When 12,000-foot high Mount Mazama blew its top in southern Oregon 7,700 years ago, 12 cubic miles of fiery rock and gas exploded 30 miles high and spread out over thousands of square miles – so extreme that it entered the legends of the Pacific Northwest Native Americans. The volcano collapsed in on itself, leaving the mountain without a peak.
Over the centuries, the deep basin filled with water, its steep slopes gashed by a riot of color, where few trees could gain a toehold. Subsequent smaller eruptions further changed the landscape of what would become Crater Lake National Park, first “discovered” in 1853 by prospectors, but long a sacred place for Native Americans.
Crater Lake looks like any other shaggy-topped mountain from a distance. Approaching from the south entrance through the Klamath Valley, there is nothing to suggest it’s something extraordinary until you begin to ascend into the park and see volcanic evidence in the canyons that flank the roadsides where rivers have sliced through ancient pyroclastic flows. Pinnacles – ancient fumaroles – protrude like lost stalagmites from the ground, hinting at something unusual.
It’s when you reach the rim that your jaw drops. The country’s deepest lake (1,943 feet), 21 square miles wide, and 33 miles round, shimmers back at you. On a sunny day, it glows an incredible sapphire, dimming to slate when clouds crowd the sky. No rivers feed it – only rain and snow. The view is spectacular.
The best way to take it all in is the twisting 33-mile Rim Drive that encircles the lake. It takes several hours as you stop among the more than 50 turnouts to read the informational signs and overlook the crater from different vantage points. I recommend the “Road Guide to Crater Lake”, which you can pick up at the Visitor Center, which highlights the best points to visit while providing fascinating insights onto the region.
The variety of rock formations and types of stone are geology at its finest. Sunshine brings out a riot of color, from the lake to the slopes, edging everything in diamond brilliance. The whole park is a hiker’s heaven, with trails ranging from easy to strenuous.
Some, such as the Lady of the Woods Loop, Castle Wildflowers, Pinnacles and Godfrey Glen, are less visited, enabling you to see unique features of the park, and finer details of volcanic eruptions. Sun Notch Trail is the ideal blend of hiking through a lush wildflower-laden meadow to a breathtaking edge-of-the-crater trail with the best of views of the Phantom Ship, a spired protrusion peeking above the lake’s waters.
Wizard Island, clad in ancient old-growth forest, can only be reached by a booked-in-advance boat cruise. It is one of several lava domes that formed after the eruption, but the only one that shows above lake level. Named for its similarity to a sorcerer’s pointed hat, it’s a focal point in the lake, and a popular hiking place.
Nearby is the Devil’s Backbone, a charcoal serrated spine of rock that plunges into the icy blue waters. A hike up The Watchman, an 8,056-foot peak, provides extraordinary views, as does Cloudcap and Garfield Peak. Glacial scarring that preceded Mazama’s collapse can be seen on rock remnants that survived the blast.
Hub of Crater Lake
The Visitors Center is the lake’s tourist hub, with a shop and cafeteria complex, interpretive exhibits and an information center. From there you can take a Rim Drive Trolley Tour instead of driving, and book a boat cruise. Close by is the Sinott Memorial, a small museum perched on a rock ledge with a panoramic view.
Crater Lake Lodge is part of the complex, and worth a visit. Originally built in 1909 as a version of a European hunting lodge, cheap construction and heavy snows took their toll, and in 1989 it was deemed unsafe and closed. However, The Historic Preservation League of Oregon was determined to save the building, and after a $15 million rehabilitation, which returned the exterior appearance and interior public areas to the late 1920s, it re-opened in 1995. Some of the original materials were salvaged for re-use, but very little could be saved. Wandering around inside, you would not know it is a recreation.
Some Things to Know
The park’s peak tourist seasons runs from June-October or until the first snows close the Rim Drive. With the park averaging 533 inches of snow a year, skiing and snowshoeing are popular. The short season means reservations for Crater Lake Lodge and nearby Annie Creek Campgrounds usually need to be made at least a year in advance.
Check at the Visitors Center for road closures. Landslides and road reconstruction can limit or close sections of the road for days at a time. Note that getting to the cruise boats requires a strenuous hike to and from Cleetwood Cove Trail; it is the only access to the lake’s shore. Plan for weather – sunshine is no guarantee. During my visit, it rained, hailed and snowed – in early August!
For the most up-to-date information on the park, visit https://www.nps.gov/crla/index.htm.