If Central Oregon hiking trails, museums and restaurants seem busier, they are.
Visitor counts to many of the area’s most popular attractions have spiked in recent years as population and tourism have grown in Central Oregon, spurred by the region’s widespread reputation for the outdoors.
Visitors have streamed into popular landmarks in record numbers: Smith Rock State Park has seen a double-digit increase, and Newberry National Volcanic Monument is experiencing its highest visitor count in nearly 30 years.
But all that attention is not without fallout, and visitor attractions have had to re-think infrastructure and educational programs in order to keep pace.
At Smith Rock, larger crowds have put pressure on trails, parking, water systems and staff. The state park is one of the fastest growing in Oregon with 767,596 total visitors in 2016, a 35 percent increase since 2012. That increase ranks ninth among all Oregon state parks.
Park officials are responding by updating the park’s master plan to consider more parking, restrooms and trail maintenance.
Park manager Scott Brown said crafting a new master plan, which has not been updated since 1991, is a priority for the state. Public meetings were held in January, and more are scheduled later this summer.
“One of the primary reasons why we are doing the master plan revision is because of the large increase in visitation,” Brown said. “We got kicked to the top because we are growing at a higher rate than most.”
Oregon State Parks spokesman Chris Havel said some obvious reasons for the uptick in visitation tie into the publicity of the region and the continuous population growth in Central Oregon. According to a survey at Smith Rock, 22 percent of visitors in 2016 were local, driving 30 miles or less to the park.
More locals are taking advantage of the park each year, Havel said.
“You could infer from that more people were spending their leisure time and money in more affordable local travel — day trips and camping — rather than big-ticket out-of-state travel, and the trend stuck,” Havel said.
Overall, Smith Rock relies heavily on support from volunteers and nonprofits such as the Oregon State Parks Trust and the Smith Rock Group to keep up with maintenance and park improvements.
“With almost double visitation, you see more wear and tear,” Brown said.
In the center of Deschutes County, the High Desert Museum is experiencing its highest visitation ever. The museum has seen a steady increase from about 154,000 visitors in 2012 to about 170,000 in 2016. So far this year, visitation is trending toward 180,000 visitors, a record for the museum.
Sandy Cummings, director of communication at the museum, said the record attendance is especially impressive considering the historic winter, and construction on U.S. Highway 97.
“We have been working hard to get the numbers as high as we can, and are grateful people are finding us and coming down,” Cummings said. “It really is fantastic that in spite of all of the construction and the snowstorms that we are doing as well as we are.”
Cummings credits a Bend cultural tourism grant that provided $40,000 to the museum to advertise in markets outside of Central Oregon, and fund new exhibits.
The museum’s World War II exhibit was funded through the grant, Cummings said.
“These are topics people are interested in,” Cummings said.
Nearby, the Lava Lands Visitor Center, the interpretive hub of Newberry National Volcanic Monument, is seeing its highest visitation since the early 1990s, when the area was designated a national monument within the boundaries of Deschutes National Forest.
More than 84,000 visitors came through the center in 2016, a 29 percent increase since 2011.
Deschutes National Forest spokeswoman Jaimie Olle said the visitor increase in recent years mirrors the growing popularity of Central Oregon.
“As for a continual increase in visitation, it seems to largely be a result of the increasing number of visitors to Central Oregon in general,” Olle said.
The Lava Lands Visitor Center saw a jump in visitation from 61,000 in 2013 to 82,500 in 2015, the 25th anniversary of the national monument.
“2015 was a big year due to the 25th anniversary celebration, and the additional outreach that was done on its behalf,” Olle said. “This was also the year that construction along Highway 97 in front of Lava Lands was completed, allowing for easier access.”
The parks and museum are not the only popular destination across Central Oregon.
Last summer, Visit Bend surveyed 1,812 visitors about which attractions or locations they had visited or planned to visit during their stay in Bend. Downtown Bend received the most nods with 69 percent, followed by the Old Mill District and breweries. Lava Lands received 25 percent, and 22 percent listed Smith Rock.
Bend Chamber of Commerce President Katy Brooks said much of the city’s demand can be attributed to a bump in national attention, including reports in Forbes magazine and the Milken Institute, a California-based economic think tank.
“A significant amount of national attention has been put on our community, and that doesn’t go unnoticed,” Brooks said.
Many visitors to Bend are taking the next step and looking to relocate, Brooks said. The Bend Chamber, which handles relocation packets for potential new residents, has already handed out 270 to interested visitors. About 230 packets were given out all of last year.
The chamber of commerce sees the growth as an exciting time in Bend. People feel encouraged to bring their business to Bend, or open new businesses, Brooks said.
“Bend has created that environment, and it’s attracting attention,” Brooks said. “It’s working to create stronger business and more business, and it’s really attractive for folks relocating here.”
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