Make no bones about it…Crater Lake is a magical place. It’s mysterious, it’s gorgeous, it’s heart-stopping. We’ve all seen pictures of it, but unless you’re there to witness it in person, you have no idea. Really.
The first time I laid eyes on her over ten years ago, my breath caught in my throat. “Woooowwww,” was the only thing I could utter for a full minute. And even the second time just recently, I got the privilege of being a “first time witness” because the second time, I brought my husband with me and it was his first time. So I got to experience another “first time” through his eyes.
We approached the Lake from the north side entrance to Crater Lake National Park (the only National park in Oregon) and parked at the first viewpoint. You have to climb up a small hill to look over the edge into the crater. And as you’re climbing up, it seems as though you have reached the edge of the Earth.
My husband approached this weekend trip to Crater Lake with trepidation for reasons I won’t get into here. “Take my hand,” he said, as we ascended the hill. I did and I felt his excitement. So yeah, magical. When we reached the top and looked over, and saw the deep blue expanse far below, stretching far off into the distance, my breath caught again. A living, breathing, picture-perfect painting.
This is what I live for. Moments like this. It is why I will be traveling probably for as long as I have breath in me. So why is this Lake, the deepest in the United States, such an awesome darling? Well, it all starts with a simmering volcano.
The Formation of Crater Lake
Around 8,000 years ago, Mount Mazama (which is now Crater Lake) erupted catastrophically. Mount Mazama was one of the highest peaks in the Cascade Mountain range, and magma had slowly begun building underneath the surface over millennia.
In a process coined as “Grew, Blew, Fell and Fill”, fingers of lava snaked up underneath the sides of the mountain, encircling it, and the rising lava created a void underneath the mountain. When the lava broke through, an unbelievable about of magma exploded away from the mountain, carrying with it tons of ash and other pyroclastic materials. Mazama essentially collapsed onto itself, creating the gaping caldera we see today. Since the eruption, precipitation has filled the caldera, creating the lake.
Crater Lake is so blue for two main reasons: 1) The lake is isolated – no rivers or streams run into or out of it. As a result, there is no debris or other foreign materials to ‘cloud’ the water. 2) Because of the enormity of the magma chamber, the caldera that formed after the blast was massive. So the lake is really deep, over 19,000 feet at the deepest point!
Exploring Crater Lake
You can drive completely around the rim of Crater Lake on a road called, fittingly, Rim Drive. Be advised, however, that during the late fall/winter/early spring months, the north side of the lake may be closed due to weather and heavy snowfall. Visit https://www.nps.gov/crla/index.htm for the latest information. You can drive the entire 33-mile loop in about an hour without stopping. But there are many places to stop and enjoy the lake in the form of epic hiking, spectacular views looking down the crater into the lake. I would suggest spending a whole day to take in most everything. Spending a weekend at Crater Lake is ideal for exploring Rim Village, as well.
This is a heavily forested island that is really a new cinder cone that is slowly growing in the lake. In the summer months, you can hike down to the water’s edge from Cleetwood Clove Trail at the north rim and hop on a guided boat to take you to the island.
Phantom Ship Island
This is a tiny island that looks just like…wait for it…a phantom ship. Visitors do not have access to this island; it’s really just a jagged rock jutting up from the surface of the lake and you couldn’t really walk on it anyway. But there are a couple of really nice places to stop to get a good viewpoint.
A great way to spend a few hours chilling out. The main lodge is here, (link to lodge) as well as a visitor’s center, a cafe, more trails and a gift shop. The lodge and many of the other facilities are closed in the late fall/winter months, so plan accordingly. A short drive from Rim Village is the Main Visitor’s center. Here you can shop for more souvenirs, and watch a wonderful film that will tell you more about Crater Lake and how it was formed.
Things to Consider
- From late October through early Summer, the North and/or East part of Rim Drive may be closed due to weather.
- There are many hiking and picnicking opportunities. Hiking ranges from the very easy to the extreme – Garfield Trail (which starts at Rim Village) goes up sharply in elevation and is probably the most challenging trail, but the view at the top cannot be beaten.
- Accommodations at the lake can be had a Crater Lake Lodge and Mazama Village but these are not open year-round. Make your reservations well in advance.
- Since Crater Lake National Park is federal land, federal rules apply. This means that Mazama Village (inside the park) has ONE gas station, with which you pump your own gas (unlike the rest of the state of Oregon). And while the use of marijuana is legal in Oregon, it is NOT legal inside the park.
- We stayed at Union Creek Resort a few miles south of the park, and I highly recommended it! Rustic awesomeness with cabins, a general store, and a great restaurant.
- Be prepared to take tons of pictures! Crater Lake is so spectacular, I had a hard time putting my camera down and just savoring the moment with my own eyes.
- Pets are allowed in the park, but only in certain areas. Heed the signs, and be sure to pick up the Crater Lake newspaper, which will give you detailed information on the sights and activities available.
- There are ranger talks at Crater Lake Lodge, and at the visitor’s center down the road. A great way to get inside information from people who live and work around Crater Lake.
“Crater Lake National Park, where you can’t smoke grass but you can pump your own gas!”