by Lee Foster
Crater Lake might be called the tour-de-force national park, a great one-act play. A single spectacular fact made the region sufficiently interesting that Theodore Roosevelt declared the area a national park in 1902.
Some 6,600 years ago volcanic Mt. Mazama erupted in a burst of energy that made the 1980 Mt. St. Helens pyrotechnics look minor. Before the eruption, the mountain was a 12,000-foot peak in the Cascade chain. As the eruption progressed, exhausting materials from underground, the land around the volcano collapsed and a vast bowl remained, more than five miles across and 4,000 feet deep. Subsequent filling up of the crater with snow melt and rain has created the deepest lake in the United States, fully 1,932 feet deep and 6×4.5 miles in dimension, a blue sapphire gem of a lake.
To appreciate Crater Lake, Oregon’s only National Park, you can drive up to its edge, gaze in, and then skirt it by car or by hiking trail, as the sun and seasonal changes present new perspectives of it.
Crater Lake in Brief
If you want a brief synopsis about Crater Lake, here it is:
Crater Lake is a two-hour scenic drive from Ashland, so you can combine theatre, fine dining, and national park exploration in a single long day. Consider taking Highway 62 on the drive up to Crater Lake, with a stop at the Rogue River Gorge Scenic Turnout for a quarter-mile walk along a paved path by the river as the water tumbles through a narrow gorge. The Rogue River starts another 27 miles upstream. Since 1988 the Rogue has been designated as a Wild and Scenic River in the federal system. Before and after the scenic turnout, Highway 62 takes you through miles of magnificent forests, especially after the town of Prospect.
At Crater Lake, do a circular drive clockwise around the lake, which will take about three hours with stops. Pause to orient yourself and get information at one of the Visitor Centers, located three miles before the rim road, as you climb the side of the volcano, and at the south end of the rim road, immediately to the right as you access the rim. One of the first choice stops is The Watchman to see Wizard Island. Cloudcap is the highest point and affords a lovely horizontal view of the entire lake. Whitebark pine trees, which resist well the altitude, snowpack, and sculpting effect of the wind, can be seen at Cloudcap. Phantom Ship is a turnout that allows you to gaze at a small island with this imaginative moniker. The road is two-way, but going clockwise makes it easier to access turnoffs. The position of the sun will determine how pleasing the views are for you. Aside from looking into the lake, you will find magnificent views of the forested mountain landscape. A national parks lodge at the south end of the lake offers accommodations.
When driving back to Ashland, make your adventure a circular trip by continuing east and south along Highway 62, then south along the west side of Upper Klamath Lake. You pass through miles of grasslands used for cattle production. Mountains provide a backdrop. Then drive a short section of Highway 140 west before turning southwest on a long, winding, forested, back-country drive known as Dead Indian Memorial Road, which takes you back to Ashland.
The main local information source is the Ashland Chamber of Commerce at http://www.ashlandchamber.com. Their drop-in office is centrally located at 110 East Main Street.
Getting to Crater Lake
Crater Lake is in the south central part of Oregon, rather far from a quick air flight in. From Portland or from California, the all-year route in is to Medford on Interstate 5, and then up Highway 62 to the park. From California, you can also drive north on Highway 97 from Klamath Falls, assuming the roads are not blocked by snow. The Highway 138, 132, and 58 approaches from Oregon to the park are, similarly, not guaranteed to be open beyond the summer months. The park is open year round, but full services are available only in summer. Snow around the lake may be present for eight months of the year.
Crater Lake History
Three mountains in the volcanic “ring of fire” around the Pacific are of special interest to west coast travelers. The first is Mt. St. Helens, which continued to gurgle following its 1980 eruption. The second is Mt. Lassen in California, which erupted with awesome force between 1914-1921. The third is Crater Lake, whose prehistoric eruption blew skyward an unimaginable volume of real estate.
To get a sense of this magnitude, it helps to look at the bar graphs presented in books by the United States Geological Survey people. Mt. St. Helens, so forceful, rates about an eighth of an inch. Mt. Mazama (Crater Lake) rates about two inches, and the force levels are increasing exponentially rather than arithmetically. It is wondrous to think of the amount of energy unleashed in that eruption, with its earthquakes, cubic yardage of earth moved, amount of molten lava flowing, gases and steam released, and mudflows caused.
