AROUND OREGON: National Parks in Northwest post record highs, lows in visitors during 2020

A visitor takes a picture at the Watchman Overlook in Crater Lake National Park. (Jamie Hale/The Oregonian)

To say it’s been a hectic year for Northwest national parks is an understatement.

National park sites across the region posted record high numbers of visitors in 2020, as well as record lows, as park managers dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, raging wildfires and swarming crowds of people, some of whom endangered their own safety and the natural landscapes themselves.

Monthly visitor numbers published by the National Park Service from 2020 show an up and down year across Oregon: Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon broke several monthly records last year, for example, while the nearby Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve posted the lowest annual visitor total since 1945.

The same was true in Washington, where Olympic National Park posted its lowest annual visitor total since 1984, while places like Ross Lake National Recreation Area and San Juan Island National Historical Park set new monthly and annual records.

Under normal circumstances, the numbers might show long-term travel trends or temporary dips caused by natural disasters. In 2020, they represent a complex set of variables unique to each park’s response to an extremely abnormal year.

John Day Fossil Beds

A boardwalk leads along the Painted Cove Trail, through red and yellow deposits of rock in the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

“Everyone knows that 2020, no matter what kind of record you kept, you’re always going to have an asterisk next to it,” said Sarah Holman, chief of interpretation and education at the John Day Fossil Beds in central Oregon.

The fossil beds saw 88,571 visitors last year, less than half of the previous year’s total of 197,091, and the lowest annual number since 1976 – the first year on record. The 2020 number seems to imply that popular park attractions like the Painted Hills and Blue Basin were empty last year, but Holman said that wasn’t the case.

The John Day Fossil Beds closed its visitor center and all outdoor areas of the park in March, as the spread of COVID-19 prompted the closure of virtually all outdoor recreation areas in the Pacific Northwest. Outdoor areas of the park reopened in May, and in July the park announced a limited reopening of the visitor center, cutting back its hours and limiting visitors to 10 at a time.

Limiting crowds in the visitor center was a necessary action from a public health standpoint, but it also meant fewer people were counted as they explored the fossil beds, underselling crowd sizes, Holman said.

“It’s over a 50% decrease in visitation, but based upon that number, we aren’t counting people who are coming into the visitor center,” Holman said. “All of our outdoor areas, all of our trails remained popular all summer.”

That follows a trend of increased crowds at outdoor areas across the region in 2020, including a surge of first-time hikers and campers, many of whom were driven to explore local parks and trails as other travel options were unavailable during the pandemic.

A visitor takes a picture at the Watchman Overlook. Views from Rim Drive in Crater Lake National Park.Jamie Hale/The Oregonian

Crowds also swarmed Crater Lake after it reopened June 8, setting monthly visitor records for July, August, October and December. Park superintendent Craig Ackerman said September would have likely been a record month as well, if not for nearby wildfires that temporarily shut down all park access roads.

The final visitor count for 2020 was 670,500 people at Crater Lake – the lowest annual total since 2015, but good for the fifth highest on record.

“That’s just a lot of people,” Ackerman said, and they’ve shown no signs of slowing down into the new year. “2021 looks like it will be a continuation of people having discovered outdoor recreation on our public lands during the pandemic.”

While park officials have been happy to see more people enjoying Crater Lake, their staff has been stretched thin. Due to pandemic restrictions on group housing, the number of staff at Crater Lake was cut in half in 2020. Growing crowds then forced that smaller staff to shift their energy to managing visitors and protecting natural spaces from misuse.

Over the summer, rangers dealt with illegal parking, visitors trying to bring pool toys into the pristine lake, and stranded hikers who climbed down into the caldera, including one incident in August that involved seven people who were cited.

Wait times to enter the park slowed to over an hour at some points last summer, Ackerman said, and got even worse once the snow began to fall. Seasonal road closures meant there was less parking at Crater Lake this winter, forcing cars to idle for up to two hours on icy park roads during the holidays.

There’s no easy solution to overcrowding, Ackerman said. Other national parks like Yosemite in California and Zion in Utah have moved to permit systems for the most popular natural areas – something Crater Lake has considered doing at popular Cleetwood Cove, given the limited resources at hand.

“We don’t have a doubling in size in the National Park Service, but we have a doubling in size in the population they need to serve,” Ackerman said. “It’s just got to the point where the experience was diminished so much for people that it became imperative for the park service to manage the use.”

As crowds have increased at national parks in recent years, so has the risk for wildfires during peak summer months, compounding one unwieldy problem on top of another. Despite blazes burning all around them, none of Oregon’s national park sites saw significant damage due to wildfires in 2020.

Oregon Caves Trails

The Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve in Southwestern Oregon features 480 acres of old growth forest including “The Big Tree,” which is thought to be the largest Douglas fir (in circumference) in Oregon.Jamie Francis/The Oregonian

The Slater fire on the Oregon-California border came the closest, burning within two miles of the Oregon Caves. George Herring, chief of interpretation at the caves, said fire crews showed up to protect the historic Oregon Caves Chateau and other park buildings, as the fire quickly spread into southern Oregon.

“Everybody just woke up and the fire was already there,” Herring said.

The wildfire shut down the national monument for more than three months, from September to December, marking the only time the national park site was closed in 2020. While almost all other park sites in Oregon closed during the initial spread of the coronavirus, the Oregon Caves kept its trails and other outdoor areas open to the public – though all cave tours were canceled indefinitely.

“Generally speaking, we don’t get a lot of visitation for the surface areas, and we didn’t in this case,” Herring said. “We did everything we could to try to compensate for the cave being closed.”

Their efforts included daily talks with rangers at the entrance to the cave system and virtual field trips for schools. Still, the national park site remained relatively empty for most of 2020. Without cave tours, the park’s annual visitor number tumbled to 22,789 last year. Excluding World War II years, that’s the lowest annual number since 1934 – the first year on record.

Already the least-visited national park site in Oregon, the caves have seen a steady decline in visitor numbers over the last few decades. While most national parks have set new visitor records in the 21st century, the Oregon Caves peaked in 1972, when 197,811 people showed up.

The decline has been a troubling trend for the Oregon Caves, which rely on entrance fees in part to fund staffing and programs at the park site, Herring said. And while he doesn’t anticipate huge crowds will suddenly rediscover the marble cave system, he said he does expect the number to rebound in 2021, when park officials hope to reopen cave tours to the public.

There are no firm plans in place, but the park aims to reopen its visitor center in May, and have masked cave tours running again by Memorial Day, should it be safe to do so.

“We’re just king of making decisions about one month at a time,” Herring said, just like everybody else. “We’re all pent up too, we’re anxious to get back to giving tours.”

For national park sites across the Pacific Northwest, 2021 is looking to be another strange and uncertain year. Already, President Joe Biden has mandated that visitors and staff wear face masks in all indoor areas of national parks and all outdoor spaces where people can’t maintain social distance, a change from the federal government’s previous stance that masks were only encouraged.

Whatever other changes may come, park managers say their experience handling a hectic 2020 will help them get through the year ahead.

“I’m encouraged for this year,” Ackerman said, though he’s not expecting things to quiet down. “Will something come up that we didn’t expect? You bet, absolutely.”

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This story published as part of the AP Storyshare system. The Malheur Enterprise is a contributor to this network of Oregon news outlets.