Around 7700 years ago the Oregon volcano known as Mount Mazama exploded in one of the most devastating eruptions known to man. Blasting about 3000 feet (914 m) of material from its summit, the ash fell as far as western Wyoming some 800 miles away. The collapse of the peak left a caldera almost five miles (8 km) wide, and over several hundred years snow melt and rain gradually filled the massive hole with water. Today Crater Lake is at an elevation of 6173 feet (1882 m) with a maximum depth of 1943 feet (592 m), ranking it as the ninth-deepest lake in the world. This natural wonder was designated as Crater Lake National Park in 1902, making it the fifth national park in the United States.
Abundant moisture on the western flanks of the Cascade Range ensures this location sees an average of 44 feet (13.4 m) of snow from October to June. Depending on the weather it’s possible to reach the edge of the lake at Rim Village year-round. To really experience the park, however, most people visit from July to September when Rim Drive around the lake is open to traffic. My wife and I got to spend a laid-back day cruising around the caldera rim, taking in the sights, and doing a little hiking.
Our first stop was at the Sun Notch Trail, a short but moderately steep half mile (0.8 km) to a lake overlook. Along the way Applegate Peak cast an imposing presence over the surrounding conifers and meadows.
Even well into summer there were some attractive wildflowers to be found here.
Wildlife seemed rather sparse at these altitudes, but ground squirrels were relatively common. A wide variety of large mammals including elk, mule deer, pronghorn, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and porcupines inhabit this dense wilderness. Although we didn’t get to see anything that interesting, these animals are probably more apparent to visitors with more time to spend exploring.
The payout on the Sun Notch Trail is a great view of Phantom Ship, a small island that is one of Crater Lake’s most iconic landmarks.
This resistant rock structure certainly resembles a ghostly ship, perhaps even more so when the lake is shrouded in fog, clouds, or snowfall, which outside of summer is often.
As we headed further up the road we came to “Phantom Ship Overlook,” and despite the name the view of the landmark wasn’t quite as good here. I did like this scenery because it showed the stark contrast of the caldera rim against the lake.
Along this stretch of road we also encountered Vidae Falls, a cascade of decent height but only modest flow framed by some lush greenery around its edges.
Even though it was a pleasant summer day we witnessed this harbinger of what winter brings to Crater Lake:
We made a quick stop near Sentinel Rock, and here we were provided this nice view of the caldera rim lined with conifers as well as Wizard Island near the opposite shore.
We stopped for a picnic lunch above Cloudcap Bay before continuing onward. There weren’t many people here so it was a good spot to enjoy the silent serenity for a bit.
Traffic and crowds were a little more dense near Cleetwood Cove where a trail goes down to the lake and tour boats depart regularly. We pressed on and didn’t stop again until we reached The Devils Backbone, a particularly prominent stretch along the volcanic rim. Near The Watchman I got this shot of one of the ubiquitous trolleys that give guided tours.
Here we also got this nice view of Wizard Island, the most iconic landmark at Crater Lake. This cinder cone formed from more minor eruptions after the great blast that blew off the top of Mount Mazama. Other cinder cones lie below the lake surface, and many more are scattered around the countryside outside the rim. If you have a full day you can venture out to Wizard Island via one of the ferries from Cleetwood Cove.
Crater Lake is one of the more remote national parks in the lower 48, making it a bit of a trek to visit. It’s over 5 hours from Sacramento, California and about four hours from Portland, Oregon. The roads are mountainous and curvy but the surrounding scenery is gorgeous. It’s definitely worth the drive to experience this icon of the American west. For maximum adventure value, consider bundling this trip with nearby Redwood National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Oregon Caves National Monument, and Lava Beds National Monument.