Many Montanans are seeking outdoor adventures close to home right now, and state parks provide a great destination. And the early-season numbers are huge.

Keeping state parks across Montana open is a daunting task for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. But 2020 is proving to be a particular challenge given increased visitation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitation at Montana State Parks has increased through March and April, with some parks seeing summer level crowds on the weekends. According to estimates reported across the state park system, overall visitation in March increased by more than 60 percent compared with March of last year. A total of 151,911 individuals were estimated to have visited a state park in March of 2020, compared with 94,648 and 94,657 visitors in March 2019 and 2018, respectively.

When official April and May numbers come out, it is pretty likely that there will be even a greater increase. Some outdoor recreation enthusiasts will just have to accept that there are going to be more people in their "secluded" little hideaways. With warmer weather on the horizon and most campgrounds now open, the demand isn’t expected to diminish in the near future. Visitors to fishing access sites and state parks should remember to practice social distancing and leave-no-trace principles, including packing out all trash.

Some of the sites that have seen even more dramatic increases include Lake Elmo, Pictograph Cave, Travelers’ Rest, Whitefish Lake, Flathead Lake, Frenchtown Pond, Madison Buffalo Jump, Giant Springs and Missouri Headwaters. Visitors to fishing access sites and state parks should remember to practice social distancing and leave-no-trace principles, including packing out all trash.