BEND — A “whoop” rang out from the hillside of Hillman Peak on the rim of Crater Lake, echoing through the area. Before the sound had a chance to subside, a skier began speeding down to a person below — and source of the whoop — waiting just above the timberline.
With wide zig-zags and one after the other, the two skiers had careened their way down the peak, the icy crust of the snow crunched with each curve. There’s no ski patrol here, no ski lift to take people to the top. The hillside is owned by those who bother to climb it.
Dark clouds hung above the skiers and began to spit a rain-snow mix at onlookers below.
“No thanks!” one woman chuckled as she held her jacket a little tighter.
While not common at the end of June, backcountry skiing isn’t unheard of in Crater Lake National Park. With an average annual snowfall of 43 feet, the park is one of the snowiest inhabited places in the country, according the park’s seasonal newsletter.
The park is open year-round and is a spectacular sight to see at any time — barring clouds within the caldera don’t obstruct the view — but access varies depending on snowfall.
The crystal azure waters have beckoned tourists since word of the lake entered the state and national consciousness in the 1850s, though knowledge of the lake has been passed through the local Native American tribes and their ancestors for millennia.
For a place that in the 1850s took days to access, the lake continues to entice.
The 1,932-foot-deep lake is the deepest in the country with up to 100 feet of clarity, making it also one of the clearest. The park is located on more than 183,000 acres of land, which includes the famous lake, mountains, peaks and buttes, streams, springs, a bog and geological wonders, like the Pinnacles and Pumice Desert, dozens of hiking trails, historic buildings, including the picturesque Crater Lake Lodge, and the promise of adventure to all who seek it.
Adventure is out there
Crater Lake National Park is host to 90 miles of hiking trails including a 33-mile section of the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail.
It’s not hard to spot a thru-hiker taking on the trail that runs through the West Coast from Mexico to Canada. Many take a well-earned break at the Annie Creek Restaurant or the Camp Store at the south entrance of the park. With their packs and sticks resting on the side of the building, they cling to packages addressed with their name followed by “PCT Hiker.”
If hikers are in need of a shower, they can use the facilities at the Mazama Campground next to the restaurant and store.
There are 14 named and marked trails by the National Park Service, all varying in length and difficulty, each one offering a little something different for the casual traveler.
Garfield Peak and Mount Scott roll out some of the highest and best views of the park. Each is moderate to strenuous depending on the ability of the hiker and each climbs hundreds of feet in elevation. The peaks also offer views of the park, lake and surrounding Rogue National Forest as well as vistas beyond.
Crater Lake encompasses less than 10% of the park. Old-growth forest surrounds and comprises a majority of the park land. Within these forests are the headwaters of the Rogue River (at Boundary Springs), waterfalls, creeks and ancient glacial valleys carved before the mountain blew that now look like notches on the rim of the caldera.
A 6-mile road off the East Rim Drive leads to the Pinnacles, an overlook and short hiking trail along the park boundary at Sand Creek.
The overlook and start of the trail highlight the strange spires that rise out the base of the canyon. These beige and gray volcanic vents, called fumaroles, were formed before the mountain here collapsed to form the lake we know today. Gases escaping from beneath the ash flow settled above and welded it together to form a kind of pipe. Eventually the creek eroded away the ash and left these hard and erosion-resistant spires behind.
Despite the park containing these otherworldly-looking features, the lake is still the main draw and, while the caldera rim looks impenetrable, there is one way down.
Cleetwood Cove Trail is a strenuous 1.1 mile trail to the water’s surface. Its steep terrain with a few switchbacks make sure-footedness and good back and knee conditioning paramount to the eventual climb back up.
The descent is, however, worth it.
Cleetwood Cove is one of two locations in the park visitors can swim in the frigid waters of Crater Lake. The other is next to the boat launch at Wizard Island.
Those braving a plunge are limited to the first 100 yards from shore and standard swim wear or regular clothing are allowed — no wetsuits, goggles or fins.
If staying dry is more desirable, visitors can also catch a boat tour from the cove.
The Standards Lake Cruise putters around the lake for two hours, highlighting the features within the caldera including Phantom Ship, a 400,000-year-old lava island, the Old Man, a 100-year-old hemlock trunk that floats upright around the lake, and more.
The Wizard Island Cruise combines the Standard Cruise with a full stop at Wizard Island so visitors can hike to the top, picnic, swim or fish.
There is also a Wizard Island shuttle that sails directly to the island.
Anglers can expect to find rainbow or kokanee at the end of their line. There is no limit and no permit required to fish the lake, just the bravery to hike to the shore and try and find a spot to fish on the limited shoreline.
Or, stick to the land.
The 33-mile Rim Drive fully opened on July 11. Travelers can drive the entire loop, stopping at one of 36 pullouts overlooking the lake, many constructed when the park was first created.
The drive is breathtaking; every curve and point to pause offers a different perspective on the caldera and its steep walls that rise from 500 to 2,000 feet above the lake’s surface.
Dotted at times with hemlocks, rock slides of scree and jagged rock faces of the walls plummet into the water, leaving little to no shoreline — reminders that these are the innards of an ancient volcano.
