WINONA, Minn. — The prairies, forests and bluffs in southeastern Minnesota look like they should in early spring, and Sunshine Wilson, of Winona, said she couldn’t be happier about that.

As a pandemic continues to alter daily life around the world, she said seeing the familiar rhythms of nature is reassuring.

“In nature, we find everything as we expect it,” she said. “Everything is nice and normal out here — it relieves stress and anxiety.”

In the sunny hours before a statewide stay-at-home directive went into effect Friday, Minnesota state parks saw a surge of visitors.

Although camping at parks is shut down, parks are open to daytime visitors seeking fresh air, exercise and respite from being confined indoors.

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Public schools across the state were ordered closed as of March 18, and many businesses are closed in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. For people off work, out of school or tired of being cooped up at home, state parks are some of the few places still open to visitors.

For Samuel Carlson, 11, of Winona, hiking around Great River Bluffs State Park on Friday was more than fun in the sun.

“I feel like I learn as much here as I do in school,” he said.

In the week after schools across the state closed, Wilson, whose massage business was ordered closed, has taken Samuel and his sister Khya, 9, to multiple outdoor state recreation sites.

Last week, the three explored Beaver Creek, Whitewater and Great River Bluffs state parks, as well as Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River.

“It’s been fantastic,” Wilson said, adding, “As much as 'fantastic' can be these days.”

The three stopped at an interpretive sign about bur oak trees along a trail at Great River Bluffs, and Sam read it aloud.

Khya said she's learned about different types of mushrooms.

Samuel said he was enjoying exploring the Driftless region near Winona.

“What’s the Driftless region?” Khya asked.

Samuel explained that glaciers from the last ice ages didn’t cover this region of the U.S. and didn’t bring the debris, known as drift, the flows leave behind that would fill in the valleys between the dramatic bluffs.

“The glacial flow did not hit us,” he said.

Restrictions in place

A global pandemic can seem worlds away in the woods. Although parks are open, there are changes and restrictions in place. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources advised visitors to keep at least 6 feet away from other visitors.

Campgrounds and lodging, and day-use facilities, such as enclosed picnic shelters, are closed at all state parks, state recreation areas and state forests. The DNR is waiving all cancellation and modification fees through May 1.

The DNR also canceled naturalist programs and closed the state park and recreation area visitor centers, contact stations, and other non-essential buildings. Some bathrooms will remain open to accommodate daytime visitors.

Visitors can purchase permits online or at self-pay stations located at park entrances.