By Sally Voth
The Virginia State Park system continues to draw visitors, and 2012 proved to be its best year yet.
Nearly 8.4 million people visited the state's 35 parks in 2012, up 7 percent from 2011, and 4 percent more than in 2010 -- which saw about 8 million visitors -- according to a news release from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the parks.
First Landing State Park, in Virginia Beach, reeled in the most visitors -- more than 1.5 million, according to the release.
Last year, 223,639 people visited Warren County's Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Jr. Shenandoah River State Park, according to DCR public relations specialist Jim Meisner Jr.
That's a 16 percent increase from 2011, when 192,370 people visited it. Meisner said the 2010 attendance was 147,808.
A newer park, the Shenandoah River State Park was named after a Front Royal delegate who died in 2001.
The DCR release credits the state parks with having an economic impact of $198 million last year.
And, Meisner credits the poor economy with partially driving up park attendance.
"It's cheaper to stay closer to home than it is to drive further afield," he said Friday. "And, when people stay closer to home, they've got excellent, nationally recognized state parks to go to. And so people come to a state park rather than Disneyland or Yellowstone or further travel."
Meisner said word is getting out about what the parks have to offer. Activities, such as campfire programs, guided hiking and guided canoeing, are bringing in more people, he said.
"So, we have more people coming to the park, more people spending the night in the park and more people doing stuff when they get to the park," Meisner said. "We know we're [also] attracting people from other states, and that's a major aspect of the economic impact."
The Shenandoah River State Park had been a "well-kept secret," park administrative specialist Donna Ramey said Friday.
"In my opinion, people are figuring out more about this park," she said. "A lot of people didn't know that it existed here."
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org