Sunday, September 19, 2010

Crater Lake

I know that I have written that Glacier National Park is the most beautiful place on earth. And I stand by that statement, though with less ecstatic certainty now having been to Crater Lake, which is one of those exceptional hard-to-put-into-words places on this earth. We drove three hours south and east through the mountains and through a driving rain, which apparently dropped hail all over the park while we slept in our chemically clean cabin at Mazama Village, seven miles south and east of the rim of Crater Lake.

A few important facts about Crater Lake. About 8000 years ago there was this mountain, somewhere between 12 and 13,000 feet in height, perhaps the tallest mountain in the state of Oregon (had the state of Oregon existed at the time, which of course it didn't) and one of the highest peaks in the Cascade range. Now there are a number of Volcanoes in the Cascades (Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, and the mountain formerly known as Mt. Mazama). 8,000 years ago Mt. Mazama erupted, and in the course of about 12 hours went from being 12,000 feet tall to being a smoking hole. The top erupted and then sank back into itself, forming an enormous caldera, which, over the next few hundred years, filled up with billions of gallons of water, almost entirely from melting snow. (Crater Lake National Park gets an average of 44 feet of snow every year.) The lake is very deep, about 1,900 feet at its deepest, very clear (it is one of the clearest lakes on earth) and very cold (surface temperatures vary from freezing to about 60 degrees, but once you get below the surface a few feet it stays at a very chilly 38 for most of the year).

We arrived in the late afternoon after a brief drive around the caldera rim. We got ourselves oriented, picked up some supplies from the mostly under-provisioned general store (it was the last week of the season), and then set out for a hike up one of the mountains to watch the sunset. We started up The Watchman through a light rain. The trail switched back quite a few times, and at each turn we were floored by miraculous view after miraculous view, first the lake, then the valley, then the Cascades, then the lake, and so on and so on until we reached the summit at about 8,100 feet. We were about forty five minutes early for sunset, so we sat and watched the sky and the lake and the weather, which was dramatic and constantly changing. We snapped a bunch of photographs of the lake, the sky and the surrounding mountains before heading back to our cabin and cooking veggies burgers on our portable grill in the dark.

The next day we got up early and drove to the North Rim of the caldera, to the Cleetwood Trail which descends about one mile down into the caldera, where we hopped on a boat that went out into the lake and then dropped us off at Wizard Island. Wizard Island is a little volcano that sprouted up in the middle of the lake, evidence of the ongoing volcanism of the site and a marker of the scale of the lake and the mountain that used to stand there (there's a volcano inside of the hole left by the old volcano). The water is Caribbean-Aegean blue and clear as glass.

On the boat over to the Island, a Park Ranger told us about the geology (much of what I wrote above was cribbed from Ranger Dave's remarks) and about the history of the lake. They dropped us off on Wizard Island and then sailed away, leaving us alone on a deserted island (with 30 other adventurers). Just about everyone headed straight for the summit trail, so we took a little side trip to Fumerole Bay to dip our feet in the water. It was exceedingly cold, some of the coldest water I've ever put my feet in.

After our brief foot chill, we hustled toward the summit, which we intended to climb, eat lunch on, and then descend from before the boat returned to pick us up at 1:30. We were glad that we didn't set out with the horde at the outset, because we had the trail basically to ourselves on the ascent, and by the time we reached the summit about 30 minutes later the place was basically deserted. We ate lunch, snapped a few more photos, walked around the rim of the crater (which, surprisingly, is the crater the lake is named for), and then descended with time to spare.

The boat picked us up, and we had a new park Ranger (Ranger Brian) who told us a bunch of other stuff about the lake and the park, but he was such an incompetent public speaker that I can barely remember what he said. I remember hearing that there are no rooms available in the Pumice Castle (because it's a rock formation), and that the Phantom Ship (another rock formation) was for sale, and that if you had solved the mystery of where the 17 Billion gallons of extra melt water went each year you should call 1-800-Hot-Tips. By the time we got back to the boat ramp, we missed Ranger Dave. But we had the grueling uphill climb to take our minds off of Ranger Brian's incompetence. We grilled some chicken and corn that evening and slept very well after five hours in the sun on boats and on the trail.

The next day we climbed Mt. Scott, which, at 8,929 feet, is the tallest mountain in the park. The five mile round-trip climb took us a little less than an hour each way and was some of the most grueling uphill walking I've done since I've been in Oregon. But the views were incredible. We could see Mt. Shasta in Northern California to the South, and Three Sisters to the north, and hundreds of other smaller mountains and the enormity of the lake and a wildfire burning off to the east.

After a cup of coffee at the Crater Lake Lodge (which we learned had to be torn down in 1989 and rebuilt because it had been constructed without taking the incredible weight of the snow into consideration), we climbed up Garfield Peak, which one of my Oregon hiking books said was the must-do hike in Crater Lake. We were exhausted, having climbed three mountains already in the last two days, but when we got to the top we were treated to the most beautiful view of the lake and the surrounding landscape we had found yet. We rested at the summit, ate some green beans and some almonds, chatted with a fat chipmunk, then meandered back down the mountain.

It felt a little bit like being back on the road again, this trip to the Lake. But at the end we were both ready to be heading back to Eugene, to be finishing the fence and to be settling in for the beginning of the school year--at least for one of us. But it was nice to have one last adventure before the grind of Architecture school begins again (again, for one of us).


  1. Rebecca looks like a chef in the first picture.

  2. Our ranger (aka boat tour guide) also said that Crater Lake is the clearest fresh water lake in the world. I believe he also said they once were able to see a Secchi disk 147 feet down which is nuts!

    On a side note, did you drink any lake water? Some girl was drinking it, I was not brave enough since we were camping :).