Preserve Visitor Trends in Pandemic Times

A Blog Story About Nature in Our DuPage Forest Preserves

Preserve Visitor Trends in Pandemic Times

Posted by Forest Preserve District of DuPage County | 12/2/21 11:11 AM

A surge in visitors and use of DuPage forest preserves that started during the pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down.

“The spike in attendance in 2020 was driven by the pandemic and a rediscovered human need to be outdoors, whether that was for exercise, safe socialization or psychological well-being,” said Anamari Dorgan, director of community engagement services at the Forest Preserve District. “The preserves were very well-loved in 2020.”

More than 6.2 million people visited DuPage forest preserves in 202, compared to 4.6 million in 2019.


The phenomenon wasn’t unique to DuPage County, Dorgan said. Other area forest preserves experienced the same high attendance and same use, and it wasn’t unique to forest preserves.

“We all saw nationwide as bicycles flew off the store shelves and golf dramatically increased in popularity,” Dorgan said. “We all saw how many people in our neighborhood had dogs as they all literally flocked to the streets in 2020.”

Dorgan recently provided a snapshot of preserve attendance and how people are using DuPage forest preserves.



Preserve Attendance

The District counts preserve visitors with car counters at 32 of its 60 forest preserves. Some preserves don’t have parking lots, and foot traffic is not counted, so the total actual preserve attendance is probably higher than the numbers shown.


45 car counters in 32 preserves

2018 year-to-date ending 8/31 1,391,820
2019 year-to-date ending 8/31 1,582,712
2020 year-to-date ending 8/31 2,071,547
2021 year-to-date ending 8/31 2,157,661

Looking at overall attendance through Aug. 31 of each year going back to 2018, the growth is evident, Dorgan said. Based on raw car counts, DuPage forest preserves are currently up more than 86,000 cars year to date 2021 over 2020, and 575,000 over 2019. “I think that’s an incredible leap from 2018 to 2021,” she said.



Big 5 Preserves

Based on car counts, the five most popular DuPage forest preserves are Herrick Lake, Blackwell, Greene Valley, Waterfall Glen and Hidden Lake. The car counts do not include cars parked outside forest preserves, which is especially important with Waterfall Glen, where many visitors park along the roadside outside the preserve.

Dorgan also said it was notable that Hidden Lake’s visitors nearly tripled between 2018 and 2020.

“It’s very interesting that we have high attendance in two of our smaller preserves (Hidden Lake and Herrick Lake),” she said.

  2018 2019 2020 2021 4-year total Acres
Herrick Lake 105,088 99,571 188,129 176,707 569,495 887
Blackwell 111,691 105,562 177,884 155,984 551,121 1,366
Greene Valley 118,885 120,917 122,834 145,241 507,877 1,388
Waterfall Glen 113,948 118,647 123,175 122,823 478,593
Hidden Lake 52,891 92,159
153,485 116,265 414,800 390

Even before the pandemic, the combined visitor counts at the “Big 5” accounted for about one-third of all preserve visitation, Dorgan said.


Percent of total visitation

2018 YTD 8/31 2019 YTD 8/31 2020 YTD 8/31 2021 YTD 8/31
36% 31% 33% 33%



How People Used the Preserves

The Forest Preserve District’s six visitor centers and two boat rental facilities were closed during the pandemic in 2020, but people found many other ways to enjoy DuPage forest preserves during that time. A look at permit sales and reservations show what popular activities really gained traction in 2020.


Private Watercraft Permits

2018 YTD 8/31 2019 YTD 8/31 2020 YTD 8/31 2021 YTD 8/31
720 880 2,026 1,778

Four DuPage forest preserve lakes remained open to private watercraft during the pandemic—Silver Lake at Blackwell, Round Meadow Lake at Hidden Lake, Mallard Lake and Deep Quarry Lake at West Branch.

“Sales of private watercraft permits increased dramatically in 2020,” Dorgan said. “Even though they have dipped a bit, you can see that we’re still double over what 2019 private watercraft permits were.”



Off-Leash Dog Area Permits

2018 YTD 8/31 2019 YTD 8/31 2020 YTD 8/31 2021 YTD 8/31
6,998 6,670 6,338 8,455

The District operates off-leash dog areas at seven DuPage forest preserves: Blackwell, East Branch, Greene Valley, Hawk Hollow, Mayslake, Oldfield Oaks and Springbrook Prairie.

