PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon set a new record for the number of campers at state parks last year, and the number of day-use visitors was the second-highest ever, according to a report by the state's Parks and Recreation Department.
The report said 2.9 million people camped at a state park in 2018 and 54 million people in total visited a park, the second-highest number ever after a blockbuster summer season in 2016 that attracted 54.5 million visitors, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported Wednesday.
Coastal parks saw the biggest gain in campers. Fort Stevens, South Beach and Bullards Beach — all along the Pacific Ocean — together accounted for more than half of the growth in overnight visits. They collectively attracted 59,300 campers last year, the newspaper said.
The camping season is also spreading beyond the traditional busy summer months. Crowds have begun to come to camp in the spring and well into the fall, filling yurts and cabins on rainy days, and taking advantage of months with unseasonably warm weather.
"The camping season is stretching itself," state parks spokesman Chris Havel said. "The peak time is getting longer and longer."
Smaller state park campgrounds also saw big growth, from Viento in the Columbia River Gorge to Lake Owyhee in eastern Oregon. Tiny Jackson F. Kimball State Recreation Site in southern Oregon saw the highest percent increase, with an additional 557 campers that added up to a 64 percent increase.
Those increases at smaller campgrounds are exactly what the parks department is looking for. Last year, the department launched a new initiative to decrease camping fees at less-popular state parks, hoping to spread out the growing crowds.
Havel said it seems to have worked, so in 2019 the department will implement a one-month trial of increased camping fees at a few of the more popular parks, which could offset the discounts if made permanent.
As more people move to Oregon, the agency is working hard to accommodate increased demand.
The department's budget is funded by fees it collects, as well as slices of state lottery earnings and RV registrations.
Ninety percent of state park sites are currently free of charge - but Havel told the newspaper that park officials aren't considering adding fees in those locations. Part of the ethos of Oregon state parks is ensuring that these natural public spaces are accessible for everybody.
"We like seeing a nice, broad equitable system like that, but how do you fund it?" Havel said. "I don't know. We haven't answered that question yet."
For now, this year's visitors can help by cleaning up trash, maintaining a neat campsite and being careful with campfires to reduce maintenance costs.