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Crater Lake saw record highs and lows this year

The year 2020 isn’t over, but it’s been a rollercoaster-like, record-setting and unpredictable year at Crater Lake National Park.

So far this year, based on figures through October, the park has set five records for monthly visitation, three with historic lows, two with historic highs.

According to park records dating back to 1982, only 686 visits were recorded in April, with 814 in May, both well below previous marks, while this September’s mark of 59,093 was just below the 59,111 in 2008. But the reverse happened during the summer, with record high visitation figures of 209,078 in July and 222,368 in August.

Previous records were lows of 3,389 in April 2003 and 18,618 in May 2011, and the high marks were 208,237 in July 2017 and 176,895 in August 2016. Figures for October are not yet available.

“It’s been a very unusual year, to say the least,” said Marcia McCabe, the park’s chief of interpretation. Her thoughts are echoed by superintendent Craig Ackerman, who noted the challenge of, “trying to manage the day-to-day life of the park when we don’t know what to expect.”

The coronavirus pandemic has played havoc with park programs since March and, with new mandatory restrictions imposed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown along with other COVID-19 concerns, operating plans for this winter and 2021 remain in a state of flux.

Park visitors are finding extremely limited services with all concession operations closed and only the park-maintained restrooms at Rim Village open. As happened during the summer season, the usual visitor contact stations at park headquarters in Munson Valley and at Rim Village are and will remain closed and no ranger programs, such as ranger-guided snowshoe walks, will be offered. The Crater Lake Ski Patrol, however, will have volunteers on duty weekends and some holidays.

Ackerman said the park considered having some winter operations temporarily relocated to the Annie Creek area but said a risk management analysis determined “overwhelming logistic difficulties,” including concerns because the building is not designed for winter operations. In an average winter Crater Lake receives about 538 inches of snow.

Aramark, which took over park concession services in 2019, had only limited services this year because of the pandemic and will have none of its usual winter services at Rim Village. Those closures have a direct impact on the park’s interpretive program because a portion of concession fees reimbursed to the park are used to fund park staff, including seasonal employees.

“With our small but mighty staff we accomplished quite a lot,” McCabe said of seasonal park rangers. No ranger-led hikes were held during the summer visitor season, and no ranger boat talks were done because the popular lake boat tours were canceled.

More positively, McCabe said that despite a severely reduced seasonal staff, the park developed new online programs, such as “Coffee With A Ranger,” gave away upwards of 10,000 Junior Ranger booklets, and updated 12 information boards located at frequently visited park sites. The Crater Lake Natural History Association, which usually assists rangers at the Munson Valley visitor contact station and sells park-related merchandise, such as books, shirts and cards, instead operated from the Rim Village Community House, although only during a sharply reduced season.

“It was certainly a learning experience,” McCabe said of the summer season and increased social media presence.

McCabe and Ackerman said that by reassigning limited staff to the Cleetwood Cove Trailhead, where a 1.1-mile trail provides the only access to the lake, problems encountered early during the summer were averted. Because of the influx of first-time visitors unaware of safety protocols, some carried innertubes, fins, flotation devices and other items that could have compromised the lake’s water quality. After rangers were stationed at the trailhead, visitors were informed about restrictions and the closure of the lakeside restrooms.

“It was kind of an unsupervised free-for-all,” McCabe said of the situation before rangers were moved from various jobs to monitoring the trailhead. During about a five-week period staff contacted about 35,000 people.

“It was very illustrative of the amount of visits we get there,” Ackerman said, noting the parking lot, which had been enlarged in recent years, was often overflowing, which resulted in people parking along Rim Drive’s roadside. Unless the boat tours are offered next summer, he said park staff will again be stationed at the trailhead. Until this year, rules prohibiting watercraft in the lake were handled by rangers at the lake to give boat tours and concession staff, including boat captains.

Ackerman and McCabe believe the coronavirus restrictions resulted in people visiting Crater Lake and other recreational areas in record numbers. At Lava Beds National Monument, for example, the park had its third-highest visitor numbers in both July and August with 26,688 and 31,591, respectively.

Ackerman stressed his and park managers first priority is keeping the park safe for employees and visitors. He said it’s unknown how Gov. Brown’s recent restrictions will impact visitation, especially after the ups and downs experienced already this year and because park visitors typically come from across the nation and other countries.

“We want our staff to feel comfortable, but we do have an obligation to serve the public,” he said, noting management plans are being made “with the realization they might be modified.” Because of the unknowns, Ackerman said, visitors are also “going to have to adapt their expectations.”

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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Plan for Snow at Crater Lake

Looking for some winter recreation?

Conditions are good for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing at Crater Lake National Park.

About three feet of snow is reported at park headquarters in Munson Valley, with varied amounts at higher elevations along Rim Drive and near Rim Village. The road from the headquarters complex to the rim was expected to be open sometime Thursday and, with mostly clear weather forecast through Saturday night and a chance of snow Sunday, it’s expected to stay open through the weekend.

Visitors, whether skiing or just sightseeing, are urged to visit the park’s website at www.nps.gov/crla or call 541-584-3000 for updated road conditions. Visitors are cautioned to be prepared with snow tires, chains, layers of warm clothing and food and beverages. No concession services are offered at Rim Village or near the Annie Creek entrance station this winter, and the park’s usual visitor information offices are closed. Restrooms are available only at Rim Village.

No ranger-guided snowshoe walks are planned this winter but interpretive snowshoe outings will be offered by Sky Lakes Wilderness Adventures. For information, see skylakeswild.com or call 541-891-0435.

People cross-country or backcountry skiing or snowshoeing are urged to be aware of possible avalanche danger and are urged to carry beacons and other safety gear. Members of the Crater Lake Ski Patrol will patrol areas most weekends.

Crater Lake experienced record high attendance during some months this year, and record lows in other months, but expect lots of snow this winter, with three feet already on the ground. Photo by Lee Juillerat