DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Grahams Island State Park, in northern North Dakota near Devils Lake, saw a record number of campers over the summer. The park set records for visitation and campsite reservation in 2020 and now, the park’s campsite reservations are up 3% from last year.
From 2019 to 2020, Grahams Island State Park experienced a 20% increase in campsite reservations, according to Ryan Nelson, assistant park manager. In 2020, the park had 14,376 occupied nights at its almost 190 campsites. So far this year, the park has booked 14,814 occupied nights. Nelson said the number of visitors who did not book overnight stays increased similarly.
Nelson believes North Dakota state parks saw an increase in visitor numbers systemwide over the past two years, but he acknowledges Grahams Island has something special: The state’s largest natural body of water.
“We’ve seen an increased number of people attracted to Devils Lake in particular just because it is a world-class fishery, and we really try to cater to that main group that drives the state park and the area,” said Nelson.
For anglers, the park has a four-lane boat ramp and fish cleaning station. It also sells bait, tackle and ice onsite.
Suzie Kenner, executive director for Devils Lake Tourism, said the town’s resorts, hotels and restaurants had consistent traffic over the summer, but the campgrounds experienced noticeable increases in popularity over the last two summers. The campground at Grahams Island had always been busy on the weekends, but this year, more campsites were occupied during the week as well.
“Back when COVID hit a year and a half or two years ago, there was a huge increase in camper sales, boat sales, that sort of thing,” said Kenner. "People still wanted to get out and do things and explore, but didn’t necessarily feel comfortable in high populated areas.”
Kenner said many of the visitors in the area this summer were these new camper and boat owners.
“With that being said, we also had to push out some content on how to be a good camper,” said Kenner. "It was just kind of an interesting turn where we had to push out information on how to put out your campfire before you go to bed and how to be kind neighbors with noise and keep your pets on leashes.”
Grahams Island State Park campgrounds are open all year, but campsites are full-service, with running water and open bathrooms, from mid-May through September. The campgrounds have varying levels of amenities. A primitive campsite allows for a classic tent camping experience, while modern campsites come with water and electricity. So-called "modern plus" campsites have water, electricity and sewer.
“Our primitive campground, surprisingly, is just as busy as our modern campground,” said Nelson.
Last fall and winter with the Canadian border closed to nonessential traffic, Kenner said Devils Lake saw an influx of new visitors who had never been to the area before but needed an alternative location for a hunting or ice fishing trip.
“Hopefully we will be able to maintain those travelers year after year and keep them coming back. But now with the Canadian border opening back up, it'll be interesting to see who decides to go back to Canada,” said Kenner.
She said winter tourism especially is contingent on weather conditions.
Nelson said the biggest draws to the park in the winter are cross country skiing and ice fishing. Once enough snow has fallen, park staff start grooming cross country ski trails. Ice conditions on the lake usually improve as winter goes on, and Nelson said early season ice anglers often stay in the campgrounds and take portable fish houses on the lake, while later in the season, more anglers stay in larger fish houses on the lake.