Crater Lake Main Attractions
A tour of the lake by car and then a follow-up day of walking selected trails would be my suggestion for encountering Crater Lake. Lodging and the Mazama campground are located at the south entrance. The Crater Lake Lodge is open only late May to early October, depending on the annual snowfall. Bus transportation to the park is available in summer from Klamath Falls.
Begin your visit with an orientation in the visitor center at the Rim Village, near the southwest corner of the lake. There you can obtain good maps and literature about Crater Lake. The rangers offer summer orientation talks. From Crater Lake Lodge a public touring bus can take you on the drive around the lake.
At the Rim Village lookout, called the Sinnott Memorial, you get excellent, elevated views of the lake. You can see the huge lava and cinder bowl, all softened by the pine and hemlock tree vegetation. The water is unusually blue, partly because the pure water supports little aquatic life. Technically, the geologists will tell you that you are looking at the caldera of a collapsed volcano. You’ll find yourself in the company of many Clark nuthatches, the prominent bird in the area.
Immediately below the Rim Village there is a small, intriguing island of lava, imaginatively labeled the Phantom Ship. In a certain atmosphere of mist it appears to be an apparition that might well sail toward the visitor, as does the ship in the Ancient Mariner poem of Samuel Coleridge.
At the Rim Village you can make a 1.5-mile Discovery Trail walk to where the first European saw the lake. Prospector John Hesley Hillman had this distinction in 1853.
Journeying clockwise around the lake, the first stop in the 33-mile outing should be at The Watchman turnout to view Wizard Island, formed as a cone of cinders from the eruptions.
Then continue north around the rim, stopping at turnouts. Your perspective will change greatly depending on the time of day, the light, and the rapid progress of the summer season. Dawn or late afternoon cast the most bewitching light on the volcanic and water elements.
As you drive around the rim, you’ll see hiking trails that may appeal to you after the initial orientation. You’ll also see a number of bicyclists pedaling the loop. This is a wonderful bicycle outing, providing, of course, that you have the stamina to withstand the climbs and the wind. All bike and car travel should follow a one-way clockwise pattern around the lake to make the pulloffs convenient and safe.
At the north rim, you’ll see signs indicating boat rides available on Crater Lake. The boat concession amounts to a large touring launch for viewing the lake from water level. This is another perspective worth considering. To make the boat trip, you must hike down (and up) the Cleetwood Trail, a mile-long switchback path. The boat trip itself takes two hours.
Two of the loveliest views at the lake occur toward the end of the drive. They are from Skell Head and from Mt. Scott. Klamath Indian legends attributed the eruption of Mt. Mazama to a dispute between the Chief of the Below World, Llao, and the Chief of the Upper World, Skell.
After the rim drive, explore the side road to the Pinnacles to see chimneys of pumice that remain from the volcanic activity. The Pinnacles drive takes you through appealing forested country, past the Lost Creek Campground, which is open only at the peak travel season.
To view a fecund alpine garden, visit the Castle Crest Wildflower Garden and the nearby Godfrey Glen Nature Trail. Both these sites are a wonderful celebration of mountain flora, especially the delicate flowers such as Lewis mimulus. If you are fortunate enough to visit Crater Lake in July or August, be sure to see this wildflower walk, near the park headquarters below Rim Village. Because of the altitude and snowpack, the summer growing season is relatively short, but when flowering occurs it is spectacular.
In winter, Crater Lake offers excellent cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on trails and along the rim road. Equipment can be rented at Rim Village.
Nearby Trips from Crater Lake
If you are traveling in autumn, go south to the Klamath Lake and Tule Lake wildlife refuges to see the massing of migratory waterfowl flying south for the winter.
Going west and north, you drive into the Willamette River Valley. As you proceed to Portland, if you are a wine fancier, you might want to make the acquaintance of some of the state’s wineries.
The small town of Ashland in southern Oregon is famous for its annual Shakespeare festival.
The drive up to Crater Lake from Medford along Highway 62 prepares a visitor for natural splendor. The main aspect of the drive is the cascading Rogue River, which crashes through narrow gorges and sculpted chasms. At one point along this Rogue Gorge, the river even disappears briefly underground, traveling in a lava tube, before emerging with a brash display of white water.
Crater Lake: If You Go
For information, review the National Parks website on Crater Lake at http://www.nps.gov/crla.