Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation In the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, record numbers of people “stayed home” in tents, campers and RVs they took with them to Tennessee’s state parks, according to a report by Ben Benton at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Camping in the last two months of 2020 reached historic highs in state-run parks, according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation that oversees them. Four of the top 10 camping months ever in state parks happened in 2020, most likely driven by visitors seeking the outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, TDEC Commissioner Jim Bryson attributed the surge to the search for well-being.

“The impact of COVID-19 simply underscores a growing awareness that the outdoors are a sanctuary for mental and physical health,” he said. “The appeal of louder, busier, and crowded entertainment venues has given way to the space, freedom and connection the outdoors provide.”

Three Southeast Tennessee state parks — Fall Creek Falls State Park near Pikeville, Harrison Bay State Park in Chattanooga and Tims Ford State Park in Winchester — were among the top four for visitations in the state this fall.

“In October 2020, Fall Creek Falls, Harrison Bay and Tims Ford State Parks were in the top four for campsite nights sold at Tennessee State Parks,” TDEC spokesperson Eric Ward said Wednesday. “In November 2020, these three parks were in the top five for campsite nights sold at Tennessee State Parks.”

Those parks set statewide marks in November, too.

“Harrison Bay and Fall Creek Falls had the highest occupancy in all of Tennessee State Park campgrounds for November,” Ward said. “All three of these parks are very popular for camping, but Fall Creek Falls is consistently the most in-demand park for camping and has the greatest number of available sites.”

Tennessee State Parks operates more than 3,000 campsites, ranging from RV sites with full hookups to backcountry spots deep in the woods.

Statewide, Tennessee parks saw 62,124 nights of camping in October, which notches a one-month record for camping stays in the system and tops the mark of 57,472 nights set in June this year, according to state figures.

TDEC officials said November tallied 36,000 camping nights sold, the highest number for that month ever and exceeding November 2019 by 15,000 nights.

In July 2020, there were 56,033 camping nights sold in Tennessee, which makes June, July and October of this year the top three months ever recorded, officials said. There were 48,350 camping nights sold in September, making it the sixth-best month ever. The November total for 2020 was the overall 32nd best month ever, according to state figures.

Many Tennessee residents stayed in their home state and camped nearby.

In October at Chattanooga’s Harrison Bay State Park, camping visitors were from Cleveland, Chattanooga, Harrison and Ooltewah in Tennessee, and Ringgold, Georgia, Ward said. At Tims Ford State Park in Winchester, visitors using campsites and cabins were from the park’s hometown, as well as from Murfreesboro, Fayetteville, Nashville and Tullahoma. Campers and cabin guests at Fall Creek Falls were from Nashville, Knoxville, Murfreesboro, Sparta and Woodbury, he said.

For visitors to Tennessee’s largest and most-visited Fall Creek Falls State Park on the Bledsoe-Van Buren county line, where a new, $40.4 million lodge is taking shape and should be finished in 2021, the only way to stay overnight now is in one of the 30 cabins arranged around and near Fall Creek Falls Lake or in one of the park’s 220-plus campsites.

“When we had to close back in the spring — which was kind of a weird time for us all — as soon as we opened the parks back up we started seeing record visitation numbers,” Fall Creek Falls park manager Jacob Young said Wednesday. Young, park manager for four years, has worked for state parks for nearly 16 years.

Full campgrounds when parks reopened later in April and May aren’t unusual at Fall Creek Falls, but “maintaining [those numbers] seven days a week and high visitation numbers to the waterfalls and trails seven days a week, we started seeing a lot more people,” Young said.

“It continued all the way through the summer and then we got into September and October; of course, we had to cancel a few of our fall events, and we honestly thought that would cause camping to fall off a little bit but it did not,” he said. “We stayed at 100% or very close to 100% [occupancy] all the way through October and it continued through November.”

See the Chattanooga Times Free Press report here.