Our state parks need more than online reservations

West Virginia officials made what they termed an “exciting” announcement for the future of our state park system on Friday.

It wasn’t a new marketing campaign, brought forth by the state’s tourism department, focusing solely on the various parks in the Mountain State. It wasn’t news about a massive investment to build new cabins, better maintain trail systems and establish new programs to help attract visitors.

No, instead the big announcement was that we can now make reservations for campgrounds at all of West Virginia’s state parks online.

West Virginia has some great state parks. Some are large, covering thousands of acres and featuring lodges, cabins and campgrounds, as well as vast trail systems, golf courses and enough additional land for a variety of activities. They are places one easily could stay for an extended vacation.

Others are more suited to day trips. There is just enough space for a few trails, maybe some fishing or bicycling or just having a picnic with friends and family.

The closest state park to us is, of course, Tomlinson run located in Hancock County. It’s the only state park in the Northern Panhandle, and those of us near the “Top of West Virginia” have to drive close to two hours before we can visit another one.

I’ve been able to visit several of our state parks over the years, although I know I’ve only scratched the surface as I seldom get the opportunity to venture into the southern part of West Virginia.

I know there are people who come to the state to go camping and enjoy our natural surroundings. Hopefully, they continue to come here and bring their friends.

In making the announcement of the new online reservation system, Gov. Jim Justice said, “Our state parks and forests are a cornerstone of West Virginia’s tourism industry and improving the way people plan their trip is going to make visiting Almost Heaven that much more of a memorable experience.”

Visits to West Virginia (or through West Virginia for us residents) should be memorable. At least the governor and I can agree on that. For those who already come here and enjoy camping, having an easier way to reserve a camp site will be a big help.

It will be nice to know that if I want to spend a night or two at Tomlinson Run or Coopers Rock or Twin Falls, that all I have to do is go online and see if there is any availability.

But what about those who have never been here? What about those who maybe came here years ago and haven’t been back? What is being done to encourage them to make a return?

We have programs such as the Very Important Parks Person and the West Virginia State Parks Hiking Program. These offer some incentive to visit our state parks.

Online reservations are good for ease of use, but what is being done to grab the attention of potential visitors and draw them in?

West Virginia State Parks have a website and social media accounts. A few days ago, I received the latest edition of “Wonderful West Virginia” magazine, which was a special edition focusing entirely on the state park system, including some of the unique programs offered at the parks.

Personally, I like to hit the trails and take in the nature when I go to a park. How many of you have heard of Beartown State Park or been on its Boardwalk Trail? How many have taken the Raven Rock Trail at Coopers Rock? How many non-West Virginians do you think have even heard of them?

Did you know there is a butterfly program at North Bend State Park, or a zipline tour at Pipestem?

Let’s look back up here at Tomlinson Run. There have been recent efforts to make infrastructural improvements, and that may encourage more people to visit. But, in order for people to visit, they need to know the park exists.

It’s great that our state parks are stepping more into the 21st century and providing some online options.

None of that will matter, though, if people don’t know what we have to offer them when they decide to make a trip to the Mountain State.

Let’s do a little more than help people make reservations.

(Howell, a resident of Colliers, is managing editor of The Weirton Daily Times, and can be contacted at chowell@weirtondailytimes.com or followed on Twitter @CHowellWDT)

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