Many Americans still recall the images of Mount St. Helens erupting — a tremendous plume of ash exploding skyward, lava flowing down the mountain’s flanks and trees flattened for miles around. And yet, as impressive as this volcanic activity in Washington state was, it was merely a firecracker compared to the enormous eruption that occurred some 7,700 years ago in Oregon. When Mount Mazama blew its top, so much ash and pumice spewed into the atmosphere that the mountain lost its structural integrity and collapsed in upon itself. Over the ensuing years, helped greatly by an average annual snowfall of 533 inches, the hole in the middle of Mount Mazama filled with water, and the incomparable result is Crater Lake.
Established May 22, 1902, Crater Lake National Park has unjustly been maligned as possessing little more than a lake; a park without the variety of, for example, Yosemite. Yet Crater Lake is not just any lake — it’s a lake so inky blue that one Indian legend states that the mountain bluebird was gray before it dipped into Crater Lake’s azure water; it is a lake so deep that, at 1,943 feet, it is the deepest lake in the United States and the seventh-deepest in the world; it is a lake so beautiful that many visitors who gaze upon its 21 square-mile cerulean expanse from its windswept rim, a thousand or more feet above the water’s surface, will gasp in astonishment, then lack for words. Sure, the elevation of the rim — more than 7,000 feet above sea level — may contribute to the breathlessness travelers to Crater Lake feel, but the lake itself certainly plays a role.
And the lake is not only special aesthetically. In an experiment to learn about Crater Lake’s ecology, scientists sent a submarine to its depths in the late 1980s and discovered hydrothermal vents. What role the vents play in defining the character of the lake is not certain, but when added to the fact that the lake has no inlets or outlets and that it has had a mountain hemlock log floating upright in it for more than 100 years, travelers should readily understand that this is one unusual body of water.
Yet the water is not the park’s only draw. Because the air is so clear in this remote section of southern Oregon (Medford and Klamath Falls are the nearest cities of size), hikers who set out along the park’s 100 miles of trails will often partake of 100-mile views. RVers who want to stay in the park must camp at Mazama Campground (888-774-2728), where limited hookups are available. Since winter snows close the roads and the campgrounds, Mazama is only open from mid-June through the end of September. The campground now takes reservations for half the sites.
All visitors to Crater Lake should at least complete the 33-mile lap of the lake called Rim Drive (large vehicles not recommended, so leave the trailer behind). Visitors who are able to hike down and back up the steep trail to the boat launch (the only way to the lake shore) may want to take a boat tour.
Crater Lake National Park, (541) 594-3000, www.nps.gov/crla