New trails are likely coming to Crater Lake National Park in the next several years, but the length and location of the system remains up to the public.

Officials from Oregon’s only national park are seeking comment on proposals that would add up to 21 new visitor trails for summer and winter use to the 184,000-acre park. The goal, according to Marsha McCabe, park spokeswoman, is to give the park’s growing number of visitors a chance to avoid congestion without trampling native vegetation.

“The lake is, of course, the main attraction, but there are other destinations we want people to explore, as well,” McCabe said.

Park officials began looking at options to improve trail access in 2015, and held a series of public meetings in Bend, Klamath Falls and Medford the following winter, according to McCabe.

Alana Hughson, president and CEO of the Central Oregon Visitors Association, wrote in an email that the national park, about 120 miles south of Bend, is a top attraction for visitors to Central Oregon, and added that the region is a key feeder market for Crater Lake.

With the exception of the Plaikni Falls trail, which was completed in 2012, most of Crater Lake’s trails have been in place for some time. McCabe said the park has been using old fire roads as informal trails for years, due to a shortage of sanctioned options.

“We hadn’t really sat down and taken a comprehensive look at our trail system,” she said.

At the same time, the popularity of the park has jumped dramatically in recent years. Visitation grew by 78 percent between 2011 and 2016, peaking with approximately 756,000 visitors last year, when the National Park Service was promoting its centennial.

While smoke and closures from nearby wildfires kept the park from attaining those numbers during the summer, McCabe said the park so far this year has attracted 651,000 visitors , its second-highest total to date.

Consequently, some parts of the park are seeing more use than ever. And without adequate trails in some areas, visitors are making their own. Larry Smith, board member for the nonprofit Crater Lake Institute, said areas of the park near the rim of Crater Lake, particularly at the junction near the north entrance to the park, tend to attract a lot of visitors without providing sufficient trail access.

“That’s the first view people get of the lake,” Smith said.

Smith, who worked at the park from 1961 through 1985 and volunteers there during the winter, said the result is a number of user-created trails along the lake rim, which can harm whitebark pine populations in the area and cause parts of the caldera to erode.

“They’re getting a quarter-million people on that rim,” he said. “They’ve got to worry about erosion.”

Crater Lake’s trail management plan is designed to address those shortages while developing the park’s infrastructure for continued growth over the next 25 years. A scoping letter released at the beginning of the year included a list of 17 proposed summer multi-use trails and four winter trails aimed at snowshoers and cross-country skiers. Since that time, park officials have come up with two narrower alternatives, which the public may weigh in on until Monday. Members of the public may submit comments by mail or online using the National Park Service’s website.

The first alternative, designed to improve access between Mazama campground, to the southeast of the lake, and Rim Village, calls for seven new trails to be added and one lightly used trail, East Bald Crater Loop Trail, to be removed. The second alternative, focused on adding trails in popular parts of the park around the rim and bringing more visitors to lesser-known areas, would add 10 paved and unpaved multi-use trails. Both proposals call for adding 7 miles of skiing and snowshoeing trails. McCabe added that she expects the final proposal to be a blend of the two alternatives.

Still, new trails at the park are a ways from being a reality. McCabe said the park staff will review public comments over the next month, but likely will not have a signed final document until 2019. From there, McCabe said park staff will try to get funding for the project in place, likely relying primarily on visitor fees.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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