State parks toast new year with hiking opportunity

31dsn killens front v2 by .

Trees reflect off Killens Pond, near Felton, where hiking and running trails are popular attractions. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

DOVER — Friday will bring with it a new year and the continuation of what nature enthusiasts are hoping turns into a long-standing tradition. For the fourth year, First Day Hikes will give people a chance to celebrate New Year’s Day outdoors in one of Delaware’s award-winning parks.

A nationwide initiative, First Day Hikes encourages people to go outside and enjoy nature.

New Year’s Day is expected to be chilly but sunny, meaning those looking to take part in a hike are in luck.

For the many people who have little familiarity with the state’s parks, Friday could be a chance to take advantage. Park officials certainly hope it is.

Across the state, officials hope to exceed last year’s Jan. 1 mark by 15 percent. That day was part of a record-setting fiscal year: Delaware’s parks saw an estimated 6 million-plus visitors from July 1, 2014, to June 30.

Division of Parks and Recreation Director Ray Bivens is excited about the state of the park system. Delaware won a prestigious award in September, being granted the 2016 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management.

Given by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and the National Recreation and Park Association, the award recognizes the state’s 16 parks cover a wide range of interests, enthrall visitors and have “good stories to tell,” Mr. Bivens said.

One of eight states to earn the award, Delaware is also the smallest to do so. Mr. Bivens credits the numerous park attractions, such as a zoo, golf course and historic fort, as helping the state stand out.

Unlike what one may think, park supervisors do not measure success purely in terms of visitor numbers and dollars. Mr. Bivens believes guest satisfaction is the most important element, and he said the department strives to remedy issues noted by parkgoers in surveys.

Attendance can vary based on uncontrollable factors. A few more rainy weekends than normal and the parks could see smaller visitation figures than previous years, all due to something entirely out of anyone’s hands.

While some areas of the state are facing a financial crunch, the parks section has been luckier. The parks are largely self-funded, with nearly two-thirds of funding coming from entrance fees and other revenue generated by the parks themselves. The Division of Parks and Recreation has a budget of about $20.8 million this year.

The state raised entrance charges in December 2014 to help cover maintenance after the idea was well-received by the public when it was first floated.

Fees are charged from March 1 to Nov. 30 and daily entry for most parks costs $4 (inland) or $5 (ocean) for Delaware residents and $8 or $10 for out-of-state visitors. Fort Delaware, Fenwick State Line Beach and Brandywine Zoo are exceptions.

As a result of the higher fees, more revenue is flowing to the parks division, which in turn allows for more capital projects. The state currently is handling upgrades to Lums Pond,
Killens Pond and Cape Henlopen parks. Lums Pond will get a new boathouse, Killens Pond is undergoing its first-ever renovations to the waterpark and Cape Henlopen’s fishing pier will be shut down in January while decking is replaced.

“It’s the most projects we have going on at any time in the last 10 years,” Mr. Bivens said.

Those three parks are all among the most popular of the 16. Cape Henlopen and Delaware Seashore dwarf the others, with a rough combined total of about 3 million visitors in the previous fiscal year.

Delaware’s parks, particularly those along the beach, draw many visitors from out of state. Pennsylvania license plates are a common sight near Lewes and Dewey Beach in the summer months, one big reason why the state gets 59 percent of its revenue from visitors. Out-of-staters pay higher entrance, camping and surf fishing fees as well.

Boat rental and low-digit surf fishing tags were successful last year. Rentals were up 12 percent to a record high, and 65 plates were sold for a total of $270,000.

While Mr. Bivens believes the parks are in a good place, maintenance remains challenging. Unlike in most parts of the country, Delaware’s park system owns more historic property than any other state entity, meaning frequent repairs and renovations are needed. As a result, a large backlog of capital projects has developed.

Still, that has not discouraged Mr. Bivens. Citing the large amount of positive feedback he said the parks receive, he said he is confident Delawareans get the most out of their parks.

“I think people are very proud of the state park system,” he noted.

For more information on First Day Hikes, see destateparks.com/firstday/.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.