The year 2020 isn’t over yet, but it’s already been a roller coaster for Crater Lake National Park.
Based on figures through October, the park set five records for monthly visitation in 2020 — three for historic lows and two for historic highs.
“It’s been a very unusual year, to say the least,” said Marcia McCabe, the park’s chief of interpretation.
Superintendent Craig Ackerman said it was a challenge “trying to manage the day-to-day life of the park when we don’t know what to expect.”
According to park records dating back to 1982, the park saw historic low visitation in April, May and September and historic highs in July and August.
Only 686 visits were recorded in April and just 814 in May, both well below previous lows of 3,389 in April 2003 and 18,618 in May 2011. September’s mark was 59,093, just under the 59,111 people who visited that month in 2008.
But the reverse happened during the summer.
There were record high visitation figures of 209,078 in July and 222,368 in August. Those eclipsed the high marks of 208,237 in July 2017 and 176,895 in August 2016.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with park programs since March. And with new mandatory restrictions imposed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown and increasing caseloads, operating plans for the winter and for 2021 remain in a state of flux.
Park visitors are finding extremely limited services, with all concession operations closed and only the park-maintained restrooms at Rim Village open. The visitor contact stations at park headquarters in Munson Valley and at Rim Village are closed. No ranger programs, such as winter ranger-guided snowshoe walks, will be offered. The Crater Lake Ski Patrol, however, will have volunteers on duty weekends and some holidays.
Ackerman the park considered having some winter operations temporarily relocated to the Annie Creek area, but said a risk management analysis determined “overwhelming logistic difficulties” because the building is not designed for winter operations. In an average winter, Crater Lake receives about 538 inches of snow.
Aramark, which took over park concession services in 2019, could provide only limited services this summer because of the pandemic. It will offer none of its usual winter services at Rim Village. Those closures have a direct impact on the park’s interpretive program, because a portion of concession fees are used to fund park staff, including seasonal employees.
No ranger-led hikes were held during the summer visitor season and no ranger boat talks were held either because the popular lake boat tours were canceled.
More positively, McCabe said that despite a severely reduced staff, they were able to offer new online programs, such as “Coffee With A Ranger.” Crews handed out more than 10,000 Junior Ranger booklets and updated 12 information boards located at frequently-visited park sites.
“It was certainly a learning experience,” McCabe said of the summer season and increased social media presence.
Early int the summer, some first-time visitors, unaware of safety protocols, carried innertubes, fins, flotation devices and other items that could have compromised the lake’s water quality. McCabe and Ackerman said that by reassigning staff to the Cleetwood Cove Trailhead, where a 1.1-mile trail provides the only access to the lake, those problems were solved. Rangers stationed at the trailhead informed visitors about restrictions and the closure of the lakeside restrooms.
“It was kind of an unsupervised free-for-all,” McCabe said of the situation before rangers were moved from various jobs to monitor the trailhead. During about a five-week period, she said staff contacted about 35,000 people.
“It turned out to be very important to have park staff out there,” she said.
Unless the boat tours are offered next summer, Ackerman said park staff will again be stationed at the trailhead.
Ackerman stressed that the first priority for park managers is keeping Crater Lake safe for employees and visitors. He said it’s unknown how Governor Brown’s recent restrictions will impact visitation, especially after the ups and downs experienced already this year, and because park visitors typically come from across the nation and other countries.
“We want our staff to feel comfortable but we do have an obligation to serve the public,” he said, noting management plans are being made “with the realization they might be modified.” Because of the unknowns, Ackerman said visitors are also “going to have to adapt their expectations.”