Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon gives visitors the chance to experience the deep, clear brilliance of its namesake, as well as the majesty of its surroundings.
By Denise Seith
A small child might use a simple word to describe southern Oregon’s Crater Lake: “blue.” Artists might portray the color as cobalt, sapphire, or indigo. Scientists might concentrate on the facts behind the brilliant shade. They’d explain that light’s many colors are absorbed as they pass through the clear water, leaving only blue to reflect to the surface. But everyone agrees: on a sunny day, Crater Lake is the bluest blue they have ever seen. Seasoned travelers and first-time visitors alike never will forget their first breathtaking view of it.
With a maximum depth of 1,949 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States and seventh-deepest in the entire world. It is situated in the caldera of a dormant volcano.
The lake’s amazing color can be attributed to the fact that it is a closed ecological system “” no streams or rivers run into or drain out of it. It is, therefore, very low in sediment, fed entirely by snowfall and rainfall. Like distilled water, Crater Lake has no true color. Its low concentration of dissolved minerals accounts for its crystal clarity.
And the snowfall is high: this particular part of the Cascade Mountains averages 44 feet of snow per year. Visitors who arrive in August, when temperatures can reach highs in the 70s, may see large banks of leftover snow here and there.
Since the lake loses approximately the same amount of water via evaporation and seepage as it gains, its water level rarely varies. Geologists know that Crater Lake’s 6-mile-wide caldera was formed when the Mount Mazama volcano collapsed after a cataclysmic eruption approximately 7,700 years ago. The force is said to have been 42 times as powerful as the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Mount Mazama is believed to have once reached 12,000 feet above sea level, but it metamorphosed rather rapidly during the violent eruption. The aftermath left a 4,000-foot-deep caldera, which eventually filled in with heavy snow and rain to become Crater Lake.
Klamath and Modoc Indians, who had lived in present-day southern Oregon for thousands of years, provide a more vivid tale of Crater Lake’s origin. Their legend tells of two chiefs, one from the Below World and one from the Above World. Their conflict forced a battle that caused the destruction of Mount Mazama. Consequently, Crater Lake was viewed as a place of power and danger, and for many years shamans forbade most Indians to see the lake. Accordingly, local tribes did not visit it or talk about it with outsiders.
All of this may have helped Crater Lake to remain an unintentional secret for a very long time. European explorers did not find it; neither did many trappers and pioneers traveling through the area. But then, in 1853, three prospectors discovered Crater Lake quite by accident. The men actually were searching for a lost gold mine, but instead they found a blue gem tucked into the wilderness. They dubbed it Deep Blue Lake. Many years passed before the public would come to know this special place as Crater Lake.
One man, William Gladstone Steel, is credited with founding Crater Lake National Park. In 1885 he joined a group headed for Crater Lake, and wound up devoting his life and fortune to the park’s establishment and preservation. On May 22, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill that set aside Crater Lake, and more than 180,000 forested acres, as a national park. Steel served as the park’s second superintendent and held the position of park commissioner until his death in 1934.
While many conservationists of the day, such as John Muir, advocated preserving the solitude of wilderness, Steel often asked, “What good is scenery if you can’t enjoy it fully?” Therefore, he measured most of his success according to how good the roads were at Crater Lake and how many visitors used them. Congress slowly appropriated funds for improvements within the park.
In the beginning, it was no easy task to reach Crater Lake. The earliest visitors traveled for days by horseback or wagon over tortuous roads to arrive at the park boundary, and once there found no amenities. By 1905, a steep road led up to the south side of the crater’s edge, followed years later by the development of a lodge. The lodge was built near the edge of the caldera and opened for business in 1915. Over time, the long winters weakened its construction and the structure fell into disrepair and had to be closed in 1989. But after four years of extensive renovations, the building was reopened in 1995. The historic lodge appears today much as it did in the 1920s. It, along with other original buildings on the site, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
As the nation’s sixth-oldest national park, Crater Lake National Park has much more to offer than the indescribable hue of the lake. Its rich diversity makes it an unbeatable Northwest vacation destination. Camping, hiking, backpacking, and narrated boat tours keep outdoor enthusiasts active; 750,000 years of volcanic history and island formations in the lake amaze geology buffs; a wilderness filled with animals and birds pleases nature-lovers and photographers; and the lodge’s fine restaurant, snack bars, and gift shop delight those who prefer to enjoy their wilderness through a window.
