There were backups on Route 178. Utica police ticketed motorists for illegal parking. The lots filled so quickly that closure announcements, once limited to weekends, happened on weekdays.
Many predicted the June totals for Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks would be staggering, and they were right. For Starved Rock, the June totals not only set a same-month record, but the monthly total was the second most in park history. Matthiessen, by one measure, had its biggest month ever.
Alvin Harper, site superintendent for Starved Rock and Matthiessen, reported the totals Sunday morning. Starved Rock posted 363,836 visitors last month, he said, which is 62% above the June average and the second biggest month in park history, behind only July 2017, which recorded 411,708.
And could July set a record of its own? As a frenetic holiday weekend drew to a close, Harper couldn’t rule it out.
“It’s been extremely busy,” Harper said. “We haven’t had to close down Starved Rock, except Friday, but we’ve definitely had large visitor turnout.”
Two hours after relaying that information, Starved Rock was closed. About 11:30 a.m. Sunday, the park office advised that the lots were filled to capacity.
As for Matthiessen, Harper said they’re tweaking the way visitors are counted to get more precise totals. As a result, the June totals yielded divergent figures, but by one measure Matthiessen had its biggest month ever.
Matthiessen’s June visits were estimated at 90,046. If accurate, that’s not only the biggest-ever June but the biggest-ever month in park history.
Utica police fully expected a crush of tourists after the parks were reopened in late May when infection controls eased. Nevertheless, Police Chief Rod Damron momentarily was taken aback by the record-setting totals – until he looked at his incident reports and saw a spike in traffic violations and accidents.
“We handled a total of 14 traffic crashes in the month of June, which is high for us,” Damron said, “and I suspect the month of July will be even higher.”
Both parks were shut down earlier this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, giving park staff a rare window to make past-due improvements such as tree removal and trail remediation. April’s total was zero, while March and May yielded the lowest totals in 30 years or more.
Illinoisans wrestled not only with the pandemic but also a companion case of cabin fever and made a beeline for the parks after reopening. Mother Nature did nothing to dissuade them: June was notably warm and sunny – the U.S. Drought Monitor labeled parts of La Salle and Livingston counties “abnormally” dry – and the Weather Channel showed only four days peaking at 90 degrees or higher.
Utica Fire Chief Ben Brown didn’t need the 10-day outlook to let him know the parks were bustling. His pager rang often enough to let him know Starved Rock was in record territory.
“We had a record for June, too,” Brown said. “We’re already 25 calls ahead of our pace from last year, and we had 50 calls in June alone. We usually run about 400 a year.”
The saving grace has been a lack of falls. The majority of calls have been for on-trail injuries. Brown emphasized he’s aware of tourists going off-trail and risking their lives, to say nothing of the lives of first-responders, but so far there haven’t been any fall-related injuries or deaths.
It will be some time before Utica businesses learn what impact the park’s reopening will have on commerce. June retail receipts won’t be processed and released to the village until after Labor Day.
Meanwhile, it had seemed Starved Rock would miss welcoming 2 million yearly visitors for the first time since 2013. That no longer is a certainty.
Starved Rock’s year-to-date attendance remains sharply below average (26.4%), but there were 717,000 visitors in the gates through June 30. At that pace, Starved Rock could crack 2 million with average attendance the remainder of the year.
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