Despite its deep, shimmering namesake lake, Crater Lake National Park is one of the lesser visited of the great national parks (446,516 recreational visits in 2009). For those who make the journey, that's a great reward. For those who don't, well, they're missing something special.
Why should anyone consider driving out onto the crest of the Cascade Mountains in southern Oregon to see Crater Lake? Well, there are many reasons.
The caldera of Crater Lake gives a park visitor the chance to look into the inside of a volcano that was once possibly as high as Mt. Hood or Mt. Adams. Just to stand there and consider the geologic events that made this landscape and created the great caldera, now nearly half-filled by the lake, is worth the journey.
Birth Of A Lake
The mountain that stood in the place of what is now Crater Lake has been given the name Mt. Mazama (after the Portland, Oregon, hiking club of the same name). Although the oldest volcanic rocks of Mt. Mazama are estimated at more than 400,000 years old, just some thousands of years ago the mountain underwent a series of volcanic eruptions which eventually emptied out the magma chamber beneath the mountain, creating a huge inner void.
The outer slopes of the mountain could no longer support the weight of the summit rocks, causing the top 3,000 to 4,000 feet of the volcano to collapse inward. This violent collapse formed a 4,000-foot deep, 6 mile by 4.5 mile-wide bowl-shaped depression, now nearly half-filled by very pure water. The water of Crater Lake comes almost entirely from direct precipitation. No streams flow into or out from the surface of the lake.
Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States and the 9th deepest lake in the world. Less well known is the fact that its average depth is the greatest of any Western Hemisphere lake and exceeds that of all but two other lakes in the entire world. No lake whose basin is entirely above sea level has a greater average depth.
Along with a chance to ponder the cataclysmic event that caused the destruction of Mt. Mazama -- so powerful were the explosions that some ash later was discovered in Antarctica -- a tour of the park provides you with an introduction to the formation of the stratovolcanoes of the high Cascades. From the rim of the caldera, views may extend along the crest of the Cascades to snow-covered Mt. Shasta in northern California to the Three Sisters near Bend, Oregon.
The roadways and creek valleys expose volcanic materials deposited as glowing avalanches of pumice, ash, and dense hot gases that emanated from the volcano during its final hours. In many places, water has eroded though these thick deposits of glowing avalanche debris to depths of a few hundred feet, exposing multicolored cliffs of hardened ash and the remains of hundreds of vertical pinnacles of hot gas-cemented fumaroles.
Charcoal remains of incinerated tree stumps can be found in road cuts. Radioactive carbon dating of these tree stumps, along with dendrochronological refinements based on comparison of radioactive carbon dating against cores of tree rings sampled from the ancient bristlecone pines of California’s White Mountains, led to the eventual determination of the age of the formation of Crater Lake’s caldera of 7,700 years ago (plus or minus a few hundred years).
Getting Out and Enjoying the Park
Fascinating geology aside, perhaps the No. 1 reason to visit Crater Lake is its immense beauty, duplicated nowhere else on Earth and captured so inadequately by photographs. Although the majority of park visitors take less than one day to visit, with most limiting their stay to a few hours, my friends and I would highly recommend reserving at least three days (if not more) to see this park. During these three days, here are the things I recommend to see and do:
* Rise very early and drive to or walk along the rim of the great caldera to experience the change of color just before, during, and after sunrise. My favorite spot for watching sunrise over the caldera are Discovery Point, the Watchman overlook, or anywhere along the Rim Village promenade.
* Stop during the day and listen to the short introductory story about the formation of Crater Lake. This talk is given by park interpretive rangers at the Sinnott Memorial Overlook. This stone overlook offers classic views of the inner caldera and is the only place along the Rim Village promenade to view the Phantom Ship. The overlook is reached by a descending path just below the Kiser Studio, a small rustic wood and stone single-standing building between the cafeteria/giftshop complex and the Crater Lake Lodge. Check the park newspaper, Reflections, or at the Kiser Studio for exact times for these short but highly informative presentations.
* Make reservations in advance with Xanterra Parks & Resorts to take the approximately 90-minute ranger-narrated boat tour from Cleetwood Cove. You reach the dock via a 1.1-mile trail that drops 700 feet to the lake’s shore from a parking area that is on the opposite side of the caldera from Rim Village. Boat tours usually operate between early July and early Sept. Remember that the hike back up and out of the caldera after you end the boat tour will take from two to three times as long as the hike down. (Be sure to take and apply lots of sunscreen. Exposure to the sun is intense due to reflection from the lake surface.)
Be sure to check with Xanterra or park staff about their most recent policy regarding interrupting boat tours to hike and explore Wizard Island. If you take an early-day boat tour, and can get off onto Wizard Island, and if there is no difficulty reserving a return boat from the island, be sure to take the hike up and into the summit crater. If time allows, explore the transparent green emerald pools on the western flank of the island. The views are well worth the effort.
Wizard Island is a cinder cone initially formed by volcanic eruptions that occurred after the climactic events that caused the collapse of Mt. Mazama. The cinder and lava eruptions that formed Wizard Island began below the surface of the young lake. The summit crater of Wizard Island is about 300 feet across and 90 feet deep. There are two other cinder cones inside Crater Lake’s inner caldera, but they are invisible because they were formed entirely below the lake’s surface.
* Fishing is allowed off the shores of Wizard Island as well as from Cleetwood Cove. No license is required, and there are no limits. All fish (mostly kokanee salmon and rainbow trout) were artificially planted in Crater Lake between 1888 and the early 1940s.
