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Looking forward to summer at Crater Lake

Last week Crater Lake National Park Superintendent Craig Ackerman said he hoped the North Entrance Road into the park would be open in time for Memorial Day weekend, but with lots of new snow in the last week — including 4 inches Tuesday — that’s not going to happen.

As of Thursday, West Rim Drive had been cleared about halfway to the North Entrance. People can drive from Rim Village for about a mile to Discovery Point, but no farther. There are no estimates on when West Rim Drive will be opened to the North Entrance or to Cleetwood Cove.

Heavy February snow, combined with the five-week federal government shutdown that closed the park, along with ongoing problems with snow removal equipment, have slowed progress on the 33-mile-long Rim Drive that loops around the lake.

Ackerman said people have become accustomed to early Rim Drive openings because of several years of below average snow.

“This is more typical, this is the way it used to be,” he said, referring to the 2018-19 snowfall, which was still below the 524-inch long-term average.

Rim Drive is often not totally cleared of snow until July and sometimes closes in September because of early snow. “And when we do have good weather, we have 300,000 a month (in July and August). No one understands the snow amounts until they come up here and see it,” Ackerman said.

In recent summers, visitors have sometimes had delays while driving because of road projects, but “visitors aren’t going to see any major work this year.” The projects planned for this year — completing construction of a water well at Annie Springs, removing hazard trees, trail maintenance and restoration, re-vegetation and rehabilitation work in areas impacted by forest fires, and finalizing a comprehensive trail management plan — aren’t expected to impact visitors in 2019, making it a good year to visit the park once the snow gets plowed.

If trends in recent years continue, visitation should continue at historic levels. Despite wildfire smoke last year, 770,000 people visited in 2018, the second-highest ever. The most visits, 805,000, were recorded in 2016, while 2017 had 761,000. Added parking is being provided at Picnic Hill, the former campground at Rim Village.

Something visitors probably won’t notice is a change in concession operations. Crater Lake Hospitality, a subsidiary of Aramark, which operates in many large national parks, is beginning its first year handling concessions at both Crater Lake and Oregon Caves National Monument.

Plans to replace the park’s fleet of boats used for lake tours, originally planned this summer, were shelved to allow Crater Lake Hospitality to operate the ranger-led lake tours to see how new boats should be reconfigured.

“There are far more people who want to take tours than we can handle,” said Ackerman, who hopes the new boats will carry more passengers and have quieter engines. “I’d rather give Crater Lake Hospitality an extra year to get the right design.”

Along with the ranger-narrated, two-hour, around-the-lake tours, other boat tours and shuttles allow visitors to stay at Wizard Island for several hours to fish, swim or hike up and back to the island’s caldera. Tickets for all tours should be bought in advance. Tours begin and end at the Cleetwood Cove boat dock, a 1.1-mile one-way hike from Rim Drive’s Cleetwood Cove parking area. It’s an easy downhill, but the 700-foot climb back can be challenging, especially because of the park’s high elevation, about 7,000 feet above sea level. Contact the Crater Lake Lodge or read Reflections, the park’s visitor guide, for information about boat tours.

An easier way to view the lake is a two-hour, ranger narrated tour on the Crater Lake Trolley, which stops at selected viewpoints. If driving a personal vehicle, recommended viewpoints — clockwise from Rim Village — include Discovery Point, the North Junction, Cloudcap, Pumice Castle and Phantom Ship Overlook.

For people willing to walk to viewpoints, the 0.8-mile Sun Notch Trail is an easy choice for panoramic lake views. Other hikes with lake views include the 1.5-mile walk to The Watchman, 3.6-mile climb to Garfield Peak and 4.4-mile hilly trek to Mount Scott. The trails require more time and energy but provide eye-popping vistas. Rangers lead day hikes up Garfield and evening walks up The Watchman. Details on ranger-led hikes are provided in Reflections or the visitor contact stations.

Worth a visit is the historic Crater Lake Lodge, which is located in Rim Village and overlooks the lake. Rooms are usually sold out in advance, but it’s always a treat to visit the Great Hall or view the lake from deck chairs on the outside patio. The dining room provides three meals a day, with reservations suggested for dinner. Ranger-narrated lodge talks are offered during the summer.

For people wanting to see more than the lake, the half-mile Castle Crest Wildflower Garden loop trail offers a textbook variety of flowers. The second-most visited trail — Cleetwood Cove Trail is No. 1 — is the two-mile out-and-back to Plaikni Falls, an easy walk through an old-growth forest to the waterfall. Most of the trail is usable for wheelchairs with assistance, although the last section has a short steep climb. Slightly more challenging is the 1.75-mile Annie Creek Trail, a loop trail that winds through a deep stream-cut canyon. For history buffs, the 0.7-mile Lady of the Woods loop trail is fascinating. A self-guided trail brochure explains how park architects integrated their designs with the natural landscape and the history of the trail’s namesake Lady of the Woods, a sculpture of a woman carved into a boulder alongside the trail.

Easy to overlook is the park’s most informative overlook, the Sinnot Memorial. Perched on a rock ledge behind the Rim Visitor Contact Station, it features an indoor exhibit room and an open parapet with spectacular lake views. Most helpfully, the relief model and extremely instructional exhibits explain the park’s geology and ongoing lake research. Ranger talks are presented daily during the summer. Because the overlook is located down a steep, historic walkway with stairs, it is not accessible to people with limited mobility.

New this summer will be expanded night sky programs, with eight sessions planned from various overlooks.

Information on park programs and current road conditions are available at the park’s website at www.nps.gov/crla, by calling 541-594-3000, or stopping at the Rim Village Visitor Center and the Steel Visitor Center in Munson Valley. Along with the Crater Lake Lodge, overnight possibilities include The Cabins at Mazama Village and the 214-site developed Mazama Campground near the park’s south entrance, and the 16-unit, less-developed Lost Creek Campground on The Pinnacles Road. Food and dining is also offered at the Rim Village Cafe-Gift Shop and the Annie Creek Restaurant. Groceries, camping supplies and gasoline are available at the Mazama Village Store.

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

A visitor enjoys the view of Crater Lake from the Discovery Point area in April. With lots of recent snow, Rim Drive won't be plowed in time for Memorial Day weekend. Photo by Lee Juillerat