A visitor’s first stop inside the park should be the Rim Village Visitor Center (open from early June through late September) at the south rim of the lake, or the Steel Information Center at the park headquarters (open year-round), a few miles south of the village. Helpful park rangers, as well as printed maps and brochures, point out park amenities, provide the intriguing story behind the lake and its scenery, and help tourists glean the most from their visit to Crater Lake National Park.
Rim Drive, completed in 1918, encircles Crater Lake and offers 33 miles of pure scenery. Take advantage of the pull-offs and picnic areas found along the paved route. Each presents a new vantage point from which to look down into the spectacular blue water and observe geologic formations. The biggest are Wizard Island and Phantom Ship, which protrude from the lake’s surface. Although many of these views are obstructed by sub-alpine conifers such as mountain hemlock, noble fir, and varieties of pine and spruce, the ancient wilderness itself is worth appreciating.
In August typical high temperatures are in the 70s, and usually the sky is clear. However, if the weather isn’t clear, neither is the lake, and sometimes it is enveloped in fog. Rim Drive is closed in winter because of snow, but can partially reopen as early as April, and the entire length of it usually is open by late June or early July. It’s not uncommon to see piles of snow alongside the road even in August, and fresh snow usually closes the road toward the end of October. Motorists share the road with bicyclists, so please drive safely. Road condition and weather information and updates are available by calling (541) 594-3000 and also are posted at www.nps.gov/crla/crlaci.htm.
Along Rim Drive (and at both visitors centers) are ample opportunities to stretch your legs with a hike or two. A variety of trails “” varying from easy 15-minute strolls to strenuous steep climbs requiring two or three hours “” provide opportunities for a bird’s-eye view of the lake and the sweeping panoramas across the caldera that encompass neighboring Cascade Mountain peaks: Three Sisters, Mount Shasta, and Mount Thielsen. Spur roads branching off Rim Drive lead to backcountry travel and distinctive volcanic spires. Many trails pass through colorful wildflower meadows where glimpses of small animals (chipmunks, squirrels, and even elusive pikas and marmots) are possible. Throughout the park, hikers may get lucky and see deer, elk, or even a majestic bald eagle. Don’t forget to bring extra film!
Crater Lake’s popular boat tours are a highlight and delight for those who don’t mind the trek to the bottom of the steep, switchbacked Cleetwood Trail. This is the sole route to reach Crater Lake’s shoreline and boat dock, but is well worth the requisite exercise. Ranger-guided tours sail to Wizard Island, where passengers can disembark and catch a later boat back to the dock. This stop is particularly well-liked by hikers who head up the spiraling trail toward the island’s summit, where a small crater resides. Those less adventuresome can simply stay aboard and continue cruising around the lake’s smaller island formation, Phantom Ship. Ticket prices are $19.25 for adults and $11.50 for children under 12 and can be purchased at the Cleetwood Cove Trailhead kiosk prior to heading down the steep trail. Bottled water, sundries, and other small items also can be purchased at the kiosk, but be sure to take your own warm jacket and sunglasses to ensure an enjoyable two-hour boat tour. No services are available at the boat dock.
Throughout the summer, ranger-led interpretive programs and evening campfire programs provide visitors with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the park and all its varied features. Fishing for trout and salmon from the Cleetwood Cove boat dock is another favorite pastime (check with park staff for rules and regulations, such as the ban on using live bait). Fish were first introduced into Crater Lake in 1888, but in an effort to preserve the lake’s natural system, they are no longer stocked. So be sure to have a backup plan in case supper doesn’t find its way to your hook. No fee or fishing license is required.
From October through June, the park generally turns into a snow-covered winter wonderland. But even during the long, harsh winter months, Crater Lake National Park still provides hardy visitors with a phenomenal outdoor experience. A wide variety of trails and unplowed roads provide room for cross-country skiers and snowshoe and snowmobile activities with access to breathtaking views, open slopes, and dense wilderness.
Superlatives fill the pages of every book written about Crater Lake National Park, yet no narrative can adequately prepare visitors for their first sight of such deep blue. All-encompassing views from high atop the brink of the lake’s caldera leave a lasting impression, as does the whole of Crater Lake National Park. Perhaps the biggest challenge for park guests is deciding which exact tint of blue “” azure, cobalt, indigo, sapphire, navy “” best describes the remarkable lake. After all, there are sure to be many picturesque postcards mailed back home!
If You Go
Weather at Crater Lake can be chilly in the evenings, even during the summer. Have a light jacket with you and be ready to fire up the motorhome furnace if you stay overnight.
