Foul weather, entrance closure take toll on Rainier visitations

It’s fair to say people who visit Mount Rainier National Park are fair-weather fans.

When the sun shines, they flock to the park. But when it rains, or clouds obscure the 14,411-foot peak, folks stay home.

That’s proven by looking at the 2009 visitation numbers.

Overall, more than 1.15 million people visited the park in 2009, down 1 percent from the 1.63 million visitors in 2008.

That bucks the trend seen across the National Park Service, where visitation was up 3 percent last year. Olympic National Park saw an increase, up 6.3 percent with 3.28 million visitors. Much of the increase nationwide is attributed to many folks vacationing closer to home because of the recession.

That’s why I was at first baffled by the decline when looking at the Mount Rainier numbers. How could the park see a decrease when there were three summer weekends during which the $15 vehicle entrance fee was waived?

In one sense, there was a boost from the free weekends.

The Nisqually entrance, the park’s lone year-round and busiest gateway, saw 569,747 people come to the park, up 5 percent from 2008. It’s fair to say that increase can be attributed to the free weekends.

But, as chief ranger Chuck Young pointed out, those weekends coincided with some great weather.

“The weather really drives if we’re going to have a busy day or a slow day. We had good weather coincide with those free weekends,” Young said.

July 18 is a good example. Part of one of the free weekends, it was one of the busiest Saturday’s the park has seen in some time. Park staff that day counted 2,893 vehicles coming through the Nisqually entrance, carrying an estimated 8,680 visitors.

Visitation in July and August, always the busiest time of year at the park, was the highest since 2004. So people were obviously taking advantage of the free weekends and the great weather.

Then how did the park see a decline?

Again, the weather played a major role. A rain-caused washout on the road to the park’s Carbon River entrance closed that entrance for several months last winter.

Young said that’s the biggest reason there was a 43.3 percent drop in the people coming through that entrance. Just 20,146 people came to the northwest corner of the park last year, compared with 35,527 people in 2008.

The difference of 15,381 visitors is enough to account for the total decline parkwide.

“It was closed down for a good part of last winter,” Young said. “That had a huge effect (when snow also was) keeping people out of other parts of the park.”

So while the small decline can be explained, it is still frustrating to look at the numbers.

While the 2009 total is above the five-year average, those numbers are skewed by the fact that the park was closed for the last two months of 2006 and the first five months 2007 because of flood damage.

Looking at the past 10 years, 2009’s visitation was off the annual average by 4.7 percent.

Painting even a darker picture, one has to go back to 1983 to find a year – discounting 2006 and 2007 – without lower visitation than last year.

These numbers portray the difficulty facing park managers. How do they make the park relevant to younger generations and people who have never visited the park?

How do they do that in a time when many people are still living paycheck to paycheck?

How do they boost attendance when they have no control over the most important factor, the weather?

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640