There was a dramatic increase in off-leash dog permit sales – up 2,100 permits from 2020 to 2021. The District extended 2020 permits through Jan. 2021 to decrease the “in-person crush in Visitor Services in early December,” Dorgan said.

“As a result, we did sell more permits in January of this year over the prior January. That said, the increase is still dramatic, and I don’t think that extension accounts for that increase,” Dorgan said. “We are seeing how well-loved those off-leash areas are, and we are seeing heavier use and have had to make some operational adjustments.”

In spring and fall 2021, the District paid an outside company to clean up dog waste at all 7 off-leash areas.



Archery Permits

2019 * YTD 8/31 2020 YTD 8/31 2021 YTD 8/31
364 587 894

Archery permits were introduced in mid-2019 and have been on the increase ever since. “The outdoor archery range at Blackwell Forest Preserve is a unique amenity and archery has been increasing in popularity,” Dorgan said.


Picnic Shelter Permits

  2018 YTD 8/31 2019 YTD 8/31 2020 YTD 8/31 2021 YTD 8/31
Made 856 920 457 1,167
Occurred 741 777 210 879

Picnic shelter permit sales show the public enjoys coming out and recreating with their family members at family picnics and reunions. The public can reserve picnic shelters up to one year in advance, so numbers are shown for both.

The numbers were down in 2020 because picnics weren’t allowed for part of the year due to COVID. “If we take 2020 out because of the skew and the limitations that we had, you can see the significant increase we had from 2018 to 2021 in both categories,” Dorgan said.


Family Campground Reservations

  2018 YTD 8/31 2019 YTD 8/31 2020 YTD 8/31 2021 YTD 8/31
Made 1,383 633 1,119 1,737
Occurred 1,269 640 680 1,432

The public can also make reservations up to one year in advance at the Blackwell family campground, so numbers are shown for both. In 2019 work on the nearby Spring Brook restoration project resulted in some campground closures, and the campground opened late in the season in 2020 due to the pandemic.

“That said, when you compared 2018 to 2021, reservations and stays show an increase, and of note is the number of reservations made in 2020 as people were clamoring to get outside and waiting for us to reopen,” Dorgan said.

The District may need to explore whether to expand camping days due to increased demand, which would impact staffing, Dorgan said. “In the past demand was never significant enough to offset the expense, but we might need to pilot some incremental expansion a few weekends next year to reassess with a new lens,” she said.

“As evident by the increases in all the permitted categories, there continues to be this increased demand for services that we provide, and an increased expectation of clean and safe preserves,” Dorgan said.



Total Greens Fees Sold

2019  2020 * 2021 
66,700 85,800 95,700

* Courses opened May-June with limitations, fully reopened in July

“People were clamoring for golf in 2020 and 2021,” Dorgan said. “This includes many people who were looking for new ways to recreate outdoors. Even though there was a delayed opening and state-mandated restrictions until July in 2020, the numbers are staggering and continued to grow in 2021.”



Farmhouse Tours at Kline Creek Farm

2019 * 6/13-9/21 2020 ** 6/13-9/21 2021 6/13-9/21
2,435 0 2,422

* 2019 total farmhouse tours = 6,998
* Farmhouse closed to the public all of 2020

The farmhouse at Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago reopened on June 13 in 2021, and the numbers show people are not being deterred by the mask mandate, Dorgan said.



What the Future Holds

“We still don’t know what 2022 will look like. As staff prepared for 2021, we imagined a year of transition and leveling off,” Dorgan said. “Instead, it became really another year of pandemic with a slightly different look and feel, and to a large degree, just as much uncertainty. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I really don’t anticipate a return to 2018 and 2019 visitation and use.”

“Now that people have found DuPage forest preserves and discovered how valuable it is to be outdoors, I don’t think we’re going to go back to prior years,” she said.

“We’ll continue to work through the operational implications as we move forward with an understanding that this dramatic increase in visitation, and demand for clean and safe preserves and enhanced amenities will continue,” Dorgan said.



Topics: Insider, Trails, Health and wellness, Recreation, Volunteer, Take 5, Camping

Written by Forest Preserve District of DuPage County

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County welcomes more than 6.2 million visitors a year; and manages nearly 26,000 acres in 60 forest preserves containing prairies, woodlands and wetlands.