Clear Blue Waters Await in America’s Deepest Lake
Crater Lake is the most prominent feature of Crater Lake National Park. Formed from a cataclysmic volcanic eruption about 7,700 years ago, the lake has long been revered as a sacred site by the Klamath peoples native to southern Oregon. In recent years, the lake has garnered admiration from nature lovers far and wide — so much so that it was commemorated on the Oregon state quarter in 2005.
With a maximum depth of 1,949 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States, and the second-deepest in North America. Its pristine waters are fed exclusively by snowmelt and precipitation, accounting for exceptional purity and clarity. While it has no natural tributaries, the region’s ample snowfall — an average of 44 feet per year — provides plenty of water for the lake, and lends lots of seasonal cover for winter recreation. Snowshoers, cross-country skiers, and even snowmobilers take advantage of the many trails around the park during colder months.
When the snow finally melts, generally sometime in late June or early July, the park’s roads open to auto tourists and bikers that make the 33-mile journey around its rim. Hikers can explore Crater Lake National Park’s network of backcountry trails, check out waterfalls, and spot Roosevelt elk grazing in meadows.
Activities in Crater Lake National Park
Bike the Rim Trail
Every year, more and more people visit Crater Lake National Park with the intent of biking the 33-mile Rim Trail around the lake. The trail provides spectacular views from its many scenic overlooks and turnouts and can present a real challenge even to veteran cyclists due to steep grades and altitude. Anyone who has biked the trail will attest that the journey is worthwhile — for the scenery and the challenge.
Because of temperatures and seasonal snow cover, the best time to attempt the Rim Trail is during the months of July, August, and September. Cyclists are welcome to use either of the park’s campsites, subject to availability. When planning a trip, it’s best to call ahead and be realistic when gauging times between waypoints.
The Rim Trail is also accessible by car. Whether you drive or bike, remember to share the road!
Crater Lake National Park abounds with old-growth forests and fields of wildflowers during the summer months. There are many scenic day hikes to choose from that are less than 3 hours in duration. The Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only authorized access to the Crater Lake shoreline. All other hiking inside the caldera is prohibited. Take a boat from the cove to Wizard Island, then climb two miles to the summit for great 360-degree views, or enjoy swimming and fishing in Fumarole Bay. Since snow can keep trails closed in Crater Lake National Park even into July, it’s important to check conditions before planning a hike.
Hike the Pacific Crest Trail
Summertime in Crater Lake is a great time to trek the 33 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail that run through the park. Prior to 1995, PCT backpackers had to leave the trail to access the crater rim. Today, an alternate route gets them right up close, following the edge of the caldera for six miles of beautiful vistas. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight stays in the wilderness. Prospective hikers should familiarize themselves with the park’s backcountry use regulations. If you can’t commit to a longer trip, several sections of the PCT can be explored as day hikes.
Crater Lake’s backcountry can be explored all year round, but winter brings special considerations. Since the park gets an average of 44 feet of snow every year, avalanche safety training is an important aspect of winter backcountry use. However, with the appropriate equipment, guidance, and education, the snowbound backcountry at Crater Lake can provide unparalleled opportunities for snowshoers and cross-country skiers. The North Entrance Road is groomed during the winter months. It remains closed to automobiles, but open to cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.
Visiting Crater Lake National Park
Seasons, Fees, and Reservations
Crater Lake National Park is open all year, but winter weather affects access and services. The park gets more than 500 inches of snow per year, and road closures are common even as late as June or early July. It’s a good idea to check road conditions before visiting. Winter provides a lot of opportunity for snow-related recreation, while summer brings a plethora of activities, including scenic boat tours, trolley rides around the rim, and scenic day hikes.
Standard entry to the park costs $10 per car, or $5 per person arriving on foot, bike, or motorcycle. Recommendations are strongly recommended for guests who wish to stay at the Crater Lake Lodge or Mazama Village cabins.
Rim Drive Highlights
Visitors that choose to drive (or bike) the Rim Drive should be on the lookout for several neat natural features that grace its circumference and turnouts. Take a short detour from the trail to check out the Pinnacles, 100-foot spires of rock that are being eroded from the crater wall. Each spire is a “fossil fumarole” that marks a spot where volcanic gasses once escaped from the caldera. Stop at a pullout about a mile west of the Cloudcap Overlook to catch a glimpse of the Pumice Castle, an oft-missed orange rock formation that looks like a medieval castle. Keep your eyes peeled for nearby waterfalls in the spring and summer.