The entrance fee is $10 per vehicle; the fee is valid for seven days. An annual National Parks Pass costs $50, and includes this and other national parks. Camping fees are additional.
If you are arriving from the north, take U.S. 97 south to State Route 138 west to the park’s north entrance station. If you are coming from the south via Klamath Falls, take U.S. 97 north to State Route 62 north and west to the Annie Spring entrance station. From Medford, take State Route 62 east to the Annie Spring entrance station.
For more information, contact:
Crater Lake National Park
P.O. Box 7
Crater Lake, OR 97604-0007
Weather and road info: (541) 594-3000
For more information about attractions near Crater Lake National Park, commercial campgrounds, and more, contact:
Great Basin Visitor Association
507 Main St.
Klamath Falls, OR 97601
Crater Lake is the main attraction along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, an All-American Road (one of 21 best drives in the United States). This 500-mile route begins at Crater Lake and extends south to California’s Lake Almanor, near the active geothermal features at Lassen Volcanic National Park. If you’d like to learn more about what to see on this journey between volcanoes, visit www.volcaniclegacybyway.org.
Camping In The Park
Mazama Campground, in Mazama Village, is operated by the park’s concessionaire and is open when the snow melts in June and through early October. It has 200 sites; 10 have electricity only and the rest have no hookups. The length limit for motorhomes is 36 feet and there is a 14-day stay limit. Reservations are not accepted, but generally there are plenty of sites available. All sites have access to running water, fire rings, picnic tables, and flush toilets; wheelchair-accessible sites are available. Showers, laundry facilities, and a dual dump station are also available. For more information, phone (541) 830-8700.
Within 40 miles of Crater Lake are three National Forest areas with many campgrounds. Most sites do not have hookups but offer some amenities, such as water, dump stations, rest rooms, etc. For more information, contact Winema National Forest (Chiloquin ranger district, 541-783-4001); Rogue River National Forest (Prospect ranger district, 541-560-3400); and Umqua National Forest (Diamond Lake ranger district, 541-498-2531).
William Gladstone Steel: Father Of Crater Lake National Park
William Gladstone Steel is sometimes called the father of Crater Lake National Park, and for good reason. His preoccupation with Crater Lake began in 1870 when, as a teenager, he read about the special mountain lake in his local newspaper and resolved to see it in person. Years later when the Steel family relocated to Portland, Oregon, William was able to do just that, and further vowed to save the lake for the enjoyment of generations to come.
Mr. Steel wasn’t alone in his quest. Over the years, he was joined in the effort by Portland druggist John Breck, topographer Mark Kerr, Army Captain Clarence Dutton, and geologist Joseph LeConte. Awed by the mysterious liquid beauty, these men extensively studied and surveyed the lake. During these explorations, Steel named many of the lake’s landmarks, including Wizard Island and Llao Rock. He then spent 17 years petitioning Congress to preserve the lake, but was continually met with opposition from the timber industry, sheep ranchers, and land speculators. Steel spent thousands of dollars sending numerous articles to major magazines and newspapers across the country in hopes of generating support for his pursuit of a park. He also invited like-minded rich and influential men to join him on excursions around Crater Lake, knowing that if they experienced the wilderness treasure firsthand, they, too, would work toward achieving national park status.
Crater Lake has had several names over the years. In 1853 prospectors called it “Deep Blue Lake.” Ten years passed before the lake was seen again, this time by a man who described it in a local newspaper and named it “Blue Lake.” In 1865, army hunters spotted Crater Lake, and after they told others of their discovery, a group of soldiers and civilians from nearby Fort Klamath journeyed to the caldera. Climbing over the edge of the caldera rim, a sergeant was the first man to reach the shore of Crater Lake and declared, “That’s the sky we’re lookin’ at. How did we get so far above it?” A fellow officer suggested the name of “Lake Majesty.”
Later, a newspaper editor named Jim Sutton and his friends headed for the lake with enough lumber to build a boat. Rough roads and heavily loaded wagons made for a dangerous and difficult trip, but eventually they reached the lake; built and launched their boat; paddled toward Wizard Island; and climbed its cinder cone. Sutton then returned home and wrote articles about the adventure, calling the body of water “Crater Lake.”
In 1874, Peter Britt, a well-known local portrait photographer, took the first shots of Crater Lake. His photo was reproduced in a number of magazines, and thus the fame of Crater Lake spread. It was one of these very articles and photos that caught the attention of William Gladstone Steel, setting into motion the establishment of Crater Lake National Park.