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Summer at Crater Lake: Record crowds, staff shortage

COVID-19 rules for employee lodging cut worker numbers in half

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Visitors hike down the trail to Cleetwood Cove at Crater Lake National Park in 2018.
Visitors hike down the trail to Cleetwood Cove at Crater Lake National Park in 2018. (jamie hale/The Oregonian) Photo Gallery

If you decided to escape to Crater Lake National Park this summer, you certainly weren’t alone.

A record number of visitors this past July and August tested the short-staffed national park, where rangers spent the summer scrambling to rescue stranded hikers, protect natural areas, and prevent outbreaks among workers and visitors during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were operating with far less than half our staff with record numbers of visitors,” park Superintendent Craig Ackerman said. “It became a problem trying to manage.”

Crater Lake set crowd records for July, when 209,678 people visited the park, as well as August, which drew 222,638 visitors, according to preliminary data provided by the National Park Service. The August number is particularly impressive, far surpassing the month’s previous record of 176,895 people, set during the National Park Service’s centennial anniversary in 2016.

A total of 550,870 people visited Crater Lake between June and September, according to park data, making it the fourth busiest summer on record. The seasonal total was balanced out with a slow June, when the park was closed for a week, and a relatively slow September, when wildfires blocked off several access roads to Crater Lake.

But while huge crowds flooded in, there were fewer park staff than ever to manage them. The staffing shortage wasn’t caused by financial restraints (which impaired other agencies like the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department). For Crater Lake, the issue was housing.

Most park staff live inside the national park in dormitory-style housing during the summer, Ackerman said, with up to four people often sharing a room. Restrictions set in place because of the coronavirus pandemic allowed only two people to share a room, cutting the park’s usual summer staffing in half.

The pandemic also forced park officials to shut down visitor centers and some gift shops, cancel boat and trolley tours, and limit the number of people allowed into other indoor areas. The historic Crater Lake Lodge still took reservations, but only registered guests were allowed inside.

Rangers who would normally give safety presentations or educational talks were instead tasked with managing crowds at the park’s busiest points, keeping people out of closed areas and preventing them from endangering the pristine lake with inflatable boats and pool toys.

The staffing shortage even extended to the entrance booths, where one ranger instead of two collected fees, slowing wait times to over an hour at points in the summer, Ackerman said.

On top of everything else, there was a steady flow of safety incidents as people tried to make their own way down into the caldera, stranding themselves in precarious places and requiring rescue operations. One incident in August involved seven people, all of whom were cited.

“We had more violations and we only had 40 percent of the staff to respond,” Ackerman said. “Rangers were begging us to not assign them any more overtime.”

Despite the struggles, the park reported no serious injuries to visitors and no positive tests for COVID-19 among the staff, both of which they consider big wins, Ackerman said.

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