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Crater Lake prepares for summer after a dry winter

Photo courtesy Crater Lake National Park Snow-clearing work at Crater Lake is well ahead of schedule this spring, one of the few benefits of an extremely dry winter at the park.

It was one of the driest of the dry winters.

Even though heavy snow fell Monday at Crater Lake National Park, snow records are being set at the park this season, and not in the way drought-stricken people in Southern Oregon want to see.

On Monday morning, 42 inches of snow was measured at park headquarters in Munson Valley, well below the average of 116 inches you’d expect to see on that date, and only 36% of the historical average. The snow year total measured since Oct. 1 was 290 inches, well below the average of 420 inches.

Park records show a steady decline in the average yearly snowfall. Twenty years ago, the average winter snowfall, as measured from Oct. 1 through June, was 534 inches. In recent years the average has dropped to 395 inches a season. Precipitation, which measures rain and melted snow for the season, is 37 inches, well below the 52-inch average. During one 30-day stretch this winter, no precipitation was measured.

The 2021-22 winter season has produced other surprises. Heavy snowfall in December had the snowpack at 150% of average, giving hope for a long, snowy season. Along with benefiting winter recreationalists, a strong snowpack and spring melt can charge water levels for rivers and streams that feed Upper Klamath Lake, the Klamath River and other tributaries.

The quickly diminishing snowpack has some benefits, such as easing the task of clearing Rim Drive, the road that loops around the lake. By last week, West Rim Drive from Rim Village to the North Junction had been cleared. Crews are still working to open the North Entrance Road to the North Park Entrance at Highway 138.

The gate at Rim Village remains closed so crews can clear possible rockfalls and patches of roadside snow, but the road is open to walkers and bicyclists. Until recently, most years the North Entrance Road was opened at the earliest by the Memorial Day weekend.

Once the North Entrance Road opens, crews will redirect plowing efforts toward Cleetwood Cove, the take-off point for the only trail leading to the lake, and then continue around East Rim Drive to park headquarters.

Exactly what National Park Service programs will be offered this summer are in flux. The Steel Center Visitor Center in Munson Valley, which closed last year for remodeling and seismic rehabilitation, remains closed. The center normally houses an information desk, offices, a theater and gift shop. Work that began last year is continuing and will last until at least 2023.

Among the biggest changes is the addition of a temporary welcome center that Superintendent Craig Ackerman said he hopes will open in early June at Mazama Village, just inside the park’s South Entrance. Temporary trailers will be located in the parking area behind the Annie Creek Store-Restaurant. Park rangers will be available to provide information on program offerings, such as hikes and campground evening talks, and show a park orientation film. The trailer complex will also include a Crater Lake Natural History Association gift shop and a post office. Limited restrooms with flush toilets will be available.

“That’s our focus right now,” Sean Denniston, who had served as the park’s interim superintendent until last week, said of opening the Mazama Village visitor contact center. Other Mazama Village offerings, including a gas station, camper store and campground, are all managed through the park concessionaire, Crater Lake Hospitality.

Masking requirements stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic were recently downgraded so masks are now optional inside park and concession facilities. If transmission levels in Klamath and Jackson counties, which have been declining in recent weeks, should again increase mask requirements could be reimposed.

After not being offered the past two summers because of COVID restrictions and low staffing, ranger-led programs are planned this season.

“We are hoping to have a variety of in-person, ranger-guided activities this summer,” said Marsha McCabe, the park’s interpretative ranger. “The exact schedule of offerings will be determined at a later date and will depend on a number of factors, including staffing levels.”

The park’s most popular trail, the 1.1-mile Cleetwood Cove Trail, which provides the only access to the lake, will reopen in June or July. Concession boat tours, with talks by a park ranger, are planned but probably on a limited schedule.

People wanting to take the highly scenic and educational boat tours or simply walk to the lake, where swimming and fishing are allowed, might want to make that a priority because park managers are planning to close the Cleetwood Cove Trail in 2024 for significant repairs and upgrades to the trail and dock facility. That work is expected to take two years. In addition, the composting toilets at Cleetwood Cove will be replaced.

Reconstruction of East Rim Drive is now planned as a three-year project with sections of the road being repaired or completely redone during the short summer season when the road is clear of snow.

As noted on the park website, “Construction projects take center stage over the next several years at Crater Lake National Park, as deferred maintenance projects get funded. Building remodels, road and trail improvements, and more will be the story as visitors will likely experience traffic delays, additional congestion, and at times limited services during the construction windows.”

And, as the site also noted, “All in all, these are projects that, once completed, make the park more enjoyable while providing better, safer access for all.”

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

Snow levels declining at Crater Lake

Snowfall records, which have been kept at Crater Lake since the 1930s, show a mostly steady decline in the yearly averages over the decades.

1930s – 614 inches

1940s – 623 inches

1950s – 572 inches

1960s – 507 inches

1970s – 495 inches

1980s – 475 inches

1990s – 493 inches

2000s – 455 inches

2010s – 395 inches