One of the biggest trends in tourism during the pandemic has been outdoor recreation.
More people have taken up mountain biking, kayaking and camping in recreational vehicles (RVs). The increased demand, though, has had drawbacks not just in Arkansas but in many popular natural areas across the country. You can no longer just drive your RV down the road and be assured that you will find a spot to stay.
Camping sites in the state, including those on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes, are getting booked up as fast as reservations are open — six months ahead. People kayaking or canoeing popular state rivers can find overcrowding.
In 2021, Arkansas State Parks experienced record visitation of 9.4 million guests.
“We don’t see that trend changing,” said Shea Lewis, director of Arkansas State Parks. “Arkansas’ state parks have been essential places of recreation during the pandemic. An entirely new audience of guests has found our parks. It is our hope that their experiences will bring them back for years to come. We are proud to be an outdoor recreation resource to both the residents of Arkansas and visitors from outside of the Natural State.”
Lewis said the most popular locations have been overwhelmed at times, and competition for cabins and campsites has been at an all-time high.
“That doesn’t mean it is impossible to find a campsite or cabin at these locations,” he said. “I would recommend that guests plan well ahead for well-loved areas and look at times away from holidays and weekends. Also, take this opportunity to visit a new part of the state or a new state park. If you haven’t camped at Davidsonville Historic State Park or Cane Creek State Park, check them out.”
A recent study indicated the financial impact of the 52 state parks was more than $1 billion annually. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has described Arkansas State Parks collectively as one of the largest economic drivers in the state. Tourism is the second largest economic driver in Arkansas with 100,000 people employed in the industry.
Lewis sees his role as helping the parks connect with the next generation of guests while taking care of the highest levels of visitation ever experienced.
“We want to remain relevant and meet the needs of visitors while remaining true to our roots of conservation and sound resource management,” Lewis said. “How do we do that? It’s through seeking innovative approaches to all things we do. Capacity is a concern at a few locations — Pinnacle Mountain, Petit Jean and Devil’s Den state parks — where we have had to make changes to how we manage resources. Strategies have been implemented to mitigate guest impacts and high-use areas. We have many locations that have opportunities for growth and love to share those resources with new audiences. Daisy State Park, located on Lake Greeson, offers many of the same opportunities as Lake Ouachita State Park or Lake Catherine State Parks with less demand.”
The Buffalo National River attracted an estimated 1.5 million visitors in 2021, said BNR spokesperson Cassie Branstetter.
“We have seen an increase in visitation during the pandemic likely because a lot of visitors felt safe doing outdoor activities,” Branstetter said. “BNR fits nicely with people’s new travel plans. We saw visitors who have never been to the park before.”
Overcrowding on the river has been a conversation for a couple of years. There are more people on the river during busy summer weekends, and popular campgrounds usually fill up every weekend in the summer.
“We have 11 campgrounds, and some of them have more amenities than others,” she said. “Buffalo Point Campground is the only one with electricity, and it has the highest demand. It books up sometimes six months in advance. For folks willing to have more backcountry experiences without electricity or water, the demand is less for those spots. You can be a little more ad hoc when it comes to planning.”
Boaters can also choose to travel on less popular stretches of the 135 miles of the BNR within the park that spreads out over about 95,000 acres of land.
“A great message is to spread out beyond the most popular places,” Branstetter said. “Do a little research. Talk to a park ranger, and find those places where there is plenty of room to spread out.”
Economic impacts of outdoor recreation provide major benefits to nearby communities. Erin Jimenez, public affairs specialist with the Corps, said an economic impact assessment from 2019 indicated the Corps’ Little Rock District averages around 20 million visits per year with guests spending $507 million dollars at local businesses surrounding Corps lakes. This activity supported nearly 7,000 jobs for Arkansas and Missouri.
“Rangers across the district have noticed the parks have become even more popular in the past couple of years,” Jimenez said.
Corps parks have gone cashless, so reservations can only be made online. Jay Townsend, chief public affairs office for the Little Rock District, said an advantage of the reservation system is that people are assured of getting a spot.
Not just campgrounds but lakes are busier than ever with boat traffic, especially in northern Arkansas.
“Beaver Lake has been busy for decades,” Townsend said. “Northwest Arkansas is the fifth fastest growing region in the country. As the population increases, the number of visitors increases. Greers Ferry Lake has also been getting an increase. The day-use parking lots are reaching capacity almost every day during the busy season.”
One place where there is plenty of space for walking and bicycling is the 300 miles of trails developed by OZ Trails in Northwest Arkansas. The trail system is a significant driver for tourism and economic activity in the region, attracting visitors from across the country and beyond to experience art, hospitality, and one-of-a-kind outdoor experiences, said J.T. Geren, spokesperson for OZ Trails.
Northwest Arkansas officially has been branded as the Mountain Biking Capital of the World™. Geren said riders are attracted from across the globe.
“Increasingly, we find ourselves on people’s ‘bucket list’ for cycling adventure travel,” Geren said. “While our soft-surface trails are best known for mountain biking, they are available to trail runners, hikers and all kinds of adventure seekers. A few areas are purpose-designed for mountain biking. They feature some really challenging features that are somewhat famous on YouTube.”
The ever-growing presence of biking events and cycling-focused organizations in Northwest Arkansas is further evidence of the momentum around cycling in the region.
“The most remarkable thing about our area is the accessibility to the trails,” he said. “Visitors to Bentonville don’t need to rent a car. Dining, lodging, museums, trailheads…everything is available on a bike! The natural beauty and topography of Arkansas is certainly an asset in crafting a world-class trail system compared to neighboring states. Our climate is also a major advantage in competing with other mountain biking destinations. Riders can visit Northwest Arkansas to experience our trails essentially year-round, when other locations are covered in snow and unavailable for mountain bikers. Every season has something to offer here.”