On a sunny weekend morning in late July, Darla Miller was returning home from the grocery store when she found herself slowing to a glacial pace.
A line of cars on state Route 706 stretched from the Nisqually Entrance of Mount Rainier National Park past the road to her neighborhood all the way to Kernahan Road, a distance of about 3.5 miles.
Miller needed 1 hour, 15 minutes to travel those final miles.
“We joked that she was lucky she didn’t buy ice cream,” said her son, Camryn Miller.
Long lines at the park entrance are nothing new for Ashford residents, but this summer, as the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, traffic jams seem longer than usual, officials say.
Some residents are concerned the congestion has grown from an inconvenience to a safety concern.
“How is an ambulance going to get up here?” asked Arlan Kjorvestad, who has lived near the park entrance for 16 years. “There are some elderly people living here. If somebody is having a heart attack, they could die.”
Park superintendent Randy King, who has worked at Rainier since 2003, said of recent lines: “I haven’t seen anything like this in my time here.”
In June, the park reported 187,037 visitors, the most for the month since 1992. April and May also drew the largest crowds for those months in more than two decades.
The park service’s well-publicized centennial, an improving economy and lower gas prices likely play parts in the increases, King said.
Dealing with the impact of heavy visitation is a priority for the park, King said.
“But the infrastructure is not in place to take a much different approach,” he said.
In recent years, the park has gone to three entry lanes from two. But to get to the short three-lane area, visitors must pass single-file under the historic park gate, which has room for only two lanes.
Also, the third lane passes under the eve of a historic ranger station, making it unusable for larger vehicles, King said.
“Looking ahead, we are going to be talking about options,” he said, “but we don’t have great ones right now other than trying to educate people about trying to make good, informed choices about when they come to the park to minimize long lines and long waits.”
The park typically is busiest from mid-July to mid-September, King said, and his staff is using social media to spread the word on steps visitors can use to shorten weekend lines.
He suggested visiting outside of the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or on a weekday. He also says buying a season pass ($50) or having exact change for the entry fee ($25) speeds up the line.
Eric Simonson, an Ashford resident since 1980 and co-owner of International Mountain Guides, would like to see the park put up a sign before Ashford indicating the length of the wait at the park entrance.
This might help local businesses by inspiring visitors to stop and shop or eat rather than waiting in line, he said. It also might motivate them to explore other parts of the area that sometimes are overshadowed by the park, he said.
“I feel like they (the park) have an obligation to try and find a solution,” Simonson said. “Given the brain power they have and the collective experience they have from parks all over the United States, there has got to be something they can do.”
Suggestions include a shuttle service, kiosks for paying at parking lots inside the park or paying on the way out of the park.
“But we are not set up for that this year,” King said.
At a meeting in Ashford in 2014, some community members asked whether the park could simply open the gates and let cars enter when the lines were long enough to block access to homes and local businesses.
The park tried this approach and determined it was not a good solution, King said.
“It’s not fair to the people who are arriving earlier or later,” he said.
Miller and Kjorvestad say they rarely leave home on weekends unless they are going to be gone most of the day. They also rarely visit the park, even though it’s easily accessible, because it’s too crowded on weekends.
There’s a point on Fridays when his family makes sure they have all they need for the weekend, Miller said.
“You forget seasoning for your tacos or something and you need to go to the store and you have to ask, ‘Is it worth it?’ ” he said.
Park officials are concerned about the ability of emergency responders to get to local neighborhoods on weekends, and will take steps to clear a path, King said.
Rangers likely will wave visitors through the gate or park emergency services could respond to incidents, he said.
King said he wants to work with the community to improve the situation. In the meantime, the best option is to ask visitors to consider visiting outside of peak hours, he said.
“We want to encourage people to come,” King said. “Let’s just not have everybody come at 1 p.m. on Saturday.”
As the National Park Service celebrates its well-publicized centennial this summer, traffic jams are stretching into the gateway town of Ashford. Most months are drawing large crowds. (July numbers were not available at time of publication.)
Source: National Park Service