Winter visitation at Harriman State Park isn’t what it was last year — “We have a foot of snow; last year we had five,” Manager John Sullivan said — but people still show up in droves to ski, snowshoe and bike miles of scenic trails.
Recreationists also enjoy a full slate of park programming.
Sullivan has prioritized events since he took over at Harriman four years ago, and the trend continues into 2018.
The park manager tries to schedule at least one event per week, be it a triathlon, stargazing excursion or interpretive hike — all of which will occur this month.
The idea is to attract people who live in the park’s backyard, but have never experienced its 25-plus miles of trails.
“It’s still remarkable for me, but we’ll talk to somebody who’s going to the park for the first time and they’ll be from Rexburg,” Sullivan said. “We want to reach out and create new experiences and get new user groups to come to the park.”
Idaho state park programming was cut when budgets took a hit during the Great Recession. Sullivan likened it to a school cutting art to pay for math classes.
“We still had to operate our rental facilities, but for some of these other things we didn’t have the time and money to dedicate,” he said.
With a more robust budget in recent years, Idaho’s Department of Parks and Recreation has placed a new emphasis on events, which is especially visible at Harriman.
In 2014, 83,520 people visited the park; that number increased to 86,594 in 2015 then rocketed to 118,509 in 2016. Numbers for 2017 haven’t been calculated, but it looks like visitation has kept pace, park Assistant Manager Bert Mecham said.
Strong programming likely is responsible for the large increase in use, Sullivan said.
“Everybody is doing events, but we’ve really kicked it up here.”
Harriman’s $5 entry fee will be waived Saturday during a free winter access day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Rentals will be half off; tips and demos also will be offered.
A kids winter scavenger hunt and stargazing event will be held Jan. 13; a trumpeter swan guided nature walk takes place Jan. 20, and the second annual Moose on the Loose triathlon will be held Jan. 27.
The event, which features ski, snowshoe and fat bike racing, is held partially to bring the three user groups together, Sullivan said.
Though not everyone appreciates sharing snow with them, fat bike use has steadily increased at Harriman. Sullivan grooms bike-specific trails and has converted others to one-way use in order to avoid conflict between other recreationists.
Sullivan said allowing fat bikes and plowing the roads to Harriman’s rental facilities, both of which happened for the first time last winter, have caused visitation and revenue to trend generally upward.
The park’s two yurts, two houses, dorm and bunkhouse, about 90 beds in total, are typically booked solid from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15, Sullivan said.
“The yurts especially, somebody is in those things every day,” Sullivan said.
Harriman’s reservation minimum was expanded to two nights so park staff actually have time to prepare the facilities for their next guests.
“We had so many back-to-backs, when we’re trying to roll over this park in the span of three hours we can’t get it done. That buffer gives us time to take care of the place and still provide a quality experience without running around and telling people to wait,” Sullivan said.
Rental facilities, in addition to park events and the inclusion of bikes, skis and snowshoes, make Harriman an attractive option compared to more pricey regional recreational areas, Sullivan said.
“We’re a bargain, man,” he said. “You could call it an added-value proposition. What are we giving you for the $5 entry fee? You can ski or bike, compete in an event, participate in a wildflower hike. We have to try to get people here — once they’re here we gotta give them something to do.”
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.