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How many are too many?

CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — How many are too many?

Visitation at Crater Lake National Park continues to increase and, according to superintendent Craig Ackerman, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

“We’re approaching numbers that become unmanageable for us,” Ackerman said, noting this year’s visitor numbers are expected to climb above 780,000, a slight increase over 2018 when visitation totaled 770,250.

He believes as the yearly figure approaches a million visitors, “We will probably be beyond the capacity we can provide quality service.”

Crater Lake’s visitor numbers can be deceptive because the vast majority of people come between July and September. That’s because the park averages about 535 inches of snow from October through May or June, which limits services. During much of the year the North Entrance Road is closed, as is Rim Drive, the 33-mile long road that circles the lake. Rim Drive, which closed Nov. 1, typically is mostly closed until about Memorial Day and usually not completely open until mid to late June or July. Campgrounds, ranger-led interpretive programs, access to hiking trails, including the trail to Cleetwood Cove, the only route to the lake, and concession services are limited or not available for extended periods.

Ackerman said 2019 has been a “difficult year.” The park was mostly closed during the 35-day government shutdown, although visitors could walk or cross-country ski from the park’s west entrance at Annie Springs 4 miles to park headquarters or, less often, another three uphill miles to the rim. The park was inundated with 135 inches of snow in February, a problem made more challenging because six of the seven snow-clearing machines, all the plows and blowers, were inoperable. At one point, he said only a grader was available.

“We’re subject to the whims of the weather,” Ackerman said, adding, “I think we are prepared this winter.”

Other challenges happened during peak summer periods, especially holiday weekends, when visitors faced delays up to an hour to reach entrance stations at Annie Springs off Highway 62 and the North Entrance off Highway 138. Ackerman said there are preliminary proposals to add a second station at Annie Springs but noted a long-range solution would require widening entrance roads off Highways 62 and 138. He termed the Annie Springs entrance a “real bottleneck” because motorists from Klamath Falls and Medford converge at the junction. He recommends summer visitors plan to arrive before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m.

To ease congestion and add parking at Rim Village, park officials may create a one-way system by having motorists exit through Picnic Hill, where extra parking could be provided.

The park’s new concessionaire, Aramark, which in November 2018 took over operations of Crater Lake Lodge, Mazama Campground, Rim Village Cafe-Gift Shop and the Annie Creek store, gas station and cabins, also experienced challenges. Aramark had difficulties hiring personnel, a problem complicated by relatively low wages and housing shortages in and near the park, a problem faced at many national parks. Failures with the lodge’s heating system and water system problems resulted in the need for extensive repairs. In addition, the Mazama Campground opening was delayed to remove numerous hazard trees.

Park officials had hoped that after a season of operating lake boat tours, Aramark would have a new fleet in place for 2020, but boat design studies have not been completed. Ackerman said electric-powered boats are not feasible because it’s currently not possible to recharge batteries.

Regarding electric cars, he said the park has one charging station that’s “pretty much used continuously.” Stations cannot be installed at most of Rim Village, which is a historic district, so park officials are studying the feasibility of stations near the Lodge.

Ackerman said Aramark, which will have a new general manager in early December, is also considering upgrading the camper store, restaurant and cabins in Mazama Village and at the Lodge. “We’re working closely with them,” he said.

Although Crater Lake is the nation’s fifth-oldest national park, it has never had a full-scale visitor information-education center. Previous estimates for a center, which has been discussed for decades, were recently set at about $11 million. The park has two visitor contact stations that provide limited visitor offerings, at the Steel Center in Munson Valley and, during summer months, at the Kiser Studio in Rim Village.

Other park projects under study include rehabilitating and stabilizing the 1.1-mile trail from the expanded Cleetwood Cove parking area to the lake at Cleetwood Cove, where boats leave for summertime lake circuits. Temporary dock facilities will remain in place for at least another year.

Ackerman said plans to restore the Steel Visitor Contact Station, previously scheduled to begin in 2020 and take two years, may be delayed to start in 2021. Before the multi-million dollar project begins, the information station, sales outlet, post office and restrooms will be relocated to double-wide trailers at Mazama Village, and park staff working at the Steel Center will be moved to other offices.

Delayed, too, is a Federal Highway Administration project to repave and upgrade East Rim Drive from Cleetwood Cove to Munson Valley. Estimated cost is about $39 million. Road and all construction work is seasonal because of heavy snow that typically lasts eight to nine months a year.

On a positive note, Ackerman noted forest fires that have caused smoke concerns in recent summers were nearly nonexistent this year. The park had five official fires, all lightning-caused, with the largest only .3 of an acre. In contrast, fires burned 3,600 acres in 2018 and about 60,000 acres in 2017.

“We have a lot of challenges, but that’s part of the job,” Ackerman said. “We’re always looking for ways to do things better.”

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

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