening of the parks, as the staff was also establishing new rules and procedures around social distancing, cleaning and wearing personal protective equipment.

The state parks system also shifted some of its normal visitor interactions from visitor centers, which are still closed, online by offering new videos and resources for teachers.

"All of our parks were really created in some way to tell the story of Montana," Doyle said.

Montana’s Girl Scout Troops are also navigating how to move some activities online. Kristi Osterlund is the marketing and communications manager for the Girl Scouts of Montana and Wyoming, and she says the organization held a “Camp-in Challenge” where it asked scouts to participate in indoor activities like yoga and virtual museum tours while staying home and social distancing.

She says there are more programs like it in the works, like the “Summer Outdoor Challenge,” where scouts can even earn a badge.

"It’s really just one of those things that parents have on the refrigerator and so when their child says 'I’m bored,' they can turn to this and say, 'Well, let’s make a bird feeder out of a pine cone,'" Osterlund said. 

The Girl Scouts of Montana is still planning some camping trips for the summer but they’ll be fewer and smaller. In a normal year, the organization holds about 45 camps. It’s now planning for nine. Osterlund says they’re working with the American Camp Association and looking to the state and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for guidelines to help them plan the camps, which will certainly have fewer participants to allow for social distancing.

U.S. Forest Service Northern Region Press Officer Dan Hottle says he and his colleagues are also adjusting their plans for the season and troubleshooting new problems.

"This time of year, it’s always challenging to open campgrounds, just because of Mother Nature. And now we have a second round of Mother Nature that’s presenting some other challenges for us," Hottle said. 

He says that because many Forest Service campgrounds open later due to weather, they had some extra time to plan. Still, he encourages anyone considering a camping trip on forest service land to call ahead to see what’s open, what’s clean and what’s different before they go.

And while they’ve had some issues with campers improperly disposing of waste and going off-trail, they’ve also gotten help from visitors.

"We’ve seen a lot of people on trails and in our recreational site and our public access sites police each other. So it’s made our jobs easier when we talk about recreating responsibly," Hottle said. 

Hottle says it’s too early to know if Forest Service campgrounds have seen a boom in visitors because of the pandemic but Bureau of Land Management Spokesperson Al Nash can say with confidence that there hasn’t been as much pressure on their system as there has been at parks that tend to be more tightly packed. He also says BLM lands are great for social distancing.

"One of the great things about BLM-managed public lands is that much of that area is open to dispersed camping. You don’t have to go into a developed campground," Nash said. 

Nash says that the BLM closed some of its more popular campgrounds earlier this spring, especially in the Helena area, while it puts new measures into place to safely operate them. In any case, he encourages Montanans to think a little more broadly when planning a trip this summer.

"There’s a lot of Montana and there are a lot of opportunities for you to go out and enjoy your public lands. And I just encourage you to, when planning an escape out into the wild, have more than one potential destination in mind," Nash said.