Southern Oregon’s Crater Lake has many claims to fame- deepest lake in the country, second deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere, and seventh deepest in the entire world. But its greatest distinction is the extremely blue hue- some say it’s azure, others say navy or indigo. Scientists, though, say that Crater Lake is actually crystal clear. Like distilled water, it has no real color. The beautiful blue results from the way light is absorbed as it passes through water– blues are the last colors to reflect back to the surface. No matter how you explain it, or whether you call it cobalt or cerulean or stunning sapphire, everyone agrees that Crater Lake is the bluest blue they have ever seen!
Uniquely situated in the caldera of a dormant volcano, Crater Lake extends down to 1,932 feet at its deepest point. All 4.6 trillion gallons of blue come entirely from snowfall and rainfall, which averages about 792 inches per year (528 inches of which are snow). No streams or rivers run into it or drain out, so the level of Crater Lake rarely fluctuates. Its peaceful appearance contradicts its violent creation. The 6-mile wide caldera was formed some 7,700 years ago when 12,000-foot Mt. Mazama collapsed on itself following a cataclysmic eruption. After the volcanic explosion, the deep caldera formed and eventually filled with heavy snows. Once melted, all that snow became Crater Lake.
The Klamath and Modoc Indians, who had lived in present-day southern Oregon for thousands of years, provide a more vivid tale of Crater Lake’s creation. Their legend tells of two Chiefs pitted in a fiery battle- Llao of the Below World and Skell of the Above World. Their conflict began when Skell’s daughter did not return Llao’s professed love, and ended with the destruction of Llao and Mt. Mazama, which was Llao’s home. Llao’s breaved followers shed many tears over the loss of their chief, and those tears became Crater Lake.
Your first stop inside the park should be the Rim Village Visitor Center (open June through September) or the Steel Information Center (open year-round). Helpful park rangers as well as printed maps and brochures, point out park amenities, provide details about Crater Lake National Park, and generally help visitors get the most from their visit. Throughout the summer, ranger-led interpretive programs and evening campfire programs also provide visitors with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the park and its varied features.
Rim Drive encircles Crater Lake and is 33 miles of pure scenery. Take advantage of the pull-offs and picnic areas found along the paved route. Each presents a new vantage point from which to look down into the spectacular blue water and study the geologic formations protruding from the lake’s surface- Phantom Ship and Wizard Island. Rising 764 feet above the surface of the lake, Wizard Island is a small cinder cone created during Mt. Mazama’s eruption. A small crater, 300 feet across and 90 feet deep, rests on the summit of Wizard Island, which is reachable by foot up a spiraling hiking trail.
Crater Lake’s popular boat tours are a delight if you don’t mind a round-trip trek on the steep switch-backing Cleetwood Trail. This is the sole route to reach Crater Lake’s shoreline and boat dock, but it’s well worth the requisite exercise. Ranger-guided boat tours sail to Wizard Island where passengers can disembark, hike to its summit, then catch a later boat back to the dock. For those less adventurous, simply stay aboard and continue cruising around the lake. Tickets can be purchased at the Cleetwood Cove Trailhead kiosk prior to heading down the steep trail. Bottled water, sundries, and other small items also can be purchased at the kiosk, but be sure to take your own warm jacket and sunglasses to ensure an enjoyable boat tour. No services are available at the boat dock.
Even if you’re staying in the park’s campground or just visiting for the day, take a peek inside Crater Lake Lodge or enjoy a meal in the fine dining restaurant. Built in an ideal spot near the edge of the caldera wall overlooking Crater Lake, the lodge was extensively renovated in 1995 after being closed for many years. Fortunately, many of the original materials were salvaged and reused during the restoration, so the historic lodge appears today much as it did in the 1920s. The 71-room lodge and restaurant operates mid-May through mid-October. One of the best views of Crater Lake is from the seat of a wooden rocking chair found on the deck of the lodge!
From October through June, the park generally turns into a snow-covered winter wonderland. But even during the long, harsh winter months, Crater Lake National Park still provides hearty visitors with a phenomenal outdoor experience. A wide variety of trails and unplowed roads provide cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers with access to breath-taking views, open slopes, and dense wilderness. Ranger-led interpretive snowshoe walks begin in the Rim Village area every weekend from Thanksgiving through late March.
No matter the season, Crater Lake National Park leaves a lasting impression and its rich diversity makes it an unbeatable Oregon vacation destination.