Fort Clatsop's new name may have had as much to do with the increase in visitors this year as the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, the park's superintendent said.
The park saw visitation rise by 14 percent in July and 16 percent in August compared to the same period last year.
"Overall, it was a very good summer," Superintendent Chip Jenkins said.
While the park was expecting heavier crowds drawn mostly by the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, staff heard many visitors saying that it was media coverage of the expansion of Fort Clatsop - and its new name, Lewis and Clark National Historical Park - that got their attention, Jenkins said.
"All the press about the expansion, the name change, all the other things going on around the region, that generated a positive buzz around the country," he said.
The expansion, officially dedicated last November after a years-long campaign by local boosters and the Northwest congressional delegation, added the Netul Landing site, land for the Fort to Sea Trail and the historic Station Camp and Dismal Nitch sites in Washington to the former 150-acre Fort Clatsop National Memorial.
The new larger park encompasses most of the areas central to the Corps of Discovery's 1805-06 winter stay at the mouth of the Columbia, and more visitors now seem aware that there's much more to the Lewis and Clark story than Fort Clatsop itself, Jenkins said.
"That's exactly what we wanted," he said. "When people come to visit the park, they are looking at visiting the whole park."
Whatever brought them, most visitors seemed to have an enjoyable experience, with the number of positive written comments up "and the number of complaints way down," he said.
Shuttle issuesThis was the second year for the park's new shuttle system using the Netul Landing parking area one mile south of the fort. The park's main parking lot was closed, and visitors instead drove to or took a bus to Netul Landing and then caught a shuttle into the park itself.
The new shuttle system got mostly positive marks last year but was a source of some criticism, mostly from long-time visitors accustomed to driving directly to the park. There were also complaints last year about the troubled reserved ticket system, which had visitors buy advance tickets on the phone or online. The ticket system proved difficult to use and was abandoned for the 2005 season.
The parking lot at Netul Landing filled up frequently this summer, and on some occasions the rangers on duty there were forced to turn some people away and ask them to return later, Jenkins said. But once in Netul Landing, people were able to get to the fort without much delay - more shuttles were added, allowing buses to leave for the park every 15 minutes instead of 20 minutes under last year's schedule, he said. New ultra-quiet buses were also put into service.
The Netul Landing shuttle, shut down now for the fall, will run during the Bicentennial weekend, Nov. 11-14. But the main parking lot at the fort may remain open as well, park staff said.
Without Netul Landing and its 95 parking spaces, Fort Clatsop would have had to rely on its 50-space lot. With this summer's increased numbers, that would have led to traffic congestion, cars parked on the shoulder of the road, and in general a much worse experience for visitors, Jenkins said.
One troubling note was the poor ridership on the Explorer Shuttle, the bus service operated by Sunset Empire Transit District that carried visitors to and from the park from stops around the county. Only about 14 percent of visitors used the shuttle last year, and that number dipped even lower this year, Jenkins said. The bus system was designed to reduce traffic congestion by encouraging visitors, particularly tourists, to leave their cars behind and take the bus to the park.
Jenkins said he hopes a study being conducted of the park's transportation system by a national research institute may provide answers to the shuttle's low ridership.
The park had anticipated using the Netul Landing shuttle through 2006, when the attention from the Bicentennial was expected to peak and drop off, Jenkins said.
"If a lot of the visits are driven by the Bicentennial, then (visitation) will start to fade. But if it's the expanded park and new name, then those numbers may sustain, and we may need to do something about that."
Gearing upFor the Bicentennial itself, organizers are still anticipating numbers comparable to a busy summer weekend - roughly 50,000 visitors over the four-day "Destination: The Pacific" event.
The local event has long been considered to be one of the most significant of the 15 Signature Events commemorating the Lewis and Clark journey held across the United States beginning in 2003. While the weather in November and uncertainty over gas prices could have an impact on the number of visitors, organizers are seeing signs that the turnout could be strong, according to Destination executive director Cyndi Mudge.
"We're getting early ticket sales for things that we had planned people would just buy when they got here," she said. (See related story). "Word of mouth on the trail is that a lot of people plan to be here."
Jenkins said many Fort Clatsop visitors this summer made inquiries about the Bicentennial. In particular he was surprised by the number of people interested in attending the inauguration of the Fort to Sea Trail, scheduled for Nov. 14.
Some of those visitors will be staying at the Astor Haus. Owner Erhard Gross has already booked all the rooms in his Astoria bed and breakfast for the Bicentennial weekend.
After a relatively slow July, visitor numbers for local lodging establishments rose dramatically for the rest of the summer, said Gross, who is president of the local lodging association.
"Lewis and Clark started the whole thing," he said.
While many of his guests were drawn by the Lewis and Clark story, few knew about the new national park - they appeared to be drawn by the many newspaper and magazines articles featuring Astoria that have appeared in recent years, he said.