When park manager Ken Bisbee first came to Yellow Creek State Park in February of 1990, it was relatively undeveloped. People came for spur-of-the-moment picnics, and packed the swimming area to the point he closed the gates.
Now, 24 years later, Bisbee is leaving behind a much different — and even busier — park to take on the challenge of managing Ohiopyle State Park.
“(Yellow Creek) is a gorgeous park. I think it’s one of the prettiest state parks in Pennsylvania, and it’s right in our backyard,” he said. “It’s been amazing to me over the 24 years that I’ve been here how many people every summer walk up to me and say that it’s absolutely gorgeous here and they haven’t been here in 20 years or more, or never have been here (before).”
Almost exactly 24 years after he was hired, Bisbee officially became the manager of Ohiopyle. He is continuing, along with an interim manager from the park manager training program, to help oversee Yellow Creek until a replacement can be hired later in the spring.
A farewell open house has been scheduled for Friday in his honor.
“(Leaving the area) is the hardest part, I have to tell you. Indiana County, I’ve been here 24 years, my kids were born and raised here, it’s a really special place. It’s tough to go,” he said. “There’s so many people that I know and I have great friends and people that I’ve worked closely with over the years and I know I’m not going to be able to say goodbye to them all and say ‘thanks, thanks for the memories.”
Bisbee said that while how people use the park has changed, the number of people coming each year has crept up since he first came. There are around 220,000 visitors a year now, he said.
At the beginning, it was swimming that brought them. On some summer days he had to shut the park gates because cars were so packed along the roads that emergency vehicles couldn’t get through. The picnic tables were always full.
But that started changing in the mid-1990s. Now bass fishing and mountain biking are the main attractions (18 miles of bike trails were recently added), and while the picnic tables sit empty, the picnic pavilions are scheduled all summer long.
“One of the things I loved about Yellow Creek was it was a small park that was never really fully developed,” Bisbee said.
Yellow Creek was one of the last Project 70 parks — a state initiative in the 1960s and ’70s with the goal of having a park within 25 miles of every Pennsylvania resident, Bisbee said. With money running low, projects like a campground never came into being.
But that left more room for the park manager to come up with his own projects and ideas.
“One of the things I’m really proud of is we built a camping cottage and yurt colony” on the north shore of the lake, he said. The cottages opened in 2004, the yurts in 2010 and the showerhouse in 2011 — and it’s been busy ever since.
After the boat rental concession at the park closed in 1998, Bisbee formed a partnership with the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Co-op to run their own boat rentals. It has been “hugely successful,” Bisbee said. “It was a great partnership.”
He also oversaw the formation of an environmental education program that he said has been one of the most active programs in the area.
Going forward, Bisbee said the new manager will need to focus on improving what is already there. For example, the bathhouse near the swimming area hasn’t seen renovations since it was built in the ’70s and “desperately needs an upgrade,” he said.
And Bisbee will face his own challenges: Ohiopyle is the largest state park in Pennsylvania and sees around 1.5 million visitors a year, many attracted to the park’s whitewater rafting options or passing through on the Great Allegheny Passage hiking/biking trail connecting Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
A park manager is responsible for the entire facility, ranging from supervising the staff to enforcing park regulations, keeping visitors safe and keeping the budget.
“That’s one of the things I’ve loved about the job is you come in every day and it’s different,” he said.
Bisbee said he loved the parks growing up, and that some of his “fondest memories” are from the times he and family members spent at state parks.
“My grandparents are all gone but I can just close my eyes and picture being on a boat with them or hiking trails with them,” he said.
While majoring in forestry at Penn State University, he decided he wanted to help provide those memories for others, turning his attention to working at the parks rather than timbering.
“I liked being part of helping children and their families make memories,” he said.
And he urged county residents to take advantage of the opportunities at Yellow Creek.
“There are a lot of people who come out for an evening walk. That’s one of the easiest things to do is get out here and enjoy the sunsets. The sunsets here are absolutely amazing. There are so many things people can do here and enjoy, to get some peace and quiet together, either as a couple or a family.”
The open house in Bisbee’s honor runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at the Environmental Learning Classroom.