If you want to camp at a state park this holiday weekend, you may want to head there soon. High water levels have closed some campgrounds and increased competition for campsites.
“We still have a lot of campsites, both primitive and utility,” said Seth Turner, El Dorado State Park manager. “But if you want your pick of sites, you need to get to them. Otherwise, you’ll get whatever is left this weekend.”
As he toured the state park on Monday morning, Turner pointed out how areas where camping sites are first-come, first-served were starting to fill in anticipation of the weekend. He said many had probably camped at the park last weekend and are paying the daily rate through the week to keep a favored spot reserved.
Turner also stopped to look where acres of water covered choice sites.
“We’re 5 feet (above normal) with all the rain we’ve had,” said Turner, a park employee since 1999. “I can’t remember ever having it this wet, with this much water on our campgrounds, going into Memorial Day.”
Popular Boulder Bluff campsites are closed because of flooding, as are some campsites at Bluestem Point, Turner said.
The timing of the recent high water – on Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of the summer camping season – couldn’t be worse, state park officials say. On a good Memorial Day weekend, Turner said, the El Dorado park might host up to 70,000 people. Even with bad weather last year, about 40,000 people used the park.
Many state parks face flooding problems.
“El Dorado and Cheney are high, as are Elk City and Cross Timbers (at Toronto Reservoir), and we’ve had flooding up at Tuttle Creek and Milford,” said Linda Lanterman, state park director for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
“This weekend can be huge for us,” she said. “It’s the first of the big three holiday weekends, with the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Between those three, it’s where we sometimes get two-thirds of our revenue.”
State park staff members have been working to contact campers who reserved sites within campgrounds now closed for the weekend. Some reservations can be switched to another campsite for the weekend, and some campers may take the option of rescheduling for another time, Lanterman said. If needed, parks will issue refunds.
Turner said it could be several weeks before water levels are normal at El Dorado. Even then, campers shouldn’t expect to immediately go into places that are now closed.
“That’s the thing some people don’t realize,” said Turner. “Once the water’s down, it can be three weeks of work for us to get things ready again, cleaning up the debris, smoothing things out around the campgrounds. We’ll have to put our electrical boxes back together. It takes time.”
Park officials optimistic
Turner and Lanterman hope for good attendance this coming weekend, which has a chance of scattered thunderstorms Saturday morning. Even if it rains, Turner said, visitors at the El Dorado park will come back as soon as the weather breaks. About three weekends ago, the weather was nice and the park “got absolutely slammed” with day use traffic.
Last summer, there were several nice weekends when visitation rivaled some holiday weekends. Even with a rainy spring and summer, last year’s annual attendance of around 900,000 visitors is one of the best years since Turner became park manager in 2009.
Lanterman thinks all will be well for the parks, even with some prime campsites unavailable over a holiday weekend. The parks appear to be gaining in popularity, and revenue is increasing. The past several years have seen both annual income and attendance climb steadily, often by double digits.
“You have to go back to 2011 to see a decrease,” she said. “We’ve been through these kinds of things before. I just stay optimistic about it and know things will change and we’ll pull through.”
One thing that’s unknown is how campers will react to price increases that began Jan. 1. Lanterman said the cost of day-use permits rose from as low as $7 to $10 a day. Annual camping fees increased from $150 for off-season (October-March) and $200 for prime season to $200 and $250, respectively.
Here’s a look at the conditions of the four state parks closest to Wichita.
Cheney State Park: Dana Smith of Cheney State Park said several popular campgrounds will be totally or partially closed this weekend. Heimerman Point, M and M Point and Hobie Beach campgrounds are closed. About half of Wichita Point campground will be closed.
“We’re about 3 1/2 feet over regular, and that’s a lot since Cheney is a flat lake,” said Smith, who has worked summers at the park for 29 years. “That’s especially true on the east side of the lake.”
All of the campsites with utilities are already full or reserved, Smith said.
Cross Timbers State Park: Kim Jones, Cross Timbers State Park manager, said Toronto Reservoir is about 17 feet high, but only the Holiday Hills campground is closed because water is over the road.
“People can launch boats from the roadways if they’re really careful,” said Jones. “Overall we’re doing OK over here.”
El Dorado State Park: Boulder Bluff campground is expected to be closed, as will parts of Bluestem Point campgrounds – portions of No. 2 and all of campgrounds Nos. 3 and 4. All of the boat ramps in the state park are usable, with great care. Turner recommends the No. 1 boat ramp in the Shady Creek area. Docks can be used, but people will have to wade through water to get to the walkways that lead to them. Turner cautions boaters, at all lakes, to watch for floating debris washed into the reservoirs by recent high water.
Fall River State Park: Adam Murray, Fall River State Park ranger, said the lake has been about 16 feet high, but only a few primitive campsites have been flooded. Some boat ramps are closed, but the ramps in Quarry Bay and Engineer’s Cove should be operational.