A sea of frozen white at Crater Lake
Efforts to reopen the road so visitors to Crater Lake National Park can see the lake continue to be frustrated by new snow but, even more, equipment breakdowns.
“The road gets narrower and narrower,” park superintendent Craig Ackerman says of the three-mile road from park headquarters in Munson Valley up to Rim Village. “We can’t open the road until we have room for two vehicles. Right now there is no place to push the snow off the side of the road.”
A combination of record-setting snow in February and ongoing equipment breakdowns have frustrated road-opening efforts. All three of the park’s rotary snow-clearing plows remain broken down and unusable. One machine has major damage that could cost thousands of dollars to repair, while another requires custom-made parts. The rotary plows shoot snow over roadside snowbanks, which vary from 10- to 15-feet high.
February’s snowfall total of 154 inches was the seventh-highest for the month since weather records have been kept — the six higher amounts came before 1960. As of Wednesday, the snowpack was 111 percent of average for March 13, but overall the snowfall total for the winter was at 93 percent because of exceptionally light snow October through January.
“It’s been really exciting to have an average snow year,” said Marsha McCabe, the park’s chief of interpretation, noting snow in recent years has been well below the seasonal average of 535 inches. “It’s just that it all fell at once at a time when our equipment is broken.”
Viewing the lake has been problematic this winter. The road from park headquarters to Rim Village has mostly been closed since the 35-day federal government shutdown that began Dec. 22. Since the shutdown end, the park has been frequently hammered by heavy snow, including more than a foot in recent days. The road to the rim was closed Feb. 5, and has been open only briefly since then. The road is not expected to open to visitors in coming days so services at the Rim Village Cafe-Gift Shop are also expected to remain closed. Several people have made the difficult climb up the Raven Trail, a steep route that begins near park headquarters, on snowshoes. The road to the rim from park headquarters is closed to snowshoers and skiers to avoid conflicts with snow-clearing equipment.
Plowing those massive amounts of snow has been challenging. For a time, only one of the park’s snow-removal vehicles, a grader, was operating.
“That’s just a symptom of them being too old,” Ackerman said, noting the park’s two large rotary snowplows have logged more than 10,000 hours, more than double their expected life span. Repairing snow-removal equipment is difficult because they require special parts, including specialty items built specifically for park equipment, while others are manufactured overseas.
“We’re doing a lot of Fed Ex overnight shipping for parts,” he said, noting park staff have made frequent trips to the Medford airport to retrieve items to speed repairs.
Frequent, heavy snow has posed other problems. On most days, the priority has been keeping open the four-mile-long road from the junction of Highway 62 to park headquarters, which is also the location of residences for some park staff and their families. Some days, Ackerman said, the operating plows were used to keep open Highway 62, which connects the park to Fort Klamath to the south and Union Creek/Prospect to the west. Some days Highway 62 was closed, and other days, when only a single lane was open, park staff escorted vehicles through the closure.
Ackerman said accumulations of heavy snow have increased avalanche danger along the road between headquarters and the rim, noting, “With the way the snow has been falling and consolidating, there has been a serious avalanche danger.”
Replacing the park’s aging fleet of snow-removal equipment is unlikely to happen soon, Ackerman said, noting other high-elevation national parks, such as Mount Rainier and Yosemite, are facing similar snow problems. Although Crater Lake’s budget has not been cut, he said inflation and other higher operating costs effectively “means you’re trying to do the same amount of work with fewer dollars.”
Ongoing closures at Rim Village have limited operations for Crater Lake Hospitality, which is in its first year as the park’s concessionaire. Road closures to the rim mean the usual winter food and other services at the Rim Village Cafe and Gift Shop have extremely limited operations, which has resulted in staff resignations. If the road to Rim Village is open, the facility is open only Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Although the road to the rim has mostly been closed for almost three months, Ackerman said park staff have seen an increase in “adventure skiers” making the three-mile, uphill ski to and along the rim. Skiing is allowed throughout the park, except in the caldera. Signs warning about avalanches and cornices are posted.
He said there have been reports of snowmobiles traveling on closed areas, including the Pumice Desert. Snowmobiles are allowed only along the North Entrance Road to the North Junction. Enforcement, however, has been limited.
“All of that is absolutely prohibited,” Ackerman said of snowmobiles leaving the North Entrance Road.
Spring opening, when plows begin plowing from Rim Village along West Rim Drive toward the North Entrance, normally begins in April.
“No idea,” Ackerman said of when snow removal efforts might begin. “That will totally depend on what the weather is like in April and May. We just don’t know what to expect.”
For updated information on road conditions to and at Crater Lake National Park, see the park’s website at www.nps.gov/crla or call park headquarters, open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 541-591-2211.
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at email@example.com or 541-880-4139.