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State parks: Watkins up, Keuka down some

    WATKINS GLEN—“We had a banner year last year and I think we’re matching it this year.”

    That’s the comment from Tim Joseph, regional director for New York State Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation for Watkins Glen park attendance. Actually, visitor results through Sept. 6 for this year are up some 6 percent for Watkins Glen.
    For all of 2010, Watkins Glen State Park saw 482,401 visitors. From January through Sept. 6 of 2011, the numbers are 410,483. For the same months last year, the number was 387,033.
Camping use is always popular, particularly during event weekends like the races at Watkins Glen International. “When the races are in Watkins Glen, the camping will be full but day use will be way down because no one wants to deal with the traffic to get to the park,” Joseph says.
    Watkins Glen State Park manager Joe Rychick is experiencing his first Watkins Glen State Park summer. His previous experience was at Allegany State Park, about 50 miles south of Buffalo, where there’s a great deal of camping. And while many people come to Watkins Glen State park to camp, “The amount of day use is surprising,” Rychick says. “There’s a lot of people who come through this park.” In fact, the average visitor spends only about two hours in the Watkins Glen State Park, mostly admiring the gorge.
    “We have a lot of tour buses come in,” he says. “Some are on their way to New York City. There are a lot of people who don’t even speak English. But people really love the gorge tours.”
    Day use took a sharp drop with the threat of Hurricane Irene. “Not campers, so much,” Rychick explains. “But one day we had easily 250 tickets sold, the day of the storm, only 32.”
    Each state park is a little different; traffic at Watkins Glen State Park slows down around Columbus Day but the gorge—with admission charged for parking—remains open for daily use until early November, when the weather begins to turn. When things slow down, Rychick plans on maintenance and improvements; among these will be the addition of 10 cabins for use in the park next year.
    At Keuka Lake State Park in 2010 the attendance totals came in at 94,676. This year, the numbers are down 3 percent through Sept. 6. In 2011, Keuka had 73,726 visitors (January–Sept 6) and last year in the same time period the number was 76,061. Park Manager Jim Zimpfer said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect from the continuing economic slowdown. While campground use traditionally slacks off noticeably by mid-August, this year we have continued to be busy.”
    Keuka Lake State Park gets some spillover business from NASCAR and other racing events and they routinely host visitors from far-flung locales, but “Most customers are from the Rochester and Buffalo areas, and from Pennsylvania,” he says. “Another thing that brings people is our wineries. They use the campground as their home base and then go out and tour the area.” Considering that renting a campsite costs 1/4 or less than the price of a hotel room, this gives tourists the opportunity to spend more money as they taste and explore their way through the Finger Lakes.
    Even inclement weather doesn’t daunt seasoned campers. “It’s kind of funny,” Zimpfer says. “Everyone was a little anxious about the storm [Hurricane Irene], wondering how much it would influence us. The winds got a little high, we got a little light rain and weird looking clouds going through.” But in fact, the park had its major storm event the Wednesday before Irene’s debut, when a wind storm with micro-bursts knocked down a bunch of trees, setting park workers the headache of dealing with downed wood.
    Zimpfer says the park has substantially progressed in the amenities it offers—which he’s particularly aware of because he began his park service career here in 1973. Back then he was planting trees and doing general labor in the park, before being promoted to work in and manage other parks throughout New York State. When he came back to manage Keuka Lake State Park in 2004, it was a return to his roots in a variety of ways. The campground areas, for instance, are now much improved by the shade and privacy of the trees he planted almost 40 years ago.
    From Labor day through mid-October, weekday visitors to Keuka Lake State Park may come in for free—parking/admission fees will be collected only on weekends. Most State Parks are open for camping through mid-October—and camping fees are collected whenever the campgrounds are used. Find more information at


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