The Deepest, Bluest Lake
[Crater Lake National Park, July 3, 2019]
You may have seen that instantly recognizable Crater Lake photo – a little cone-shaped island in the middle of the bluest of lakes. That was the image I had in my mind from the many photos of Crater Lake I’ve seen, but I was still excited to see it for myself.
Crater Lake was born out of the ashes of the volcano that stood in its place, Mount Mazama. The volcanic mountain was a result of a half million of years of explosions and eruptions, which had slowly elevated the mountain to 12,000 ft in the air. But 7,700 years ago, the magma chamber underneath the volcano filled up beyond capacity. A series of eruptions formed a circle and caused the middle of the volcano to collapse. Since this is one of the snowiest places in the US – the 43 feet of snow annually average out to 1.5 inches every day – the depression left by the volcano slowly filled up with water.
What gives Crater Lake its unique color is the fact that the water contained in it is one of the cleanest on the planet. There are no rivers or lakes feeding into or out of it, so the water is self-contained and therefore, incredibly pure. Crater Lake is also deep – at 1,943 ft, it’s the deepest lake in America. The purity of the water and the depth of the lake mean that sunlight can penetrate deep into the water and amplify the blue color. In 1997, Crater Lake set the record for water clarity at 143 ft. This was measured using a disk with alternating white and black sections – it’s called a Secchi disk. Scientists drop it in the water and record the depth at which they can no longer see it.
And that island you may have seen in photos? That’s Wizard island, and it was formed some time after the eruption of Mount Mazama. It was created by the build-up of hot cinders, which were ejected from the floor of the caldera. Wizard island is visible from many viewpoints along the West Rim of the drive that encircles the lake.
I learned a lot of this from my visit to the tiny Steel Visitor Center in the park. The 22-minute movie that runs every 30 minutes was full of interesting facts like these. The visitor center is named after Williams Gladstone Steel, an American journalist who visited the lake in 1885 and advocated for the its preservation as a national park, which happened in 1902.
Of course, long before white men came about, this was the home of several Native American tribes – the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin. These tribes were around for the eruption of Mount Mazama, and that story has been passed down orally from generation to generation. European settlers came West to seek their fortunes in the 19th century. Several different groups discovered and re-discovered the lake, giving it a different name each time until 1869, when the name Crater Lake stuck.
I drove in from Bend early. The two-hour drive was easy, save for the slow trucks that I wasn’t always able to pass easily since the majority of the road was only one way in each direction.
I got to the north entrance around 9:15 am. There was nobody at the booth (although I already had an annual pass), and there was no line whatsoever.
I made my way down the majority of viewpoints on West Rim Drive. They were not busy at all, which made for good photos with no people in them! Some fellow travelers were even nice enough to take my photo in some spots. At one of the viewpoints, I happened upon the Crater Lake Trolley, which is a great option for those who don’t want to drive themselves around the park.
Tall snowbanks were still visible on the side of the road, and there were snow patches all over. As a matter of fact, the East Rim drive hasn’t fully been cleared of snow yet, and the boat tour I was supposed to take today was also cancelled, I assume because they were still clearing that portion of the road.
In hindsight, I am glad I had more time to explore the park. I was able to get to the south end of it where there a couple of unique viewpoints. The first was Vidae Falls, which was visible right off the road. Unfortunately, as soon as I approached, I got attacked by mosquitoes that were not deterred by my long sleeves and long pants. I took a couple of photos and got the heck out of there!
The second stop, at Sun Point, provided an unexpected surprise. A small loop trail (less than a mile total) lead to several excellent overlooks with views of Phantom Ship, a funky rock formation almost 700 ft from the wall of the caldera. I took a ton of photos here. The clouds cover had increased but it was still sunny, which made the blues in the sky and the lake even more mesmerizing.
I also made sure to stop by Rim Village, where there is an even smaller visitor center as well as a historic lodge.
As you may know, I am a sucker for national park lodges. This one was on the small side, but the back patio provided amazing views of the lake. I would have loved to stay here just so I can see the sunset over the lake, especially since the cloud cover from today held promise for a very pretty sunset. But rooms cost around $250 a night and I am traveling by myself, so it would have been hard to justify the cost. At any rate, seeing the lake during the day in full sun is actually what brings about that intense blue, so I think I got the classic Crater Lake experience. I could not have asked for better weather.
The lobby wasn’t too shabby either – the lodge was built in 1915 but the Grand Hall has been recently renovated.
The path between the lodge and the visitor center had some of the best views of the lake. Many people were picnicking there, so I grabbed the leftovers from my dinner yesterday and did the same!
I debated going to Cleetwood cove, home to the only legal trail down to the water. It’s on the north end of the park. However, I am not a swimmer, I was almost out of water and the trail to the lake is short (1.1 mile) but very steep (700 ft drop), and coming back up in high altitude (Crater Lake is at 6,178 ft (1,883 m) would have made the return trip strenuous. I decided to skip it in the end. This gave me more time to spend in Bend, which I was happy with.
I got back to my AirBnB shortly after 3 pm, or about 8 hours after I left. I spent about 4 hours total in the park. After a shower and some rest and relaxation, I headed to the Old Mill district of Bend. My hosts had recommended Gregg’s Grill, which had a patio right on the Deschutes River. I enjoyed the late afternoon sun with my lager, and I watched people walk, run or bike on the path along the river, or float and paddle board in the river.
The Old Mill district itself looked great. The site was formerly occupied by the lumber mills, which were responsible for much of the town’s economic development but also for the depletion of the Oregon forest in the area. One mill closed in 1950 and the other in 1983, after which the site fell in disrepair. In 1992, a local developer bought the property and converted it into the mixed-use area it is today. It is home to shops, restaurants and hotels. The developer maintained elements of the original buildings, including the three smokestacks that sit atop what is now the REI store.
After my dinner, I wanted to go back to downtown Bend, which was only one mile away, and walk around a bit since I didn’t get to do that yesterday. I was in the mood for ice cream, and I found a natural gelato place downtown that seemed perfect. They had many unique flavors, but in the end I opted out for strawberry and honey and stracciatella.
As my visit to Bend and Crater Lake comes to an end, I find myself wanting to come back here and explore a lot more. This is a beautiful area and I love the small size and unpretentious vibe of Bend. The number of breweries per capita is also quite impressive. I wish I were spending more time here but alas, I am headed back to the big city (Portland) to catch up with friends. Until next time, Bend!