By Dan Shryock
Crater Lake National Park offers two unique experiences. One is easy to come by, the other requires a little effort.
Both are exceptional, according to Crater Lake National Park Superintendent Craig Ackerman. The first is viewing the lake from one of the many overlooks and viewpoints around the Rim Drive. The other is a view at the lake’s surface. That requires a one-mile hike down a switchback trail but it’s worth it.
“People who have never ventured down to the water level are really missing something special,” Supt. Ackerman says. “Prince Albert II of Monaco was out on the glassy surface of the lake a few summers ago. He looked up at the towering, colorful caldera walls and said ‘I’ve been to over 150 countries in the world and I’ve never seen anything like this.’
“Never argue with a prince.”
To appreciate Crater Lake, it may help to first understand how it came to be. Once there was Mt. Mazama, a 12,000-foot volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range. About 7,700 years ago, Mazama erupted and collapsed. The result was a crater nearly 2,000 feet deep. With no rivers or streams to feed water, the lake filled over time with snow melt and became one of the world’s clearest lakes. Scientists have measured its clarity to as deep as 120 feet.
That clarity, thanks to heavy snowfall each year, gives the lake its trademark blue look. The park receives an average 44 feet of snow each year. A year ago, 56 feet of snow fell around the lake and while only 27 feet had fallen as of April 1 this year, there’s no way to predict what spring will bring.
“Our historian has stated that snowfall has been recorded on every calendar date with two exceptions since 1931,” Supt. Ackerman says.
“To know Crater Lake is to know snow - in any season,” he says. “While many visitors revel in experiencing deep snow late into the summer, others may be deterred from camping, hiking on trails or seeing wildlife and wildflowers that still lie buried in late snow years.
“On the other hand, it can be amusing to watch kids using a sheet of cardboard from their camper to sled down a patch of snow in July when the temperatures in the Rogue Valley hover near 100.”
Snowfall also dictates available traffic in and out of the national park. The park is open every day of the year, but vehicle access is limited in the winter months to the South gate via Route 62, Munson Valley Road and the Rim Village area. It’s difficult to predict an opening date for the North Entrance or Rim Drive because of the variable spring weather conditions,” Supt. Ackerman says.
Work began April 15 to clear Rim Drive with the goal of opening the North Entrance by early June. “The crews never know just what they will encounter in the way of drifting snow or rock fall, particularly on the West Rim,” he says. “Last year, some sections on the west side had drifts greater than 40 feet in depth. In other years the winds are from different directions and have scoured sections of the roadway down to bare pavement.”
Once the road is cleared, the 33-mile Rim Drive around the lake becomes a circular photo album with breathtaking views of the lake and sprawling vistas across the Cascades.
“There are more than three dozen formally designed overlooks and viewpoints around the Rim Drive that were meticulously planned and developed by landscape architects and designers over the years,” Supt. Ackerman says. “They are all wonderful and highlight different aspects of the lake, the geology of the caldera or other park features.
“One of my favorites is the Phantom Ship Overlook at Kerr Notch (milepost 23.4),” he says. “It is a gorgeous view of the lake and the ‘ship’ that is nestled in a very lush grove of old growth trees. It provides excellent opportunities for great photographs.
“Several of the overlooks on the west side provide incredible views not only of the lake but also of the Cascade Range. Union Peak Overlook, three miles west of Rim Village, showcases Union Peak, Mount McLaughlin, and, on a clear day, Mount Shasta and beyond to the south.”