(Ed: The information contained in this article reflects only numbers provided by DeGray Lake Resort State Park and does not include statistics from campgrounds managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)
By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian
Tourism, particularly outdoor recreation, is big business in Arkansas. Clark County is home to one of The Natural State’s busiest parks, and the number of visitors appears to be growing.
DeGray Lake Resort State Park was a destination for more than 558,000 visitors in 2022. Since 2020 the state park gained 156,000 additional visitors — a 38% increase. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic the state park at DeGray had an annual average of 425,000-475,000 visitors.
“Visitation increased greatly in day use, golf and camping during COVID and continues to remain strong coming out of the pandemic,” said DeGray state park superintendent Reding. “Lodge and restaurant numbers, on the other hand, had plummeted during that time, and we are just now recovering to what we had pre-pandemic in these facilities.”
Visitor numbers are tallied by reservations at campgrounds, YURTs or the lodge; traffic counters at the entrance to the park’s two day-use areas; and by numbers of golf rounds, boat rentals and entrees sold at the Shoreline Restaurant.
Of the 52 state parks in Arkansas, DeGray is typically among the top five parks in terms of visitor numbers. The most visited is Petit Jean State Park, which boasts 1.5 million visitors annually. In terms of visitors, DeGray is comparable to Mount Magazine, Pinnacle Mountain and Devil’s Den state parks. As a whole, Arkansas state parks had 8.3 million visitors in 2022.
The park’s 2022 fiscal year brought in a record $3.85 million in revenue for DeGray Lake Resort State Park, a slightly higher figure than the previous record set in 2017, Reding said. A decade ago the park had $3.36 million in revenue, and 20 years ago the park raked in $2.61 million.
The state park employs roughly 50 full-time employees and uses other hourly employees during the peak season. According to Reding, the park has averaged some 64,000 hours of extra help over the last five years. The park contributed to $2.22 million to the local economy in salaries during the park’s 2022 fiscal year.
What draws visitors to DeGray?
DeGray draws in a wide range of audiences, from families with younger children seeking affordable family vacations with plenty for the kids to enjoy, to outdoor thrill seekers and locals frequenting the park to take advantage of the beautiful swim beaches and picnic areas, especially in the summer.
While most of DeGray’s visitors are from Arkansas (46.3%), two other large pools of visitors include Texas (28.4%) and Louisiana (10.4%), according to Reding.
As Arkansas’s only resort state park, DeGray boasts an impressive array of amenities and experiences that will keep guests as busy as they wish to be during their visit, Reding said. In addition to the range of accommodations available, the state park offers an 18-hole championship golf course, guided horseback rides, swim beaches, boat and paddlecraft rentals, an 18-hole disc golf course, basketball and tennis courts, five hiking trails, and even a water trail for paddlers to explore. Additionally, 30+ miles of epic mountain biking trails are available a short drive from the park on the southern side of the lake. The lodge even has its own park-themed escape room.
As one of the five “Diamond Lakes” of Southwest Arkansas, DeGray is prized for its remarkably clear water that visitors can enjoy year-round. Consequently, lake-based recreation is the dominant attraction of the park with opportunities for swimming, kayaking, boating, fishing, scuba diving and more, Reding said.
“The ‘cherry on top’ of all this,” Reding added, “would have to be the numerous programs, tours and special events offered by state park interpreters throughout the year.” A few of the guest favorites include the Sunset Cruises, Golf Course Safaris, Kayak Tours, and Owl Prowls.
Park funding and challenges
Reding did not report any changes in state funding for park operations at DeGray. He said Arkansas State Parks is “very focused on being good stewards of the state’s resources entrusted to us by the citizens of Arkansas. We are continually looking at ways we can be more efficient while providing the high quality of services that our stakeholders expect.”
While the private sector of the hospitality industry has been able to more quickly adapt to the changing labor market, state parks have admittedly been slower to adjust to recent trends, Reding said. “Our private sector counterparts have been able to quickly adjust items such as employee salaries and the prices of their services.” State-funded programs like parks, on the other hand, are required to follow a more rigid procurement and personnel policies and laws of state government.
Park improvements at DeGray
Most of the immediate capital projects at the DeGray state park are focused on maintaining its current infrastructure. Most recently the park has finished replacing its main water lines, and the next infrastructure project is paving park entrance roads.
Additionally, the hot tub, courtesy dock and roof at the lodge will be replaced in coming years, Reding said.