Road construction, frequently heavy smoke, a wait-and-see attitude about two upcoming vehicle-free Saturdays and myriad other factors have made Crater Lake National Park's summer season anything but normal.
"I'm hoping we can have a good September and October," said Marsha McCabe, the park's lead interpreter and spokeswoman, who notes the several variables have affected the number of visitors and services available.
"It's been a challenging year for sure," echoed Andy Stiles, general manager for Xanterra, the park concessionaire that operates the Crater Lake Lodge, lake boat tours, Crater Lake Cafeteria-Gift Shop and other facilities.
Smoke from forest fires that began in July in and outside the park has been a major concern. At many times the lake hasn't been visible from Rim Village or Rim Drive, and the lack of visibility, combined with delays created by ongoing road construction, has discouraged many visitors. McCabe recommends people considering park visits first check out the Crater Lake webcam, which is regularly updated, or the website at oregonsmoke.blogspot.com.
"It kind of comes and goes," McCabe said of the smoke, which is coming from the Spruce Lake fire and others in the High Cascades Complex.
"Every day is different, and we're telling our guests that," said Stiles, noting there have been cancellations for stays at the lodge and boat tours. "People don't want to come up here when it's real smoky. Overall, we can definitely feel the difference in visitation."
Although park entrances are open, smoke and fire concerns have caused several temporary closures on the Pacific Crest Trail and trails on the south and west regions of the lake. The park also established a Level 1 evacuation for Mazama Village, location of the park store, gas station, cabins and campground, to be ready to evacuate if fire threatens the area.
Park officials earlier this week announced the temporary closure of West Rim Drive between Rim Village and the North Junction to help crews try to complete road construction. The six-mile section of road is closed from Sundays at 9 p.m. through Fridays at 4 p.m. It will be open for travel Friday evenings, all day Saturdays, and most of the day on Sundays. The temporary weekday closure is estimated to continue until sometime later this month.
McCabe said this is the third year of a three-year road construction project to make major improvements on the heavily traveled West Rim Drive. Previously, crews worked on portions of East Rim Drive and Rim Village. Work is also continuing to expand the Cleetwood Trailhead parking area. The roads and parking areas in the park are hit hard each year by erosion and winter storms, and periodically need significant repairs.
"We've got a road built on the side of a crumbly volcano," McCabe said, noting the park has a short construction season because of typically heavy snowfall, an average 523 inches each winter. "This makes it difficult to accomplish major projects that require significant periods of time to complete. Closing the road on weekdays will enable the road construction crews to make more progress so the road can be fully open and operation in 2018."
McCabe said it's hoped that work on West Rim Drive and the Cleetwood Cove parking area will be completed this season.
All other roads, facilities and services in the park — including the Rim Trail used by Pacific Crest Trail and other hikers — remain open. Because of West Rim Drive's closure, McCabe encouraged visitors "to enjoy the lesser explored area of the park along the scenic East Rim Drive while road work is being completed on West Rim Drive."
The smoke has resulted in the cancellation of some boat tours and trolley tours because, according to McCabe, "It was just so smoky you couldn't see."
Because of extended repairs to one of the tour boats, two- and four-hour stopovers at Wizard Island have been eliminated. Eight ranger-guided, two-hour boat tours are offered daily through Sept. 24, depending on weather and smoke conditions. Trolleys, operated by Klamath Falls-based concessionaire The Shuttle, also have had some tours canceled because of poor visibility.
Organizers of Cycle Oregon, which had been scheduled to pass through the park later this month, canceled the tour because of heavy smoke at the park and through much of southwest Oregon.
McCabe said the park's two vehicle-free days, on Saturdays Sept. 9 and 16, remain scheduled. "Everybody's watching the conditions but it's still planned," she said. Upwards of 6,000 people have registered to bicycle, walk or run along the 26-mile stretch of East Rim Drive from the North Junction to Munson Valley.
She said work on installing an underground water line to transfer water from a well near the Highway 62-PCT trail junction to holding tanks is continuing, with a goal of completing that work within the next two months, before the snow flies.
For updated information, visit the park website at http://www.nps.gov/crla or the Xanterra website at www.craterlakelodges.com.
— Reach freelance reporter Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-880-4139.