Life

Heading to an Iowa state park? Make sure you get a passport

Park 'digital passport' program awards prizes for visits

A view into the forest from the cave at Backbone State Park near Dundee, 60 miles north of Cedar Rapids, was dedicated i
A view into the forest from the cave at Backbone State Park near Dundee, 60 miles north of Cedar Rapids, was dedicated in May 1920 as the first of Iowa’s state parks. Backbone has 21 miles of hiking and multiuse trails — and this view from a cave into the forest. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Heading out to an Iowa state park to enjoy some healthy, socially distanced outdoor activity over the weekend?

Sunscreen? Check.

Bug spray? Check

Water? Check.

Passport?

Wait, what?

To encourage use of Iowa’s 71 state parks, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa Tourism Office have kicked off a digital “passport” this spring.

The response has been more than anticipated.

“I think we always knew that there was great interest in the state parks, and with this being their centennial year, there would be enhanced interest in the parks,” said Jessica O’Riley of Travel Iowa. “We didn’t figure on a pandemic in the middle of all that.”

With Iowans looking for safer, healthy activities that allow for social distancing, the parks have provided that opportunity.

“We thought the passports would be well-received and popular, but we didn’t think we would blow through the prizes in two weeks,” O’Riley said. “I think there was some pent-up demand from people to get out and about, and this was the spark they needed.”

As part of the passport program, Travel Iowa was offering a free T-shirt after a passport was validated at three parks and a state parks art print after visits to 10 parks. All park check-ins before Oct. 31 qualify for a chance on the grand prize of a two-night stay at Honey Creek Resort at Rathbun Lake with water-park passes, golf vouchers and more rewards.

But the prizes were gone in two weekends, with some people visiting 10 parks the first weekend after the passports were launched, O’Riley said.

“That’s what the passport was designed to do — to get people out to the parks, so I guess it’s working,” she said.

When people visit a state park, they can open a mobile-friendly website on their phone that will geo-sense their location and “stamp” their passport.

There’s not good cellphone reception in some more remote states parks and O’Riley said the tourism office has heard that heavy tree cover can interfere with the signal. So there is a four-digit PIN posted in each park that users can enter to validate their visits.

Judging from the early response of nearly 10,000 sign-ups in June, Travel Iowa thinks the passport is a success.

Initially, the Iowa DNR and Travel Iowa thought it was a way to encourage people to visit state parks during the centennial year.

Iowa’s first state park, Backbone State Park, 60 miles north of Cedar Rapids, was dedicated in May 1920. Since then, 70 more parks have been added to the system.

But the passports also are encouraging people to visit more state parks, O’Riley said.

“I think a lot of Iowans tend to go to the same park because it’s convenient, it’s located in their neck-of-the-woods,” she said, “so this really was to encourage them to branch out and explore some of the other beautiful state parks.”

Given the initial success of the passport, O’Riley expects there will be Park Passport 2.0 next year with additional options.

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“I can’t see us just saying ‘OK, that was a one-time thing,’” she said.

One idea is to build out the connections to communities around state parks to encourage dining, shopping and staying in those places to create economic impact.

In the meantime, the passport is helping people find an escape from COVID-19 isolation.

“I think people have been staying safe at home and now they are like ‘it’s summer, I feel like I should be outdoors, I want to do something,’” O’Riley said. “Visiting state parks or county parks are good options, safe activities you can do with your kids.”

For information on the Park Passport, visit explore.traveliowa.com/parks. To see what park facilities are open and guidance on park usage during the coronavirus pandemic, visit iowadnr.gov/places-to-go/state-parks.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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