Old Man of the Lake
The Old Man of the Lake is a 30-foot tall hemlock stump that has been floating upright in Crater Lake for at least 100 years. What’s more, this peculiar phenomenon moves around the lake with the wind and the waves. Look for it on a boat tour — it could be anywhere!
Ranger Programs and Educational Exhibits
Crater Lake National Park offers a variety of fun, educational ranger-led programs that provide visitors with an expert perspective on the park’s natural and cultural history. Winter is a great time for ranger-led snowshoe walks, which focus on winter ecology. Summertime programs include boat tours on Crater Lake and trolley tours around the rim — both guided. Reservations are recommended for all programs.
Folks looking for further enrichment are welcome to check out historic exhibits at Crater Lake Lodge, which itself is on the National Register of Historic Places. Educational films and exhibits on geology and lake research can be found at the lake’s visitor centers and adjoining sites.
Wildlife in Crater Lake National Park
Roosevelt elk were once almost hunted to extinction, but Crater Lake National Park has played an important role in restoring the species to its native range. In the 1910s, small herds numbering 15 individuals each were brought to Oregon by the state’s first game warden and reintroduced to protected areas in remote regions. The elk that roam Crater Lake National Park are the descendants of these herds. Recent counts of the park’s elk put their population at about 160. They can typically be seen from June to October in the Union Peak area and in meadows in the southern part of the park.
The American marten is a year-round resident of Crater Lake National Park. This tree-dwelling weasel preys on red squirrels and other small mammals but has also been known to eat insects, nuts, and carrion. It is primarily an opportunistic feeder. The wily marten is always hustling and bustling about the park, even in winter months, when a lack of natural predators gives it a distinct advantage. Since it is most active during dawn and dusk, you’re far more likely to encounter a marten’s tracks in the dirt or snow than you are to see one. Regardless, look for climbing up trees, possibly in pursuit of a squirrel.
This pine-nut-eating songbird is named for the American explorer William Clark, who with Meriwether Lewis led the famous transcontinental expedition that claimed the Pacific Northwest for the United States. It is ash gray in color with a black bill, feet, and wing markings. It is commonly found throughout the American West and Canada. Clark’s Nutcracker is an avid hoarder of pine nuts in its high-altitude home range, and of pinyon in its lower-altitude wintering grounds in the southwest. It likes to store seeds in underground caches, which can germinate under the right conditions, hence perpetuating the bird’s own habitat.
History of Crater Lake National Park
The Klamath people of south-central Oregon have long revered Crater Lake as a sacred site. It was once extensively used as a site for vision quests, rites of passage that involved fasting, and extended stays or feats in the wilderness — such as scaling the crater walls.
A local legend passed down orally from generation to generation since the time of the Klamath’s ancestors, the Makalak, points to clues about the lake’s origin. The Makalak myth tells of a cataclysmic conflict between the gods of the sky and the underworld that took place on the summit of Mount Mazama, a volcanic peak that once existed where the lake now lies. The battle destroyed the mountain in a rain of fire that shook the earth.
The tale correlates with geologists’ summations of the crater’s origins. They estimated that about 7,700 years ago, a 2,100-foot-deep caldera was formed when Mount Mazama collapsed. Additional volcanic activity formed the lake’s islands, such as Wizard Island, a cinder cone, and other geologic features. The depression gradually filled with water from precipitation and snowmelt, forming Crater Lake. Strangely, the lake has no inlets or outlets. This accounts for the lake’s exceptional purity. Prior to the introduction of trout and salmon in the 19th century, it had no extant fish populations.
White explorers from California first came to the Crater Lake region in search of gold but found none. Hence, the “discovery” of the lake in 1853 went all but unnoticed. Because of its place in Klamath society, local tribes did not habitually speak of their sacred lake. Widespread interest in the lake would not take hold until more than a quarter-century later, when William Gladstone Steel, who had been inspired to protect the lake as a boy, became the champion of its conservation.
Steel argued and lobbied for Crater Lake’s protection over the objection of local ranchers and mining interests. Crater Lake would be established as a national park in 1902. Steel, who would serve as the park’s second superintendent, would also be instrumental in the building of historic Crater Lake Lodge.