Pennsylvania parks: You don't have to rough it unless you want to

Overnight visitors to state parks have a variety of lodging options

There was a time when staying overnight in a state park meant climbing into a pup tent and unrolling a sleeping bag.

Not anymore.

In response to changing tastes and expectations, the Bureau of State Parks has broadened the types of accommodations available in 60 of the state’s 120 parks, education centers and natural areas. Places to stay range from basic rustic cabins with outdoor plumbing to inns with comfy perks that include breakfast.

Those who stay overnight in the state’s parks include “families, lots of couples, some groups of friends. Some come every year at the same time. Their ages range from 4 years to 94 years,” said Kimberly Peck, an environmental education specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Fewer are tent camping and more and more come with high-quality campers. With that, we tend to get people who stay longer, maybe a week, which is nice because they get more of a feel for the parks.”

In 2013, overnight stays in state parks totaled 1.64 million. Of those, 1.41 million were in campgrounds, according to David Sariano, director of marketing for the Bureau of State Parks, which is a division of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The average length of time that overnight visitors stay is 2.4 days.

Revenue from lodging has been increasing over the past decade, Mr. Sariano wrote in an email. Fees from overnight stays make up about 14 percent of the bureau’s operating budget, with about 5 percent of that coming from cabins and the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park in Centre County.

Cabins designated as rustic provide basic shelter and have outdoor plumbing, while more recently built “modern cabins” have indoor showers and toilets. Camping cottages are also pretty basic. Deluxe cottages and yurts — round, soft-sided structures on wooden platforms — have a cooking stove, refrigerator and table. All three have nearby restrooms. Lodges have bathrooms and kitchen facilities and often fireplaces and decks.

Two parks now have inns, both of which are operated as bed-and-breakfasts. The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park opened in 2010. The Inn at Cook Forest is in Cook Forest State Park which straddles Clarion, Forest and Jefferson counties. The Cook family homestead, built circa 1870, opened as a park facility in 2012 and may be rented by the room or in its entirety. It offers what is described as a “gourmet breakfast” and Wi-Fi.

Within the different types of accommodation, there’s a lot of variety.

The Hufman Lodge in Laurel Hill State Park in Somerset County sleeps 14 and has a large fireplace, deck and cathedral ceiling. It frequently accommodates inter-generational family gatherings.

“It’s highly sought after,” said Ms. Peck, who is based at Laurel Hill. “It’s in a very secluded part of the park, and you feel you have it all to yourself.”

The cabins at Kooser, also in Somerset County, are desirable for a different reason. “They were built by the CCC boys,” Ms. Peck said, referring to the thousands of unemployed men who enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1932 and 1942. “The craftsmanship is incredible. Each is unique. They’re still standing. So many of the [men] speak proudly of the work that they did.”

She suggests that people explore park sites during day trips to determine where they may want to stay in the future. Lodging reservations may be made up to 11 months in advance.

In addition to Pennsylvania residents, the parks attract people from neighboring Maryland and Ohio and from the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas, Ms. Peck said.

One couple, a husband and wife, come every year from Maryland, she said. They had honeymooned in the Ligonier area and return annually on their anniversary. They’ve joined Ms. Peck for recreation programs on kayaking, biking and hiking.

“They’re celebrating their anniversary but learning something every year,’’ Ms. Peck said. ”They say they like the ruralness and the exceptional customer service in our parks.”

Making sure that visitors have good experiences is essential, Ms. Peck said. “Word of mouth is huge for us.”

Out-of-state, overnight visitors make up an average of 20 percent of state park guests, Mr. Sariano said.

The average age is 49, with 19.7 percent in the 18-to-35 age group; 31.4 percent, 36 to 50; 34.5 percent, 51-64; and 14.5 percent, 65 and older. Of those, 64.4 percent are male and 35.6 percent female. The demographic has been consistent over the past decade.

In addition to changing expectations for lodging, Ms. Peck has noticed a change in the kinds of programming visitors prefer. “More are looking for a guided experience in our parks,” said Ms. Peck, who has been a parks educator for 10 years. Those experiences include recreation programs such as hiking, backpacking, kayaking and canoeing, all of which also weave in educational information.

“For example, a class on learning how to kayak introduces the sport’s skills but also talks about the waterway they are on, its history, why it was built, what it is used for,’’ Ms. Peck said.

Whether people stay for one night or two weeks, Ms. Peck said, the goal is that they return home with an appreciation for the beauty of nature and maybe some lessons about the environment that they can apply in their own backyards.

Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.

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