Crater Lake is a smaller gem among nation's parks

Big is beautiful. But small can be too. And there is less congestion.

That sums up an interesting comparison in the U.S. National Park system.

The bigger parks in the system are the most popular, drawing visitors in the millions. Take Grand Canyon, the subject of Post-Bulletin outdoor writer John Weiss' travel page article on Page 6E today.

Grand Canyon, massive with its 1.2 million acres and dominating northern Arizona, attracts about 3.4 million visitors a year. It's only second, though, in popularity: Great Smoky National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee hosts 10.1 million visits a year and it is 521,000 acres in size.

California's Yosemite National Park and its 761,000 acres draw 3.4 million visitors while Yellowstone -- located in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho -- is visited by 2.8 million people.


But there are gems among the nation's smaller national parks, too. Less visited to be sure, but just as striking in their beauty.

We have visited several of the larger sites -- several times to the Grand Canyon for instance -- but a recent visit to Oregon's Crater Lake National Park hones in on the smaller-parks-can-be-beautiful theme.

Crater Lake, located an hour's drive from the award-winning business- and retirement-oriented community of Medford in the southern part of the state, was once a towering volcanic mountain but now boasts America's deepest lake.

Its visitor count is just shy of 500,000 annually -- less than it deserves. And it is just 183,224 acres in size, with 90 percent wilderness.

With a depth of nearly 2,000 feet at its deepest point, the lake looks magical with its astounding beauty. The water is as blue as you have ever seen. It was formed nearly 8,000 years ago, estimate geologists, when Mount Mazama erupted in almost unimaginable violence and collapsed on itself, forming a vast caldera six miles wide and almost 4,000 feet deep. Within 500 years, say geologists, the caldera filled with water to become today's Crater Lake. The sapphire-blue lake's surface is at the base of 1,000- to 2,300-foot cliffs that rise to a total elevation of more than 8,000 feet. A noteworthy boat trip takes you to 764-foot high Wizard Island in the middle of the lake.

One drawback is the relatively short season in much of the park. Rim Road, which circles about 35-miles around the lake, is completely open only from about mid-July to mid-September. Much of the road as well as most of the park is closed by snow most of the year -- average annual snowfall is about 550 inches. We encountered snow on the ground during a visit to the park's main complex in mid-June.

The park boasts a myriad of camping and hiking facilities plus a lodge that offers perhaps the most outstanding view of the lake.

Crater Lake was discovered in 1853 by gold prospectors searching for a lost gold mine.


The American Indian tribes of the region, which held the lake as sacred, had never mentioned its existence to the first explorers and settlers.

The lake has no inlet or outlet streams and is fed solely by springs, snowmelt and rainfall. Because it is so deep, Crater Lake rarely freezes over entirely -- the last time was about 50 years ago.

Crater Lake National Park is noting its 100th anniversary this season. It was the fourth to be established as a U.S. national park -- Yellowstone was the first in 1872.

Park visits down

While our national parks are still crowded, park visits have been down the past few years and are decreasing again this year.

Latest figures from the U.S. Park Service indicate that foreigners, who constitute about a fourth of summer visitors at some national parks, appear to be staying away in droves.

The New York Times reports that at Grand Canyon National Park, which typically depends on foreigners for nearly half of its visitors, 42 percent fewer people arrived at the south entrance station on bus tours through April vs. last year. Arrivals by private vehicles were up 5 percent, however, but the net result is a 3 percent drop-off in visitors in that period.

One advantage to this is that rooms at lodges and camping sites are easier to come by this summer.


For instance, summer reservations for Yellowstone National Park lodges are down about 8 percent this year.

Parks with a fewer number of lodges, like Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, are harder to book, however.

Here and there

American Airlines removed seats from its airplanes to add legroom two years ago, and got accolades from its passengers. But now it is determining whether it was worth it. The airline's chief financial officer recently told analysts that it is reassessing that move as well as others, as it strives to attain financial stability.

Florida Turnpike officials are considering a plan to turn the turnpike into a "cashless" toll road without toll plazas.

Replacing them would be a system of overhead sensors that would allow drivers to zoom at highways speeds while their tolls are deducted from prepaid SunPass accounts. The change should help delays since motorists now are faced with long lines.

Bob Retzlaff is travel editor of the Post-Bulletin. He can be reached by phone (507-285-7704) or e-mail (

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