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Winding down at Crater Lake

Heavy crush of summer visitation eases as fall approaches
Photo by Oliver Dodd/via FlickrWildfire smoke obscures the view of Crater Lake in August 2020. Smoke this summer has also been a problem at the park, but visitation remained high.
Photo by Lee Juillerat The Steel Visitor Center at Crater Lake National Park is closed through 2022 for major renovations.

CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — Visitation is winding down following one of Crater Lake National Park’s most unusual summers.

Despite many days of extremely poor air quality, visitation has remained high, but generally below last year’s record-setting levels.

“It’s been steady all summer, but the smoke slowed things down,” said Sean Denniston, who is serving as the park’s acting superintendent while Superintendent Craig Ackerman is on assignment as the National Park Service’s deputy regional director through mid-November. Denniston is no stranger to Crater Lake, having served as the park’s management assistant for several years.

After spring months when visitation was near record highs — numbers in March and April rated as the second and third most in park history while May set a record with 56,746 — numbers increased significantly in the early summer. June saw 95,515 visitors, the fifth most, while July recorded 194,172 visits, the fourth most.

Visitation figures for August are not yet available but, according to Denniston, “It was definitely quieter.” In recent years August has been the park’s most active month, including an all-time record for any month of 222,368 visitors in August 2020.

Denniston said smoke and air quality has often been better in the mornings, with increasing levels through the afternoons, “when folks skedaddle,” into evenings. Updated information on the park’s air quality is available through the park website at www.nps.gov/crla/planyourvisit/air-quality.htm.

As previously announced, the annual Ride the Rim events set for Sept. 11 and 18 were canceled. During the second and third Saturdays in September, East Rim Drive is normally closed to motor vehicles to allow bicyclists, walkers and runners to experience a vehicle-free experience. The event was canceled because of very unhealthy air quality, COVID-19 and limited staffing.

Visitors are seeing changes. The Steel Visitor Center in Munson Valley was recently closed and fenced off so that construction crews can begin a long-needed project to stabilize the building against earthquakes and excessive snow loads. Originally built as a ranger dormitory, the building has served as the park’s main visitor contact center for decades.

Denniston said the stone building will retain its historic integrity. The building’s mortar is being reinforced, and the roof requires repairs to handle usual winter snow loads — “You can see the waves in the top of the roof,” he said. In addition, the project will upgrade the structure’s wiring, IT cables, plumbing and heating.

Work on the exterior will continue until snowfall causes crews to work inside. The project is expected to last through 2022.

During the closure, a temporary visitor center, park post office and Crater Lake Natural History Association sales outlet have been moved to Mazama Village near the park’s south entrance. Rangers will be available to provide information and show a park orientation film. Temporary bathrooms are also being added.

A major road construction project along East Rim Drive near the Cleetwood Cove parking area/trailhead is expected to start in 2023. In recent years the road from Rim Village to the North Entrance Road and Cleetwood Cove has been upgraded. “It’s especially noticeable now because West Rim Drive is so nice,” Denniston said of people noting deteriorating road conditions on East Rim Drive.

The upgrade will include what Denniston says are long-needed repairs to rock walls along Rim Drive, because “all that historic fabric needs to be maintained.”

Earlier this season the Cleetwood Cove Trail, the only trail that accesses the lake, was closed to stabilize the trail tread and retaining walls.

“We’re deep in planning,” Denniston said, noting park staff are working to make the trail safer while also developing plans to improve the Cleetwood bulkhead and dock system. In addition, studies are being done to improve the efficiency of the lakeside compost toilet, which has seen much heavier use because of increased visitation.

The concession-operated Mazama Campground and Mazama Village store, gas station and cabins are scheduled to close late this month, with the Crater Lake Lodge, which is open only to registered guests, set to close in mid-October.

Concession facilities at the Rim Village Cafeteria-Gift Shop are planned to be open through the winter. The facility provides a variety of services, include gift sales, food and snowshoe rentals. For updated information on park programs and concession services, see the park website at www.nps.gov/crla.

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

Meetings on trail plan expected soon

Public meetings on the long-anticipated Crater Lake National Park Trail Management Plan will likely be held within a month or two.

“That’s going to happen soon,” acting Superintendent Sean Denniston said of the plan, which is awaiting approval from the National Park Service’s regional office.

Public review sessions are planned, possibly via Zoom or other Internet services, instead of open public meetings because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan will include information on possible new trails. Draft alternatives include developing Munson Valley and Munson Valley spur trails, upgrading the existing Grayback Trail to allow equestrians, dogs and mountain bikers along with hikers, creating a handicap-accessible Mazama Campground loop trail, developing a Rim Road Trail that would include portions of the historic Rim Road, and creating a new Ponderosa Pine Trail.

Another alternative would create additional new trails, including a Complete Rim Trail, Cascades Spring Trail, Mazama Rock Trail, handicap-accessible Grotto Cove Overlook Trail, multi-purpose Munson Valley Roadside Trail, Panhandle Trail, Union Peak to Stuart Falls trail connector, Maklaks Crater Loop for hikers and equestrians, and Castle Creek Canyon Overlook Trail, among others.

Lake cam out of service

People wondering whether Crater Lake can be seen because of ongoing smoke from regional forest fires have been unable to use the park’s webcam for more than a month.

Acting Superintendent Sean Denniston said a lightning storm earlier this summer damaged the connection to the camera that shows the lake. Despite ongoing efforts to repair the camera, it remains out of service.

“It’s super frustrating. We’re trying to get it fixed,” Denniston said, noting another camera that will show the lake may be installed if repairs to the existing camera are unsuccessful. “It’s one of those not-easy-to-fix issues.”