The exhilaration I feel atop Garfield Peak comes not from climbing my namesake mountain, but from the sudden reveal high above Oregon’s Crater Lake, the deepest lake in North America.
My breathless gaze sweeps the rocky rim – 33 miles around – then rests on the water, turquoise along the shallow shores, then deepening to the purest cobalt blue I have ever seen.
This lake has Paul Newman eyes.
I’m here with my local hiking club to escape the Las Vegas heat and to stretch my legs, housebound by COVID-19. I can only imagine what a tired, young, gold prospector might have thought when he “discovered” this natural wonder in 1853. The pristine, snow-fed lake was the best-kept secret of native American tribes, including the Klamath Indians, who called it “Mountain with the Top Cut Off.”
Crater Lake was created nearly 7,700 years ago when a 12,000-foot tall volcano named Mount Mazama imploded during an eruption, shooting 12 cubic miles of rock into the sky. Later eruptions formed Wizard Island, a volcano within a volcano, that looks something like a wizard’s hat. Some Native Americans thought the lake was inhabited by an evil spirit. Others believed only shamans should dare climb inside its basin.
Designated a national park by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, today Crater Lake sees more than 700,000 visitors each year. Hiking trails with panoramic views abound, ranging from easy and moderate to difficult and strenuous. Old growth forests rise against the volcano’s outer slopes, an indication we’re on the edge of the Pacific Northwest.
When our feet won’t carry us another step, we slide into our car and head for Rim Drive, one of America’s most scenic byways. The rim loop, typically open from July to late October, features more than 30 scenic pullouts. We stop at Watchman Overlook for the best view of Wizard Island, and learn it’s a great place to catch sunsets and moonrises, especially if you make the short hike to Watchman Tower.
Then we’re off to the next pullout where we see Phantom Ship, a small island in Crater Lake that looks like a tall sailing ship. On foggy days it is said to appear and disappear, a ghost ship without any crew.
We take a six-mile detour from Rim Drive to Pinnacles Overlook, and enter an otherworldly landscape filled with spires of cemented volcanic ash 100 feet tall. It’s windy and dust swirls around the spires, permeating our boots and backpacks with particles of centuries-old volcanic material.
The only way to dip your toes into Crater Lake is by hiking a steep switchback trail from Rim Drive down to Cleetwood Cove, well worth the 1.1-mile climb back up if you’re in decent shape.
The water is as cold and crystal clear as it looks, and the shore is rough and rocky. In summer, average temperature at the lake’s surface is 60 F. Before the pandemic hit, you could buy a ticket for a ranger-guided boat tour to Wizard Island and explore until the next boat picked you up.
After our drive, we step inside Crater Lake Lodge, which overlooks the lake for a peek at the Great Hall, restaurant and restrooms. Built between 1909 and 1915, the lodge was slated for demolition in 1980 after years of neglect. The National Park Service, responding to public outcry, embarked on a $35 million renovation. Rooms are a little pricey, beginning at $200 per night. Guests relax in the Great Hall’s heavy leather furniture or out on the terrace in rockers overlooking Crater Lake.
Because our group has 17 people on modest budgets, we’re staying at Diamond Lake Resort hotel, about half-an-hour north of Crater Lake. Considered Crater Lake’s fraternal twin, Diamond Lake was formed when the fiery flow from Mount Mazama impounded a creek. This lake is shallow and more accessible for swimming, boating and fishing.
A few of us rent bicycles and ride the 11.5-mile paved trail around Diamond Lake. Soon the forest rises up around us and we see meadows and mountains in the distance. We hear boaters on the lake, and I make a note to rent a kayak from a sandy beach the next day.
Back in my no-frills room, (A Trip Advisor’s review called it camping with indoor plumbing.) I make another note: Next time splurge on the classy rooms at Crater Lake Lodge. Cabins and campsites, plentiful at both Diamond Lake Resort and Crater Lake’s Mazama Village, would also be a welcome improvement.
After a light dinner at Diamond Lake’s outdoor restaurant and a walk along the beach, we’re in for a celestial experience. Lucky us: The Perseid meteor shower is at its peak. We catch a few shooting stars while listening to crickets and frogs.
At daybreak, the more intrepid people in our group (keep in mind we are all older than 55) decide to hike Mount Bailey, a difficult 11-mile roundtrip climb in the hot sun, but a few friends and I opt for a tour of waterfalls in the nearby Umpqua National Forest.
If Crater Lake stopped us dead in our tracks, the lush trails padded with pine needles and cedar and cypress bark beckon us further and further inside the forest. Encouraged by rushing creeks and rivers that parallel the trails, we transform into the children we once were, climbing over rocks and downed trees to discover luscious plants and wondrous waterfalls.
The next day some of us return, clambering over a footbridge and up a wooded trail to Umpqua Hot Springs, where we find young naked hippies sauntering from pool to pool or practicing yoga headstands, and we, in our hiking clothes and swimsuits, relax our weary bones.
Crater Lake in the time of COVID-19
With national park staff operating at 50 percent, the two visitor centers at Crater Lake remain closed, but a small gift shop and cafe are open. The visitor center’s natural history book store is being operated out of the Community House in Rim Village. If you collect stamps for your National Park Passport, you can get one here. The boat dock at Cleetwood Cove has been removed, so there are no boat rides, and ranger-led activities are on hold for now. Rangers are available throughout the park to answer questions and provide assistance.
Diamond Lake Resort has a small camp store inside the boat and bicycle rental shop. Everyone inside the hotel office is friendly and helpful. Maps, brochures and hiking descriptions are available here.
Eateries are few and far between, so bring your own snacks and maybe some groceries if you want to eat in your room. We enjoyed a nice dinner outdoors at Annie Creek Restaurant at Mazama Village.
Wear a face mask and social distance, especially indoors and on well-traveled trails.
“100 Hikes/Travel Guide to Southern Oregon and Northern California,” by William L. Sullivan, (updated in 2019) has detailed descriptions of more than 100 hikes, a guide to wildlife and wildflowers, maps and tips for exploring towns, parks and museums throughout the region.
Several people in our group spent a day in Bend, Oregon, about two hours from Crater Lake. They raved about the scenic drive, restaurants and attractions, including the Old Ironworks District, an arts and crafts enclave house in a 1912 railroad building; and an ale trail featuring Bend’s breweries.
A new Scrabble word: caldera
Like many visitors, I mistakenly thought Crater Lake was created by an asteroid crashing into Earth. But Crater Lake is not a crater at all. The lake fills a caldera, a giant pit created by a mountain’s collapse, nearly 7,700 years ago. It is fed by springs and snow melt. Crater lake gets 44 feet of snow per year. LEL
Info at craterlakeoregon.com, nps.gov/crla, 541-594-3000