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‘Unprecedented’ surge in visitors at forest preserves, natural areas during pandemic

Friday, June 19, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Patrick M. O'Connell

Coronavirus restrictions and safety guidelines have motivated Illinois residents to seek the great outdoors. State parks, forest preserves and nature areas have been popular destinations for people searching for open space, a place to exercise, quiet time or a respite from the indoor pandemic routine.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County experienced “unprecedented levels of visitors for April and May, compared to a typical spring,” spokesman Carl Vogel said.

“At Busse Woods, on a few warm weekends in April we were seeing crowds like we see on a Fourth of July weekend,” Vogel said via email. With the exception of the wet periods of May, there has been a steady flow of cyclists, runners and walkers throughout the system, Vogel said, with weekdays looking more like weekends in terms of numbers of visitors at the most popular sites.

With open, free entrances, the forest preserves do not have a way to tally precise attendance numbers. But Vogel added the preserves’ website figures set daily records in mid-April — more than three times the amount ever recorded — as people sought information on the region’s outdoor parks.

The surge in popularity led the forest preserves to put weekend parking closures in place at six preserves in order to ensure safety and social distancing. Those remain in effect. Grills and coolers still are not allowed during phase three, nor is setting up sports equipment such as goals, nets or cones.

For those looking for a more extended stay in the woods, four of the five Forest Preserves of Cook County campgrounds are open, with capacity restrictions. They opened June 4.

Camp Reinberg, Camp Sullivan, Camp Shabbona Woods and Camp Bullfrog Lake are available for tent campers and cabin use from Thursday through Sunday and throughout the week for RVs. Camp Dan Beard in Northbrook, designed mostly for open group camping, remains closed.

All five spots at Camp Reinberg, in Palatine, are booked every week. The four campgrounds have been 80% full since reopening at the beginning of the month. Vogel said the reservation line has been swamped, with RV spots in particular demand.

Other preserves and facilities within the Cook County system remain closed or have coronavirus restrictions. Nature center buildings and grounds are closed, as are aquatic centers and the Swallow Cliff stairs in near Palos Park. Vogel said officials are working on plans for reopening.

There is no penalty for rescheduling or canceling campsite reservations at Cook County campgrounds scheduled through Sept. 7. Call 855-YES-CAMP (855-937-2267) or email info@cookcountycamping.com to reschedule or receive a refund.

All Illinois Department of Natural Resources camping facilities are open, unless construction unrelated to coronavirus alters access.

The influx of visitors to the state’s most popular state park, Starved Rock, about 95 miles southwest of Chicago near the junction interstates 80 and 39, and nearby Matthiessen State Park, has led to overcrowding. Park officials have had to close the parks when they reach capacity.

Starved Rock’s south entrance on Illinois Route 71 and the west entrance on Illinois Route 178 are open. The popularity of the park has caused traffic congestion on the state routes and nearby Interstate 80 and conservation officers urged visitors to seek alternative routes to the area.

IDNR recommends that people arriving from eastbound Interstate 80 exit the highway at Ottawa, cross the Illinois River and use Illinois Route 71 to access the park. Motorists also can exit southbound on Interstate 39 and take the Illinois Route 71 exit at Oglesby.

IDNR conservation police officers said there has been an increase in people illegally parking along the roads at Starved Rock and Mattheissen. Those visitors then walk in the middle of roads to get to trails, leading to increased traffic congestion. IDNR cautioned that violators risk having their vehicles towed.

Park visits tend to surge on weekends between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. If the parks are closed, nearby alternatives are Buffalo Rock State Park in Ottawa or Illini State Park in Marseilles.



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