When the volcano blows
Mount Mazama, the mountain that cradles Crater Lake within it, may have been the largest mountain in Oregon, standing up to about 12,000 feet before it blew its top 7,700 years ago.
A pyroclastic eruption sent hot ash spewing out of the mountain, landing as far away as central Canada and blanketing Oregon in a thick layer of it.
The layer of Mazama ash has been instrumental for anthropologists in dating artifacts found around the state including sandals found in a cave near Fort Rock. The layer of ash covered them, indicating that they had been there well before the eruption — a sign that the early native people of Oregon more than likely witnessed the event.
Besides that, we have legends that have been passed down through the generations of how Crater Lake was formed.
Many tribes people refused to tell early European pioneers and miners about the existence of the lake. Those that did warned that death would come for any person who looked on its blue waters.
The area is still special to the Klamath people, many continuing to use the lands around the lake for private, traditional ceremonies.
The eruption that caused the lake will not be the last. Though all is generally quiet, there are still a few rumblings below the surface.
Mount Mazama is currently listed as a high priority in terms of monitoring and is ranked 17 out of 161 in terms of threat by the United States Geological Society.
For now, things are pretty quiet, but a gentle reminder rumbled through on June 9 of this year when small earthquake was recorded, though not strong enough to be felt.
The mountain will erupt again, probably not soon, but it will, altering the landscape once again and leaving it to be eroded and changed by the extreme weather patterns that hover over the lake including that incredible snowfall year after year.
The reason the lake is so clear is fairly simple: The water in it is from melted snow or rain water, nothing else. No streams enter the lake, and by first glance, nothing comes out. The caldera appears like a fortress around the water, keeping sediment out of the crystal blue water.
Crater Lake isn’t lifeless though.
Two species of fish inhabit the lake, though they are not native to it waters. From 1888 to 1941 more than 1 million fish were stocked in the lake. Kokanee and rainbow trout are the remaining descendants of those, along with crayfish introduced to create food for the trout.
The name game
Yes, Crater Lake is a bit of a misnomer, but calling it Caldera Lake doesn’t have the same ring to it.
In fact, it could have been called one of several other (and mostly unimaginative) names. The Klamath name is Giwas. The meaning of this has been lost to time but it is no doubt the oldest name given to the waters.
For pioneers and miners of the mid 19th century the first recorded name given to the lake was Deep Blue Lake. It was then called, with no regularity or reason, Great Sunken Lake, Blue Lake, Hole in the Ground and, most eloquently, Lake Majesty.
It wasn’t until 1869 when the newspaper editor for Jacksonville’s Oregon Sentinel, J.M. Sutton, was given credit for dubbing it Crater Lake, named after the crater he found at the top of Wizard Island.
Sutton was one of the first non-Native Americans to hike down to the water’s edge, bringing a boat behind him. He and his party then paddled their way to the island, claiming they were the first people to do so, though this is unlikely given the human history around the lake extends thousands of years.
He wrote on Aug. 21: “To say that this wonderful lake is grand, beyond description, is to give no idea of its magnificence. Everyone gazes at it for the first time in almost tearful astonishment.”
It was a year later and half a country away that similar words met the eyes of a schoolboy eating his lunch.
William Gladstone Steel read an article from the newspaper that had wrapped his meal of an astonishing lake in Oregon and he was struck, vowing to one day visit the lake himself.
It was another 17 years before he would finally clamor up the mountain and peer into the caldera at the majestic blue water.
From that point, Steel made it a kind of mission to ensure the lake would be protected.
Writing on the beauty of the lake in West Shore magazine in 1886, “Crater Lake stands preeminent and alone, the sole possessor of a peculiar trait of grandeur not matched in all the world.”
He eventually got part of his wish in 1893 when the lake became part of the Cascade Range Forest Reserve, but for Steel this wasn’t good enough and he continued to press.
Finally on May 22, 1902, Crater Lake and the land surrounding it became a national park.
Steel went on to become the second park superintendent and is referred to as the father of Crater Lake.
Echoes of the past
Steel knew why Crater Lake needed to fall under some protection. Writing further in West Shore, “The time is coming when men of wealth who have looked with pride upon the Alps, will cross the great Atlantic, wonder at the grandeur of Niagara, linger in the valleys of the Yellowstone, gaze with rapture at the fleeting marvels of the Rocky Mountains, and at last, stand on the walls of Crater Lake, overcome with astonishment and mute with an unspeakable admiration of the sublimity of nature as there unfolded.”
It is a special place to Oregonians, adorning license plates, quarters and even making it into the lyrics of an old country song. The feeling you get looking down at the lake’s brilliant blue water isn’t something easily replicated.
Some may scoff and say it’s just a lake, but it is so much more.
Steeped in history, the caldera rim radiates a kind of energy that invigorates all the senses. The air is crisp and clear at 7,000 feet and with so much land to explore it can leave the spidey sense for adventure reeling.
Day trippers, weekend warriors and backcountry explorers can find it all within the boundaries of Oregon’s only national park.