MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Halora Kidder loves to travel - she works in the travel industry, in fact - but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many life changes followed.
Recreation opportunities vanished. Work in the travel industry “just plummeted,” she said, so Kidder took a temporary leave from her job.
And she turned to Wisconsin’s state parks.
Like a number of Madison-area residents, Kidder, of Sun Prairie, made it a personal challenge during the pandemic to hike every one of the state’s 48 open parks.
“My kids and I have hiked all of Wisconsin State Parks this year, and what an adventure it’s been!” she posted on the Wisconsin State Parks Facebook page, where 102,000 members share travel tips, hiking photos and inspiration.
State park attendance topped 21.5 million in 2020 - a 22% increase over 2019 - according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Despite some park closures early last year, the parks are now open with the exception of Rock Island, which is closed due to damage from high water, said DNR spokeswoman Melissa Vanlanduyt.
Along with personal challenges to get out more, some individuals and families are attempting one of the goals set by the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks in its “Wisconsin Friends Explore Challenge 2021,” running through Sept. 22, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
The 22 challenges span many categories, from photography to paddle sports to community service at parks - and of course hiking. Details are at wisconsinfriendsexplore.org.
State parks are just one part of the much larger Wisconsin State Park System, which also includes state recreation areas, state forests and flowages. Other state and county trails and the Ice Age National Scenic Trail crisscross Wisconsin as well. The hiking challenge involved 48 officially designated state parks with open trails.
Prior to the pandemic, Kidder and her family were “occasional” hikers. But “as things were shutting down, I was looking for more things to do,” she said. She started by taking her children to nearby state parks, such as Devil’s Lake and Natural Bridge. Then she joined the Facebook group “and it gave me so many great ideas.”
Kidder mostly planned day trips, but at one point her family rented a cabin up north and made the rounds of spectacular state parks such as Copper Falls. They also spent a few days in Door County to hike the parks there. By November, they had hiked every state park but Rock Island.
Kidder’s children Bodhi, 6, and Jovia, 4, enjoyed every step of the adventure, she said. They started out on short trails, but soon were hiking three or four miles at a time.
The challenge “was a nice distraction for me” during the pandemic, said Kidder, 38, who’s now been inspired to start hiking Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail and a few state parks in Minnesota.
“Hiking is another one of my hobbies now,” she said. “If I have a day off, I’m looking for a trail.”
After a relationship ended and she was furloughed from her job, Jenna Byom started a pandemic quest.
“Sitting at home was bumming me out,” said Byom, who lives in Madison. So she decided to head to Wyalusing State Park, stopping at a Target store along the way to buy a $30 tent.
Over the next few months, she and her dog Tucker would visit and camp at 47 other state parks. Byom even launched a side business from the experience, and now sells state park-inspired pillows, calendars and wall hangings at her website, www.etsy.com/shop/tomorrowshike.
Byom, 34, went from a novice to someone who now is full of hiking tips and camping experience.
“I lived in Milwaukee for 15 years and Madison for two years, and I never really left the city. Now, I feel I could be ready to go anywhere in about 20 minutes,” she said.
“It’s so easy. I wish I had known how easy it is.”
State parks are a great place to solo camp because “they feel safer,” she said. “There are rangers there and you’re not out in the wilderness on your own.” And Madison is a great starting point “because you’re so centrally located. There’s a ton of places within three hours that are good for a weekend.”
“If you had told me two years ago that there were so many cool places to see, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Byom said, “but I keep finding them.”
Corey Joy, of Appleton, got hooked on hiking all of Wisconsin’s state parks after visiting just five of them.
“I couldn’t believe in the five parks I had been to - how different they all were from each other,” he said.
“Every one had a different feature to look at.” Over time, “I fell in love more and more with the state of Wisconsin and the state park system.”
An early riser, Joy was happy to get up many days at 3 a.m. to witness busy nocturnal wildlife or watch the sun come up. He also packed a book for stops along the trail - such as a favorite from his youth, “My Side of the Mountain,” about a boy who tries to live in the wild.
Eventually, Joy, 38, hiked all 48 of Wisconsin’s open state parks during the pandemic. Along with lowering his blood pressure and making him more active, his hiking journeys “helped me find parts of myself,” he said.
“There were many times when I thought, ‘Well, I made it this far; I can turn around now.’” But he kept going, as when he climbed a bluff at Perrot State Park.
“Once I got on top of that bluff, it was so rewarding,” he said.
Renee Pierpont Hable and her husband Fred had five big trips mapped out for 2020, but they all were canceled because of COVID-19. So in early March, they decided to take a day trip 16 miles from their home in Madison to Governor Dodge State Park.
They were floored by its beauty.
Hable picked up a free guidebook to Wisconsin’s state parks and from that moment on, “it became a mission” to visit them all, she said.
Hable and her husband are not long-distance hikers, but that didn’t stop them from witnessing three seasons and visiting some of the most spectacular features at each state park between March 20 and Oct. 13 last year.
They usually walked quarter-mile to half-mile trails “and saw some amazing things: rock structures, water features,” said Hable, 57.
“The state park pass is the best $28 you can spend in the tourism industry in Wisconsin,” she said. Hable’s advice: Just start. Get the DNR guidebook and visit the parks at your own pace.
“If one hour is all that is going to work for you,” she said, “go for one hour.”
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