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While Virginia State Parks as a whole reached a record attendance in of 8.07 million last year — a 7 percent increase over 2009 — visitors to the New River Trail State Park dropped.
There were 54,288 fewer visitors in 2010, down from 960,096 the previous year.
The New River Trail — a 57-mile-long former Norfolk & Western railroad bed that stretches from Galax to Pulaski — is still the second-most-visited state park, behind First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach.
There are several reasons for the decline, said Jim Elliott, assistant park manager. One of the biggest is that a section of the trail was closed between December 2009 and December 2010 for construction at the Gambetta tunnel.
Many hikers, cyclists and horseback riders who use that section of the trail didn't visit during 2010, which resulted in a decline at the entrances at Cliffview, Fries and Dannelly Park, said Elliott. In fact, he estimates that traffic counts were 40 percent lower at the Cliffview entrance in 2010 than in 2009.
However, the Galax entrance off U.S. 58 brings in more visitors than any other section of the trail in the Twin County area, accounting for about 50 percent, he said.
In fact, Galax was within 100 people of having the same visitation from 2009 to 2010.
“When we have decent weather in the winter, we still have a number that come out to the trail,” said Elliott. “But with bad weather last year, the trail had a decline in visitors from January to March.”
Even though bikers, walkers and horseback riders declined during those months, Elliot said the trail brought in a different user group — cross-country skiers.
Also, high heat during July and August last year contributed to the decline in users.
Located in Galax and Grayson, Carroll, Wythe and Pulaski counties, the trail has about a $15 million overall economic impact.
Statewide, the overall economic impact of state parks is more than $189 million, up from $175 million in 2009 and $168 million in 2008.
Virginia State Parks officials figure that daytime visitors spend an average of $16 per day and $75 per overnight visitor.
“However, the reason Virginia State Parks overall has been seeing a record in visitors is because of the economy,” Elliot said. “People aren't taking large vacations and are staying closer to home.”
It's not only the economy that keeps them closer to home. More people are noticing the nearby beauty.
“It's the attractiveness of the parks, and we're providing more programs for people to do, such as horse rentals on the New River Trail,” said Jim Meisner, public relations specialist for Virginia State Parks. “Our parks provide an affordable alternative to the economic climate.”
Meisner noted that Virginia had more visitors to the state parks than the total population of Virginia — 8,070,000 million visitors compared to about 8,001,000 million residents.
This state record comes as the state park system prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2011. On June 15, 1936, Virginia became the first state to open an entire state park system when Gov. George C. Peery oversaw the opening ceremonies at Hungry Mother State Park in Marion.
“Governor Peery spoke of a state park system that would provide recreation for all Virginians and attract tourists from other states,” Gov. Bob McDonnell said. “The Virginia State Parks continue to be a premier tourism destination. Today, visitors from around the country and the Commonwealth travel each year by the millions to enjoy our unparalleled natural beauty.”
McDonnell said the economic impact of state park visitors can’t be over-emphasized. “State park visitors contribute to local and state economies when they buy food or camping supplies, when they visit local restaurants, shops and attractions, and when they buy gas during the drive. From rural areas of Virginia to major urban areas, all Virginians benefit from attendance at state parks.”
The Virginia park system opened with six state parks. Today there are 35.
Park attendance in 1936 was just under 91,000.
Last year also marked the first time Virginia State Parks hosted more than one million overnight guests, with 1,022,698 people staying in cabins and campsites.
Increases in state park attendance directly impacts local economies across the Commonwealth.
The 35 award-winning Virginia State Parks are managed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“It’s exciting to see so many people enjoying Virginia’s Parks,” said Doug Domenech, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources. “These attendance and spending figures demonstrate that investments in our natural resources can pay tremendous economic dividends across the Commonwealth.”
DCR Director David Johnson said record-high attendance and overnight visitation serve as exciting springboards into the year-long celebration of the 75th anniversary.
“When the six Virginia State Parks opened in 1936, they served as a model for state parks nationwide. Our parks continue to do so today,” Johnson said.
“Virginia is blessed to have dedicated and professional state park employees who strive to provide excellent customer service and good stewardship of Virginia’s many natural and cultural treasures.”
Johnson said Virginia State Parks provide quality, affordable outdoor recreation while preserving Virginia’s unique landscapes and scenic beauty. “We intend to celebrate this significant milestone all year and invite every Virginian to join us.”
• For more information about state park anniversary activities or to make reservations in a cabin or campsite, call the Virginia State Parks Reservation Center at (800) 933-PARK or visit www.virginiastateparks.gov.