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Crater Lake saw fewer visitors this summer

Many of park’s planned projects this summer have been pushed to 2023 and 2024 amid supply issues, hiring problems, economics
Crater Lake and Wizard Island are seen from the Mount Scott Trail. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
Crater Lake officials say they hope more boat tours will be offered in 2023. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — It was an up and down summer at Crater Lake National Park.

Although figures for August are not yet available, visitation at Oregon’s only national park dropped steeply in June and July compared with 2021. Because of staffing shortages and construction, visitors had fewer opportunities to participate in ranger-led programs and lake boat tours.

Crater Lake Hospitality, the park’s concessionaire, had trouble hiring seasonal staff, including Coast Guard certified boat captains, so two-hour tours were available only from Aug. 26 to Sept. 13 — “the shortest boat season on record,” according to park superintendent Craig Ackerman.

Likewise, because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, seasonal staffing shortages and the ongoing closure of the Munson Valley visitor contact station, several of the park’s summer programs were reduced or eliminated. Mazama Campground was open for the summer, but Lost Creek Campground was closed because of water supply-related concerns.

Visitation at the park in July 2021 totaled 194,712 compared with 139,513 this July. The June 2022 total was 70,975, well below the 95,155 counted in 2021. As of July 31, 284,967 visits were reported this year.

“We don’t really have any data to determine why that is,” Ackerman said, although he and others speculate that with eased COVID restrictions and high gasoline prices, people stayed closer to home and resumed other summer activities.

Visitors also faced challenges because of ongoing reconstruction of the park’s main visitor contact station in the park headquarters complex in Munson Valley. A temporary contact station was placed at Mazama Village near the park’s South Entrance but received relatively few visitors.

The reconstruction originally was scheduled for completion this November, but Ackerman said the contractors experienced supply problems, setting back reopening to June 2023. The delay means the current temporary contact station has to be removed because it was not built to accommodate the park’s usual heavy snow loads.

Ackerman said reduced visits at the temporary contact station reinforce decadeslong efforts to create a true visitor center at Rim Village because “people aren’t apt to turn off the main road when they’re headed to the lake.” Although Crater Lake is the nation’s fifth-oldest national park, it has never had what a succession of park officials consider a “true visitor center.”

Inflation and other factors are causing the park to delay construction projects, including repaving most of East Rim Drive and rebuilding the Cleetwood Cove Trail, which provides the only lakshore access. Ackerman said the lack of funding stemming from rising costs nationally means the East Rim Drive reconstruction likely won’t start until 2023 or 2024.

Likewise, rebuilding the Cleetwood Cove Trail — deemed hazardous — “definitely” will not begin until 2024. Because of the park’s short construction season, “that will entail at least a two-year closure,” Ackerman said. “There’s just no way to get the public down there on a continuous basis” during construction, he said.

Another project, widening the South Entrance off Highway 62, is in the planning stages. Because Highway 62 is a two-lane highway, during peak traffic periods it often is backed up, sometimes a mile or more. Tentative plans call for widening Highway 62 and possibly reconstructing or modifying the existing one-lane road entering the park and adding a second entrance station.

“We’re doing everything we can to ease that,” Ackerman said of the delays in entering the park. He said staff are investigating ways visitors can pay by phone or other means to possibly speed the park entry process.

The park’s annual Ride the Rim drew more than 4,000 participants, mostly bicyclists, Sept. 10 and 17. Ackerman said the numbers were fewer than registered.

Smoke from wildfires may have reduced the number of participants Sept. 10 while cold weather likely discouraged people Sept. 17, when heavy rain and hail fell that afternoon. Ackerman noted a “tremendous increase” in people riding e-assist bicycles and more “people of a greater age.”

In projecting ranger-led offerings, including the completion of the headquarters visitor center, expanded boat tours and other programs, he said: “Hopefully we’ll get back to normal in 2023.”

Ackerman, in his 16th year as park superintendent, said because various construction projects — including multiyear repairs to East Rim Drive and closure of the Cleetwood Cove Trail — have been delayed, “next year will be the good year to visit the park because it will be before all the construction.”

For those heading to the national park this fall, the entire 33-mile-long Rim Drive is still open, but people wanting to drive around the lake should do so in coming weeks.

Depending on when snow falls, Rim Drive could be closed to all travel within the coming month. The road’s “hard closure” is Nov. 1, but in 10 of the past 13 years, the road has closed before then, sometimes in early to mid-October, because of snow.

Long-range weather forecasts call for a potentially snowy, wet winter. The average annual snowfall at the park is 575 inches, but in recent years far less snow has fallen. Once there is ample snow, ranger-guided snowshoe walks will be offered.

New boats that will replace those used to ferry park visitors on lake tours could be ready next summer.

Ackerman said park staff will meet with officials from Aramark, which operates the park’s concession services, before final approval for larger, quieter and more reliable tour boats. Tentative designs indicate the new boats will hold 45 to 55 passengers, an increase from the current 37. Because of newer technology, including dual engines, it will no longer be necessary to keep one at the Cleetwood Cove boat dock in reserve in case a current single-engine boat has problems.

The contract calls for operating 10 lake tours a day, something not done in the abbreviated 2022 summer. Ackerman said the larger capacity boats — and ability to have all three boats operating — mean another 80 to 150 people per day can take the often sold-out tours.

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