story by Aric Mitchell
Editor’s note: This is part of a series on fourth quarter (fall) tourism in Arkansas. The Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism estimated that tourism and travel was a $5.68 billion industry in Arkansas during 2011. Although it may not be the peak tourism season, the travel and tourism operations don’t shut down in the fall and winter months.
Arkansas State Parks are gearing up for winter, but for employees, it's business as usual. Winter turnout generally trails behind spring break through the end of November, officials said, but turnout is "more pronounced."
"Some of our parks won't get as much involvement for wintertime activities due to remoteness, especially some of our fishing parks, but parks like ourselves and Petit Jean and Mount Magazine will have a more year-round steady flow of customers," said Monte Fuller, parks superintendent of Devil's Den State Park.
Fuller, a 30-year veteran of Arkansas State Parks, added that "year-round activities have become more prominent, in my experience, in the last fifteen to twenty years."
"When the Interstate was completed, that made Devil's Den much easier than it was before (to get to). We went from 13 miles away from the nearest thoroughfare to seven. We're lucky here in that we have a built-in population base, and through the years, we've noticed people are coming more and more," Fuller said.
Stephanie Reno, park office manager at Devil's Den, said "overall we stay pretty busy. We're open 365 days per year, and there's very little downtime here. Usually up to about Thanksgiving weekend, we're 100% reserved, and while they (park visitors) are still with us, they'll make reservations for the next year."
On the calendar side, Devil's Den will feature a busy November with a total of 29 events and programs planned during the 30-day period. From there, the calendar scales back until March, though according to park interpreter Rebekah Penny, "We will probably take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which takes place from Feb. 15 to Feb. 18."
The GBBC, gearing up for its sixteenth annual event, invites participants to "tally the number of individual birds of each species they see during their count period" and report their findings online to help scientists keep track of dynamic bird populations, according to the GBBC website.
"We’ll continue programming throughout the winter offering hikes and talks," Penny added.
Despite the light scheduling, Devil's Den features 17 cabins and 143 campsites, according to the Arkansas State Parks website, which are available daily throughout the winter months. As such, occupancy rates for November 2011 were 62% for cabins and 23% camping. In December 2011, numbers declined to 47% cabins and 3% camping.
Occupancy in the cabins bottomed out in January 2012 with 35%, while camping remained consistent with the previous month at 4%, and activity increased in February 2012 to 44% cabins and 4% camping.
LAKE FORT SMITH
Lake Fort Smith State Park followed a similar pattern with its two lodges and 30 campsites. On the lodge side, the park witnessed 35% occupancy in November 2011, 37.1% occupancy in December 2011, 24.2% in January 2012 and 46.6% in February 2012.
Campsite occupancy tracked at 41.3% in November 2011, 8.8% in December 2011, 6.1% in January 2012 and 6.6% in February 2012.
"With winter programs, it's obviously hard to plan outdoor activities with any degree of confidence whether they're going to happen," said Lake Fort Smith State Park interpreter Joe Hamilton. "But we still schedule hikes. One of our biggest is the New Year's Day first-day hike, which is something going through all the different state parks this year."
Hamilton said most of the activities at Lake Fort Smith would be "indoor activities."
Lake Fort Smith will feature a busy November, but Hamilton admits "December, January and February is not a very busy time."
Still, Hamilton said, the park is planning to show "nature films interpreting animals you would see here – bears, raccoons, beavers – things of that nature."
"We'll also have children’s crafts, a lot of those are also nature oriented. We’ll do a bit more historical interpretation and will do some programming on the first settlers in this area dating back to the 1820s," Hamilton said.
Lake Fort Smith's major events for the break include the New Year's Day Hike on Jan. 1 and a video editing workshop on Dec. 1 to teach visitors how to "import photos and video into editing software, sequence and edit video, add transitions, special effects, and music, create DVD menus, and burn DVDs of the finished product" using raw footage, according to the Arkansas State Parks website.
Aside from these events the calendar is bare, but Hamilton expects a busier 2013 thanks in part to the installation of 10 new cabins "we hope will be ready to open by the first of the year." The cabins will consist of five 1-bedroom units and five 2-bedroom units to complement the aforementioned lodges, which hold capacity of 28 and 32, Hamilton said.
Growing interest in the Arkansas State Parks system has led to year-round availability to the public and is fueled by more than $5.687 billion in statewide 2011 travel expenditures, according to an economic report from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.
Northwest Arkansas, which includes Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington counties accounted for $724.416 million of that total while the Western Arkansas Mountain Frontier, which consists of Crawford, Franklin, Logan (West), Polk, Scott and Sebastian counties added $426.167 million.
The full calendar of events and programs for the 52 state parks are available at the Arkansas State Parks website.