A Trip to Crater Lake!

This post is a long time coming! Are you ready?

As you may recall, my mom came out to visit Tanner and me in late September, and we planned a pretty epic week while she was here. The original plan was to spend three days at Crater Lake (two for travel, one for exploring), then three days backpacking near Mt Jefferson in Southern Oregon. Our plans went a little awry after we launched our travels, so we didn't end up sticking to our original itinerary, but more on that later.

Prior to leaving, I secured us a camping spot at Crater Lake for two nights, and the first morning I had off work we loaded up the truck with our backpacks full of lightweight camping gear + a large tent to use while at the National Park. The drive from Portland to Crater Lake was much longer than I expected; it was almost six hours, and the last bit of it was off the beaten path. Granted, the drive was very beautiful, but it was nearly evening by the time we finally arrived.

The park itself was much different than I had imagined. Though I have been to Crater Lake before, I was only six at the time and don't remember much about it. In my head I was expecting the landscape to be deep, green, forested and mountainous, much like the area around Mt Hood. Instead, we were met by vast, stark landscape more desert than it was wooded. Jagged sharp mountain peaks dotted the distance, but in between it was scrub brush and sand. We were also very high. Crater Lake sits at an average altitude of 7,500 feet, where the air was thinner and the vistas reminded one of a desert moon. Once again I was amazed by the utterly unique landscapes that traverse Oregon.

Before checking into our campsite, we hopped out of the car to catch our first glimpse of the caldera that is Crater Lake. Created from a volcano that erupted on Mt Mazama 7,700 years ago, the lake is the deepest in the United States, second deepest in North America, and the ninth deepest in the world at an average depth of 1,148 feet. At its deepest point it has been measured at 1,949 feet. The waters are entirely fed by rain and snowfall, and with no sediment to cloud it, the waters are brilliantly clear and blue, earning it the name Deep Blue Lake by the first European who discovered it in 1853.

The formation at the Western rim is known as Wizard Island, a volcanic cinder cone created from several smaller eruptions occurring after the caldera formed. In the summer visitors can take a boat ride to the island and explore several trails there. Due to its high altitude, Crater Lake has a very short season (it receives over 500 inches of snow a year!) and we arrived late enough that the boat rides had already closed for the year.

We settled into our campsite for the night, pitched our tent, and slept through an extremely cold night. Though the temperatures were still mild in Portland, at 7,500 feet it dropped below freezing once the sun set and we had to wrap ourselves in every piece of clothing we brought to stay warm.

The next morning we took our truck on the 33 mile Rim Drive of Crater Lake. The guide book said to allow 3-4 hours to explore, but we spent so much time stopping at each lookout, taking photos and hiking trails that it took us nearly 9 hours to see everything. Well worth it!

This formation is known as the Phantom Ship. Due to its location, changing light on the lake and shifting shadows, it can seem to appear and disappear in the lake throughout the day, like a ghost vessel. Though it looks like a rather small island, it's actually 500 feet long and 16 stories high.

Mount Thielsen in the background.

Mount Thielsen in the background.

The Phantom Ship is barely a shadow, above.

After the Rim drive, we took the Cleetwood Cove hike down to the water's edge. Though only a mile long, it drops about 1,000 feet in elevation through a series of very steep switchbacks. The trail down wasn't bad, but coming back up we had to walk slowly and carefully - our lungs weren't used to the altitude, making the hike more difficult. The views along the trail and at the bottom, though, were well worth the effort.

By then it was nearing sunset, but I wanted to go on one last hike before we returned to the campsite. We already walked down to the water's edge, but I wanted to hike up above the lake to get a great view from the fire lookout. This hike, too, was short but strenuous. But once again we were met with breathtaking views.

You can just barely make out the parking lot along the Rim drive in the left of the photo above. Below is the fire lookout, which is still in use today. The chairs inside have glass on the legs to protect the workers from lightning strikes.

We finished our drive by taking the highest paved road in Oregon (aptly named Cloudcap) at 8,050 feet high.

We were extremely lucky to get fantastic blue-sky weather, barely any crowds, and a perfect opportunity to explore Crater Lake just a few weeks before it closed for the season.

On our last morning, we woke up to drive to Mt. Jefferson for some backpacking, but discovered that my mom had bruised her rib hiking and was having trouble carrying a pack. As such, we needed to alter our plans on the fly, since we still had three days left of our vacation.

Stay tuned for part two...