See enough pictures of Crater Lake and you start to feel like maybe you’ve been there already. On the iPhone or PC screen the endless shots of the lake’s deep blue water sort of blend together. Add the crazy vista points high above the water’s surface on what looks like a razor-thin rim of crumbly rock, the sky streaked with clouds or maybe a cloudless sky of blues that rival the lake’s deep blues. It can’t be real I’ve often thought. And oh yeah, I’ve already been there.
But no. One’s reaction to Crater Lake cannot be anticipated. You cannot plan for that first vision of the lake and its unique beauty. This place you arrive at, after just four hours drive from Hiouchi, is invariably colder than the towns you passed through to get here, with an atmosphere far crisper than the one you left thousands of feet below (you climb almost a mile in elevation above Medford or any other town on Interstate 5), and will, in its entirety, really blow you away.
We took off for our first visit last October, rolling the dice that the clear and dry summer weather would last for at least the following few days. Crater Lake is notorious for harsh weather, sudden snows, and road closures that toy with one’s good intentions. And October is usually too late to pay a visit. But the drought that prompted wildfires here all summer long was lasting into the fall. With a few days open on our calendar we made the commitment. We bought supplies, packed the tent, dropped the dog off at the neighbors and took a chance the good weather would hold.
Driving east toward Medford on 199 we did a jog south at the interstate and then headed east again on State Highway 234. Hillsides of trees gave way to scrub and an empty flatness that reminded me of Utah or Nevada. We gassed up somewhere along the way at a café-gas station-mini mart that felt detached from the real world — we’d left civilization just like we wanted. Hwy 234 morphed into Hwy 62 and slowly we gained elevation and got back into dense forests of spindly pine. At Union Creek we stretched our legs and eyed a funky looking motel and café but quickly pushed on to Crater Lake, taking one turnoff and then another, paying an entrance fee at a tiny kiosk, and then navigated switchback after switchback until reaching the rim.
Parking behind the notorious Crater Lake Lodge, already closed for the winter, we hiked the 1,000 feet in elevation to Garfield Peak. The lake was as blue as the pictures, and filled one’s view. Yes, the photos do the lake justice. But the vastness, the stark silence, all the blues, the lonely islands to anchor one’s glare, the wind, the painfully steep ledges…it’s impossible to convey the scope on the face of a cell phone. There is nothing like it in the world, or if there is, I’ve never seen anything similar.
Just a few other hikers were on the trail that day. Mostly it just us and this pancake-flat, blue stillness of a
volcanically induced lake below. A few clouds were reflected perfectly on the lake. No boats, no waves interrupted the clouds’ mirror image. I saw a feint line etched on the lake, like someone had drawn on the water with a white pencil. I was staring and staring at it. Well, well…an airplane in the sky, its jet stream reflected perfectly as a taught line stretching across the lake. Duh!
With the park’s camp sites closed for the season, we took the northbound route out of the park and aimed ourselves toward Diamond Lake, a broad sheet of greenish blue water located equidistant between two nearby volcanic peaks — Mt. Thielson and Mt. Baily — in the Cascade Range.
We unloaded the Subaru and made camp about 100 feet from the shoreline of Diamond Lake, pitching our tent in near darkness, seeing the lake up close only the next morning. Temps had dropped into the 30s but the morning dawned sunny. We ate in the cold and headed back to the park for a second and final hike, this time down to the lake’s shoreline at Cleetwood Cove. What started as an early morning hike in cool temps and moist air ended a couple hours later in heat, under a glaring sun. The lake again shimmered and reflected the sky in eerie duplicity. What were we looking at? Water? Sky? Reflection? Reality?
Finally back to the car, we stripped off our layers and headed west. We stopped at Beckie’s (the funky café at Union Creek) and wolfed down omelets and coffee. We’d seen Crater Lake. The pictures you see on friend’s cell phones are impressive but they’re just a hint. You have to see it for yourself.
Two of the best personal blogs that have covered Crater Lake are Keven and Amanda’s blog (this couple produce one of the nicest personal blogs, covering travel, food, photo tips, and web design — excellent photography and tons of information. As well, “Funemployed” blogger Andrew Haak has an impressive entry on Crater Lake. Have a look at both for photos and a wide swath of information about the lake and park. And if you need more photographic inspiration just do a google image search (search term: Crater Lake) and you’ll be swamped with shots.
The National Park Service’s web page and site for Crater Lake National Park. Find information about rules, fees, campgrounds, road closures, reservations, tours, park ecology, history, and nature. Links to three park webcams as well as a link to the official park map. Tons of assorted and miscellaneous information that can help in the planning of a visit.
This business-focused site assembles a good selection of what’s available among nearby hotels, restaurants, local businesses, and in most cases includes links out to the businesses’ sites as well. A very handy site.