ASHFORD — This summer was the busiest at Mount Rainier National Park since 2003.
And apparently many of those visitors brought along their tents, trailers, camp stoves, coolers and sleeping bags, pushing campground use more than 20 percent higher than in 2008.
Park statistics show more than 722,000 people visited the park June through August. That’s the highest total for the three-month summer season since 730,642 visited the park in 2003.
This summer’s recreational visits were up 5.6 percent compared with last summer.
Part of the increase can be attributed to three weekends in which the $15 park entrance fee was waived.
“Those fee-free weekends were among our busiest,” said Randy King, acting park superintendent. “We were seeing another 500 to 600 cars a day those (free) weekends compared to the other weekends.”
The other draw was the great summer weather in late June and through July.
“If the sun shines, life is good. We had a great summer here in the Northwest and as a result park visitation is up,” King said.
“The weather is a huge factor here, with about 60 percent of our visitation originating in the Puget Sound region,” he said.
“If people wake up and can see the mountain from home, they come. If they can’t see it, they stay home.”
Further evidence that folks were opting to spend part of their summer at the park can be seen in overnight stay numbers.
The number of people staying at the park’s campgrounds through August was 68,623, up 21.7 percent from 2008. The number of backcountry stays also was up, 10.1 percent to 33,077 people.
“With the economy, people are trying to recreate closer to home,” King said. “Camping is probably one of the most affordable things people can do recreationally.”
While overnight stays at the park’s two inns are down 8.1 percent, it has still been a good season, said David Wilde, general manager of Guest Services Inc., which runs the Paradise and National Park inns.
“People are very value oriented and we anticipated that,” he said. “We had lowered our menu prices and that has helped. Overall, revenues are about the same as last year, thanks to the increase in the volume.”