National Park Primer: Crater Lake

Where a towering volcano once lorded over the land almost 8,000 years ago, today all that remains is a massive hole. Fortunately for lovers of scenic splendor, that hole filled with centuries’ worth of rain and melted snow, forming the incomparable Crater Lake. This jewel was one of the earliest national parks, and since 1902 parkophiles have been dumbstruck by its singular beauty. Let’s have a vicarious look for ourselves.

Park: Crater Lake

How to get there: Head to either Eugene or Medford, Oregon. The park is in the southwest corner of the state and the ninety minute drive from Roseburg (on Interstate 5) is outstanding. There are plenty of other scenic stops nearby, including Mt. Shasta which is less than three hours away, so your Crater Lake excursion can easily be part of a greater West Coast journey.

Where to stay: If you have the means, stay at Crater Lake Lodge. Not only is it outrageously handsome, but it also has an open stone porch where you can sit in comfy chairs and sip a hot beverage while soaking in an unparalleled panorama from 1,000 feet above the lake. Even if you decide not to sell a semi-important internal organ to be able to afford to stay there, it is still worth a walk through just to see it.

Being a national park, Crater Lake does have two campgrounds, but beware. When I visited (late June), there was still ample snow in the Mazama campground and many of the sites were unusable due to standing water. As I waited in line outside the ranger station to secure a site, I heard a faint hum that grew louder. Soon I felt an irritating prick on my neck, and then on my arm, and within seconds I was wearing a bathrobe of mosquitoes. I was shocked by the hefty swarms of winged bloodsuckers—and I’m a Minnesotan. Even if there had been a site available at Mazama, it would have been suicide to spend more than thirty seconds outside the safety of my tent. Sadly, I was forced to seek accommodations elsewhere.

Gloriously, just twenty minutes south of the park in Fort Klamath, I found Jo’s Motel. Jo’s has recently remodeled rooms, cabins, and campsites for both tents and RVs, all at insanely low rates. But the best part about Jo’s was what it didn’t have: mosquitoes. I got a great tent site for $6 per night, had access to free hot showers, and was able to sit around the campsite without being sucked dry one milliliter at a time. I cannot recommend Jo’s highly enough.

Highlights: Uh, the lake. While geologists have their own “story” as to how Crater Lake came to be, it is filled with tedious scientific jargon and boring facts. I much prefer the version told by the local Klamath Indians, even if it doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. Here’s how it goes, to the best of my recollection :

There once was a god named Llao that lived in a lodge beneath the ancient volcano. One day, Llao got the hots for the local chief’s daughter, and using perhaps the greatest pickup line in history, Llao told the beautiful girl that if she would come back to his lodge with him, he would give her eternal life. Apparently, living forever wasn’t enough for the spoiled little princess, so she rebuffed him. Not surprisingly, Llao, like most omnipotent beings, didn’t handle rejection well, so he got really pissed off and rained fire down on her tribe as punishment. But just when Llao was about to have the last laugh, on to the scene stepped Skell, another powerful god who lived on Mount Shasta in Northern California. From 125 miles away, Skell and Llao waged war–but it seems Skell only gave a half-hearted effort, because not until two priests sacrificed themselves by jumping into the erupting volcano was Skell finally sufficiently motivated enough to finish the job. He pushed Llao’s sexually frustrated ass back into the mountain, where it collapsed in on him, trapping him forever.

Now that’s a freakin’ story.

Moving on, the most striking feature on the lake’s surface is Wizard Island, an 800 foot high cinder cone with its own 100 foot deep crater.

Wizard Island is a small volcano within the caldera of a former, much larger volcano, kind of like those Russian nesting dolls, but only if those dolls were capable of releasing a cataclysmic paroxysm large enough to block out the sun. Given this, perhaps the dolls analogy isn’t so apt.

A water taxi service is offered which will take you across the lake and drop you off on the island for a reasonable fee ($42.00). Once on the island you can hike to the top for a rare 360 degree view of the lake and its sheer rock walls. Be sure you take an early morning boat though, as the later boats do not allow you to get off on the island. There is no camping on the island either, so you can stay all day but you must get back on one of the returning boats.

Another great view from an overlook.

Stay glassy, Crater Lake.

Rim Drive, a 33 mile long road that circumnavigates the lake, provides an opportunity to see it from every direction. No matter where you view it from, you will be struck by the inky indigo of its bottomless waters. Crater Lake, which reaches depths of almost 2,000 feet, is the deepest lake in the U.S. and 10th deepest lake in the world. This extreme depth combined with the purity of its water sources creates a brilliant blue that is as soothing to the eyes as it is to the spirit.

Pictures take themselves at Crater Lake.

What isn’t soothing are all the damn mosquitoes. I had planned to drive around the lake and stop at the various turnouts to get as many stunning photographs as I could, but the hordes of tiny vampires made it nearly impossible. Within seconds of exiting my car, billions of them were assaulting my integument; I had time to take only one or two pictures before having to retreat to the safety of my car. Frustrated but undaunted, I devised a system wherein I would pull up to a spot, jump out and run to the rim, snap my photo, and then dive back into the running car before the message could be passed along amongst the mosquito clans that there was a blood buffet open for business. It was awkward and I looked like a complete idiot, but dammit, it worked.

Despite the involuntary blood donations, Crater Lake is the very definition of majesty. I would suggest visiting later in the summer after the ground has dried a bit, however. The crowds will be larger but at least it will be humans annoying you instead of disease-carrying skeeters. Get there if you can, for photographs just do not do it justice.

A tree stump near the rim looks like a seal arching upward to clap his fins together. Just to the left of the tree you can see a faint white mountain in the background, which is Mt. Shasta, located 125 miles away.



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