Crystal Clear – Crater Lake National Park, Oregon (part I)

After leaving the Columbia River Gorge, we turned south at Hood River, OR and began the 4.5-hour journey to Crater Lake National Park.

Crater Lake was formed about 7,000 years ago when Mount Mazama erupted so violently that it collapsed. The top of the mountain was blown off and what remained formed a caldera that is 5 miles across and nearly 4,000 feet deep. A few subsequent eruptions were small enough to form the 755-foot tall Wizard Island in the middle of the caldera. The mountain has not erupted since. Many Native American tribes actually lived in the area when Mount Mazama erupted; this event is still alive in some of their legends, and Crater Lake is considered sacred.

Because the lake is in a caldera, there are no inlets or outlets. The only source of water for the lake is precipitation – either that which falls onto the surface of the lake directly, or that which is absorbed into the ground of the caldera and eventually seeps out into the lake. The only way out of the lake is by evaporation. Due to these factors, Crater Lake is home to some of the cleanest and clearest water in the world. Clarity readings range from 115-175 feet, which is incredibly unusual.

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Crater Lake is also the deepest lake in the US and among the deepest in the world, with a maximum depth of 1,949 feet. Geologists have estimated that it took about 700 years to fill the lake to this depth. Above the surface of the lake, the walls of the caldera rise anywhere from 800 to almost 1,800 feet!

Okay, so now that you know all the fun factoids, let’s move onto some adventures. We entered Crater Lake National Park from the north and followed the North Entrance Road to the Rim Drive, which is the main thoroughfare. What we didn’t know is that the campground is on the south side of the lake, at least an hour away from the north entrance. After a long day on the road, we were a very grumpy group of travelers by the time we arrived.

After getting a good night’s sleep and de-grumpifying, we began our tour of the park the next morning by driving the 33-mile Rim Drive that encircles the lake. We stopped first at the Rim Visitor Center, from which we were afforded some of the best views of the lake. The air was calm, making for excellent reflections of the caldera walls on the smooth surface of the lake.

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Crater Lake from the Rim Visitor Center – Crater Lake National Park, OR
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Looking across at Hillman Peak, the highest point on the caldera – Crater Lake National Park, OR
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Donner Lake lupine – Crater Lake National Park, OR

From the Rim Visitor Center, we headed counter clockwise around the Rim Drive. Our first stop was Vidae Falls, visible with just a short walk from the parking area. As the road continues on, it winds around the landscape, sometimes running near the edge of the lake, while at other points, the lake is not visible.

About a quarter of the way around the Rim Drive, Pinnacles Road branches off to the southwest, leading through Pinnacle Valley to the trailhead of The Pinnacles.

Just a mile up Pinnacles Road is the trailhead for Plaikni Falls. When we were there in July 2012, this trail had just been built. The path leads 1.1 miles through pine forests up to Plaikni Falls, which cascades downstream through a field of wildflowers. We didn’t go to Crater Lake expecting to see waterfalls, but Plaikni Falls was a beautiful, quiet spot that we really enjoyed.

From the end of Pinnacles Road, the hike to the Pinnacles is an easy 1-mile round-trip walk with views of pumice spires formed from the eruption of Mount Mazama. The trail turnaround point is at the park boundary, which is well-marked.

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The Pinnacles – Crater Lake National Park, OR

Back on the Rim Drive, we continued counter clockwise the rest of the way around the lake, stopping at the many viewpoints along the caldera rim. It’s interesting how different Crater Lake looks from each angle. In particular, there is a small island called the Phantom Ship, so named because from certain angles it’s nearly impossible to spot. Particularly on a calm day when the walls of the crater reflect on the lake’s surface, the Phantom Ship is incredibly well-camouflaged.

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Crater Lake and the Phantom Ship (can you spot it?) from Cloudcap Overlook – Crater Lake National Park, OR
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Crater Lake and Mount Thielsen (on right) from Cloudcap Overlook – Crater Lake National Park, OR
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Grotto Cove – Crater Lake National Park, OR
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Wizard Island from The Watchman – Crater Lake National Park, OR
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Discovery Point – Crater Lake National Park, OR

This concluded day #1 in the park. The Rim Drive is long, curvy, and steep in some places; once you factor in time to stop for food, hikes, and views, it takes the majority of the day to drive the entire distance. And so we turned in for the night, ready to relax and prepare ourselves for the excitement that awaited us the next day. Stay tuned!


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: located in SW Oregon off of Highway 62 or 138
  • Fees & passes: $25 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Annual Pass accepted
  • Camping: Mazama Campground – 214 sites, $22/night, reservations accepted but some sites also available first-come-first-serve; closed in the winter
  • Hiking: there are trails of all distances at Crater Lake; we hiked to Plaikni Falls (2 miles round-trip, easy) and the Pinnacles (0.8 miles round-trip, easy)
  • Other: early in the morning is the best time for photos, as the wind is calm and the surface of the lake is very reflective
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19 thoughts on “Crystal Clear – Crater Lake National Park, Oregon (part I)

  1. I had forgotten those amazing factoids about Crater Lake! Also I’m curious if I got Phantom Ship in any of my photos 4 years ago; I don’t remember seeing it but I don’t remember not seeing it either! Looking forward to your next post!

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      1. Similar, yes. I have a second Crater Lake post that will be up next week, and that one has some close up photos of the Phantom Ship so you can really get a good idea what it looks like.

        Liked by 1 person

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