Crater Lake is the deepest lake and the snowiest inhabited place in the country.
written by Juliet Grable | photography by Xanterra Travel Collection
The facilities at Crater Lake are buried under fathoms of snow for much of the year, and even in July surprised tourists arrive in shorts and T-shirts only to shiver against the wind. But, as Brian Ettling, who served as a seasonal park ranger at Crater Lake for nearly twenty- five years, said, “Extreme weather creates extreme beauty.” Crater Lake was born of violence. After a massive eruption 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama collapsed, forming a caldera which gradually filled with rain and snow. Evidence suggests that lurking underneath, Mazama’s volcanic heart is active, giving the visitor something extra to contemplate when peering over the rim. Cerulean, sapphire, azure—descriptors don’t do it justice. You just have to see it. Whether highlighted by snow fields, shrouded in fog, or magnified by a robin’s egg sky, the lake is enthralling. Though practically in my backyard, every time I visit, I end up standing at the rim, snapping photos like any first-timer. With a natural focal point, iconic lodge, and varied menu of activities, Crater Lake National Park makes for an exciting day trip, but it really takes a few days to do it right. All roads lead to the rim—but that doesn’t mean they’re always open. Especially if you’re coming from the north, be sure to check the website for road conditions and closures.
DAY 1 LAKE-OGLING • PARKITECTURE
I recommend taking Highway 62 and entering from the south, where the road is flanked with cinnamon-barked Ponderosa pines. Stop at the Steel Visitor Center for your first taste of rustic lodge architecture—look for the “snow tunnel”—and to watch the short but instructive film on the lake’s origins. en proceed to Rim Village, where you’ll see license plates representing just about every state and Canadian province and hear myriad languages. Here you can catch your first glimpse of the legendary blue water and stretch your legs on the Discovery Point Trail. Easy enough for families with young children, the 1.3-mile trail parallels Rim Drive, offering several tantalizing views of the lake with virtually no elevation gain.
Want more? Continue on to the fire lookout at Watchman Peak, which, at 8,013 feet, is one of the highest points in the park. After the steep climb, enjoy the payoff: an unparalleled view of Wizard Island in its bowl of blue. You’re in for a treat, because you planned ahead—way ahead—and booked a room in the Crater Lake Lodge. Originally completed in 1915, this classic example of “Parkitecture” was almost lost. The building was failing under the heavy snow loads each winter, and it took a huge public outcry—and great expense—to prevent its razing. Though much of the lodge was re-built entirely, the design remains true to and even improves upon the original vision, with larger guest rooms and updated amenities. Step into a different century and enter the splendid dining room, with its unpeeled tree trunk columns, exposed wood ceilings, large windows and muscular stonework. Or, if the weather cooperates, sit on the veranda and sip Chardonnay while contemplating the view. e experience is made even lovelier with Northwest fare such as sweet corn fritters, field green salad with Oregonzola cheese, and balsamic-glazed lamb chops.
DAY 2 CALDERA TOUR • CAMPING
If day one was all about the views, today is about getting up close and personal with an open-air boat tour of the lake. Pack a picnic and take East Rim Drive to the Cleetwood Cove Trail, which provides the only legal shore access in the park. If you’re brave, launch yourself off a short cliff once you reach the shore. Brace yourself: the water averages 55 degrees, even in August. If you opt for the full tour package, you’ll have three hours to explore Wizard Island’s cinder cone, which formed after Mount Mazama’s main eruption. Once you’ve had enough hiking, settle in with a fishing pole. You don’t need a license to drop a lure (no live bait allowed)—you’ll be doing the native bull trout a favor if you snag a rainbow trout or Kokanee salmon, which were first stocked in the late 1800s. Catch the afternoon boat to the dock and climb back up to the rim. Though only a mile, even the fittest will likely feel the 700-foot elevation gain. Camp at Mazama Village near the south entrance so you can catch an evening ranger program. Aside from pocketing some good bits of trivia about the lake, such as its depth (1,943 feet), average annual snowfall (43 feet), and how many gallons of water go into making all that blue (5 trillion), you’ll likely learn something surprising from talks such as Ettling’s interesting—and believe it or not, funny—program on how climate change is impacting the park’s flora and fauna. (If you sign up for one of the Ranger-led hikes, you may nd yourself doing something surprising, such as belly- flopping down a snowy slope.)
DAY 3 RIM DRIVE • BOUNDARY SPRINGS • PIE
To leave the park, take West Rim Drive to the north junction. By now you will have experienced all 33 miles of this “theater in the round.” Take a tip from Ettling and stop at random points to explore, or simply to marvel at the wind-sculpted whitebark pines set against the jewel of the lake. Not that you’re done exploring. If you’re headed south, stop at the Crater Lake Zipline for some aerial fun. Or, head west on Highway 230 for 5 miles until you find the Boundary Springs trailhead. is trail will technically take you back into the park, but more importantly, it will take you to where the Rogue River springs forth from the earth.
Sufficiently inspired, continue west on 230 just past where it merges with OR-62. Stop at Union Creek Resort, where you can replenish at Beckie’s Café. Be sure to save room for a slice of one of the famous pies. If you’re not quite ready to return to civilization yet, you can stay at the resort, or pitch your tent in one of the roomy riverside campsites at Natural Bridge Forest Service campground. Here the Rogue River does another magic act, disappearing into a lava tube, only to emerge 250 feet downriver. Dream of snow and water, and vow to return to Crater Lake in winter.