BUFFALO RIVER STATE PARK, Minn. –Sitting around a slightly smoking campfire, with an early July breeze rustling trees overhead, Dan Hilgert and Ryan Voss traded barbs and laughed Sunday, July 3, while relaxing here before Independence Day festivities.
They’re among the thousands of folks who headed to Minnesota’s many state parks the weekend before the Fourth of July, usually the busiest time for campgrounds across the state.
But those campers were met with a change this year when reserving their favorite sites.
New is a Department of Natural Resources requirement that all sites statewide be reserved by campers before they get to the park gate.
Before the new policy, up to 30 percent of campsites at each park were set aside on a first-come, first-served basis.
For Hilgert and Voss, both of Glencoe, the change is welcome because it makes for a smoother and easier reservation process.
“It’s a one, two, three type of deal, and you know you got a place reserved,” Hilgert said.
But for others who may not be aware of the change, it could put a wrinkle in their outdoor recreation plans. They might have gone to the park without a reservation and found it full, with campgrounds packed with trailers and tents. That happened Sunday to some campers looking to enjoy Buffalo River State Park about 14 miles east of Fargo-Moorhead.
Before the change, those looking for a same-day reservation would call ahead to see if spots were available, but by the time they arrived, the spots may have been taken.
Now they need to reserve the spot before getting to the park, either by phone or online, but same-day reservations can still be made, free of charge.
“Those people feel like that’s something they’re going to miss, but we’re trying to get the word out that they still can be spontaneous,” said Amy Barrett, information officer for the DNR’s parks and trails division.
The DNR recommends making reservations before leaving home because cellphone reception and wireless internet coverage can be unpredictable.
“This is something that customers have been asking for for quite some time, particularly families with kids,” Barrett said.
The online-only move seems to have increased reservation numbers.
As of last Wednesday, there were about 360 campsites open to reserve for the weekend before the Fourth. In 2015 at that time, there were 230 open sites.
But with the new online system, the 1,200 non-reservable sites that would’ve been held open last weekend were up for grabs, with far more sites already spoken for than in previous years.
And in late May this year, state parks had already seen a record number of visitors. Compared to 2015, sales of one-day permits were up 41 percent and overnight stay permits increased 39 percent.
“We do want people to have that peace of mind of being able to call before they leave home and know that they have a site,” Barrett said.
For those prone to absent-mindedness, and who show up at a park without a campsite, many parks will soon have self-service stations that can be used for same-day reservations.
Reserving your spot
To make a reservation at a Minnesota state park, go to http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/reservations.html or call (866) 857-2757. Reservations can be made by phone from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, except on holidays. Reservations can be made online 24/7 up to a year in advance. A non-refundable reservation fee of $10 by phone or $8.50 online is charged for each reservation.