* If you happen to be in the park during the time of the full moon, I definitely recommend a late afternoon hike to the Watchman Firelookout. It’s the only fire lookout on the rim of the caldera. Stay for sunset. Watch the shadow of the Watchman slowly engulf Wizard Island below, and then extend across the lake to the opposite shore as the sunsets. Watch the moon rise from the eastern horizon. You can almost feel the Earth in motion.
If there’s no moon, it’s still worthwhile to watch sunset from the Watchman. And anywhere along the rim is perfect for star gazing. From the edge of the rim, you will experience horizon to horizon of stars. Dress warmly, as temperatures drop at night. You might encounter someone out with a telescope. They might even enjoy sharing knowledge and equipment. Try not to shine any lights in their eyes.
* Other day hikes I would recommend are Garfield Peak; its trailhead is the Rim Village promenade just east of Crater Lake Lodge. This is perhaps the most popular hike in the park. On some days of the week, the rangers offer guided walks to the top.
The somewhat longer hike to the summit of Mt. Scott, which has park’s only other fire lookout and is the highest elevation in the park (8,929 ft.), is also spectacular with wide views into the upper Klamath basin, the Crater Lake caldera immediately below, and the sharp eroded summit of Mt. Thielsen, an older shield-type volcano to the north, just beyond the park’s northern boundary. The trailhead to Mt. Scott is found along the eastern portion of the 33-mile Rim Drive.
These hikes may be dangerous when covered by snow. Do not venture over snow fields. These hikes are usually free of snow from about mid-July until mid-October.
Shorter hikes include the Castle Crest Wildflower Garden, located near park headquarters and the junction of the eastern rim drive, and the Annie Creek Trail, which starts at the F loop of the Mazama Campground, located 7 miles south of the rim, near the park’s south entrance station.
* A great off-trail experience is to drive out towards the North Entrance and hike out onto the Pumice Desert. Here the pumice flats are so porous and deep that water drains away quickly, leaving little opportunity for vegetative growth. Many types of volcanic rocks can be found while walking through the pumice desert, including volcanic bombs from nearby cinder cones. Mt. Thielsen dominates the northern horizon. Walking out into the Pumice Desert requires a hat, dark glasses, and sunscreen. .
* No visit to Crater Lake National Park is complete without driving the 33-mile Rim Drive. I recommend taking this drive in clockwise direction, meaning that views of the inner caldera will always be on the right side of the road. “Must see” stops along this drive are (a) Discovery Point, (b) the Steel Bay overlook (with corral-like wooden log railings) located in the saddle between Watchman and Hillman Peak, (c) the North Junction overlook with views of Llao Rock and the Devils’ Backbone, (d) Cleetwood Cove, (e) Cloud Cap (the highest elevation along the drive), (f) the Pumice Castle overlook, (g) Kerr Notch (with spectacular views of the Phantom Ship and the Chaski Slide), and (h) Sun Notch (with a “must do” short hike from the parking area, across a pumice field of wild flowers, that leads to edge of Sun Notch and a spectacular close-up view of the Phantom Ship and the western face of Dutton Cliff).
The Crater Lake Natural History Association sells guides to this historic road. Another recent option, introduced just last summer, is to take a ranger-guided trolley-like tram tour of this drive. This method of taking the Rim Drive allows one to keep the car parked in the Rim Village parking area and letting someone else do the driving (inquire about prices with Xanterra).
If you elect to self-drive the Rim Drive, one advantage is the option to take the spur road past the Lost Creek Campground, along what was once the East Entrance to the park, to the Pinnacles of Sand Creek. These towering needle-like formations of rock, called fossil fumaroles, projecting from the Sand Creek Canyon floor, were formed by sheets of volcanic pumice and glowing avalanches that immediately preceded Mazama's collapse.
As the surface of the hot pumice cooled, steam and gases were released by the hot rocks underneath through vents and tubes. The ash and pumice were thermally altered and welded into cement hardness by the passage of hot gases through these vents. These ancient vents now stand alone due to the erosion of the surrounding softer materials. I would rate the Pinnacles of Sand Creek as another “must see” experience during a visit to Crater Lake National Park.
Depending on whether you elect to stay inside the park or overnight outside, you may wish to take in an evening ranger program. Most evening programs are offered at the Mazama Campground Amphitheater during the summer months. Some programs may be scheduled at the Community House located at Rim Village. Check with the Steel Visitor Center at Park Headquarters or at the Kiser Studio at Rim Village for times and subjects.
* Lodging at Crater Lake Lodge on the Rim and at Mazama Village Motor Inn typically require reservations far in advance. Both facilities are managed by Xanterra, Inc. Check with Xanterra for prices. Outside park accommodations are found at Diamond Lake Lodge in the north, Union Creek in the west, and in or near Fort Klamath in the south east of the park. However, the only winter lodging in Fort Klamath is at Jo's Motel on four-day weekends. We’ve had very good experiences at the historic Prospect Hotel on the west side, where people going to Crater Lake have been staying there for many years, and at the Aspen Inn (Ft. Klamath) for southwest side park lodging. The inn reopens in April.
Camping in the park is at the large Mazama Campground (equipped for RVs and tents), or at the more primitive Lost Creek Campground (tents only).
Crater Lake National Park ; (541) 594-3000
Crater Lake Natural History Association ; (541)594-3110
Crater Lake Institute ; (541) 810-3944
Owen Hoffman is a frequent contributor to articles and commentary in Traveler. He worked at Crater Lake earlier in his career as both a park ranger-naturalist and a lake researcher. More recently he has served the NPS at the park as a park volunteer. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Crater Lake Institute.