A below-average snowpack and potentially early opening of Rim Drive around Crater Lake could mean a record number of visitors at Crater Lake National Park this year.
However, in a speech to a Klamath Falls Rotary club last week, acting superintendent Sean Denniston cautioned that forest fire smoke could once again cut into those numbers.
Denniston noted that Crater Lake appeared on its way to eclipsing the record 756,000 people who visited the park in 2016 until two fires, the Spruce Lake and Blanket Creek, began in late July. Smoke from the fires obscured lake views, forced the cancellation of many boat tours, and resulted in evacuation warnings, but no actual evacuations.
“They had a huge impact on visitation,” said Denniston, who is serving as the park’s interim superintendent while Craig Ackerman is on a temporary assignment at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in Northern California.
Even with the fires and other problems created by ongoing road construction and events that forced the park to import water for two months, Denniston said unofficial figures indicate Crater Lake had 712,000 visitors last year, the second highest figure in park history. In 2016, economic studies indicate visitors spent $65.3 million in nearby communities, supported 1,100 jobs and generated a cumulative benefit to the regional economy of $89.4 million.
Visits to the park are expected to increase early this year because of a relatively light winter. The average winter snowfall is 524 inches, but as of Friday, the seasonal snow total was about 300 inches, about two-thirds of average. In 2017, a snowy winter dumped 578 inches, delaying the opening of the North Entrance Road, which often is cleared by Memorial Day.
Denniston described the low snowpack as “good-bad.” Good because road crews have already cleared nearly a mile of Rim Drive from Rim Village to the North Entrance, which allows travelers to more easily drive in and out of the park. “We’re probably going to be able to open up earlier than usual,” he said.
The light snowpack, however, means less water for Klamath Basin farmers, ranchers, irrigators and others already facing potential drought concerns. Last year’s “call” on water by the Klamath Tribes to protect endangered fish also forced the park to truck in water from the town of Chiloquin for two months. But an in-park well that was completed at the end of that period will now provide protection from a repeat.
“Any future calls won’t impact operations in the park,” Denniston said.
He also offered updates on its expanded Sister Park program, trails management plan and hopes for a first-ever dedicated visitor center.
Last year Crater Lake officials formalized a partnership agreement with Mount Triglav National Park in Slovenia. Following ceremonies in Slovenia, a Crater Lake ranger visited Triglav to help implement programs. Representatives from Slovenia have been invited to visit Crater Lake this summer. Denniston said the program is partially intended for “getting people interested in Oregon from that part of the world (Eastern Europe).”
He said a previously signed Sister Park agreement with Wuyshan National Park in China has benefited Crater Lake, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest by increasing visits from Chinese tourists.
Denniston said the park’s first-ever trails management plan, which will outline trails for hikers and possibly mountain bikers, will be put out for public comment later this year.
Efforts to convert a former Rim Village gift shop-cafe to a dedicated visitor education center, which stalled when it was determined the original cost estimates were far too low, are continuing. Denniston and Bill Thorndike of the Crater Lake Trust said fundraising efforts for the multi-million dollar center will be renewed.
“Just think of the opportunities in the future, especially in the winter,” Thorndike said.
Thorndike noted the Trust previously helped create the Crater Lake Science and Learning Center, which offers education programs for students and teachers. He said the Crater Lake license plate program has generated about $5.3 million, with much of those funds used to support the Classroom at Crater Lake program. More than 400,000 Crater Lake license plates have been sold since the program began in 2002. The one-time cost has been increased from $20 to $30.
Reach freelance reporter Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.