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Ways to Enjoy One of America's Oldest National Parks

Story and photos by Lee Juillerat
HighOnAdventure.com   August 1, 2012

  Crater Lake reflections  
Crater Lake reflections

Viewing Crater Lake from any vantage is always stunning, but there's more to Crater Lake National Park than meets the eye. While its azure waters, set in a caldera in Southern Oregon's Cascades, are dazzling, the park is more than the lake itself. With a maximum depth of 1,934 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest in the U.S. and ninth deepest in the world. The lake was created about 7,700 years by the eruption of the former Mount Mazama, which created the caldera that contains the lake. Because it has no inlet—moisture from snow and rain offset evaporation—the lake is sparklingly clear.

Because the park receives an average 525 inches of snow each year, the full 33-mile long Rim Drive that circles the lake is partly or fully open from about June through October. It's during summer and early fall when most of the park's half-million people visit. The rest of the year it's reserved for cross country skiers and snowshoers. Snowmobiles are not allowed in most of the park.

Most visitors simply drive into the park, stop at Rim Village, take a few photographs and drive on.The lake is stunning, but take some time and there's more to see.

  Crater Lake Plaikni Falls  
Plaikni Falls

Plaikni Falls

For generations it was hidden, known only to a few park rangers as Anderson Falls, reachable only by an easy cross-country hike. Thanks to a new trail that opened in 2011, and given the enticing name, Plaikni Falls, visitors are now discovering another aspect of the park.

The hike is pure pleasure. The trail crosses a pumice flat before tucking alongside rocky bluffs. It's not unusual to spy red-tailed hawks floating in the thermals. Nearly a mile into the gentle walk, the trail angles uphill through a meadow and riparian area bursting with grasses and a rainbow’s array of wildflowers—paintbrush, Lewis monkey flower and arrowhead groundsef. Just a short distance upstream, the Plaikni Trail ends, appropriately, at Plaikni Falls.

Plaikni is the Klamath Tribes word for “river from the high country.” The 2.2-mile roundtrip hike, which is wheelchair accessible, is located off the Pinnacles Road and Rim Drive. It usually opens in late June or July after melting snow allows access to the roads leading to the trailhead.

  Crater Lake Trolley  
Crater Lake Trolley

Crater Lake Trolley

Park the car. There’s another way to see Crater Lake from Rim Drive—aboard the Crater Lake Trolley. The two-hour long ranger-guided tours are offered on the environmentally friendly, compressed natural gas powered trolleys. The privately owned trolleys operate during the summer as sections of Rim Drive open.

Frequent stops are offered at Rim Drive overlooks. At stops and along the drive, park rangers tell how the vast caldera that contains the lake was created 7,700 years ago when Mount Mazama literally blew its top, creating a giant-sized tea cup, or caldera, that eventually filled with snow and rain. Rangers also provide informational tidbits about the lake, its geology, and the park’s human and natural history, including tributes to William Steel, the "Father of Crater Lake." The trolley offers an easy, kick-back way to view, and learn about, Crater Lake. For information, including connections with Amtrak from and to Klamath Falls, visit www.craterlaketrolley.com.

Suggested Hikes

  Crater Lake diver   Crater Lake swimmer   Crater Lake jumper  
Diving in
Lake swimmer

Cleetwood Cove Trail

There are several great short hikes at the park. To appreciate the lake itself, the best is the Cleetwood Cove Trail, the only path to the lake. The 1.1-mile trail begins at the Cleetwood Cove parking lot off Rim Drive and drops 700 feet to the lake. That's the easy part. Be prepared for the climb out. The lure is seeing the lake and, for the adventurous, taking a quick swim.

  Crater Lake, view from Wizard Island   Crater Lake boating  
View from Wizard Island
On the lake
  Crater Lake Phantom Ship rock formation  
Phantom Ship up close

The reason most people make the hike is for a lake boat tour. It's necessary to be on the lake to fully appreciate the cataclysmic events that literally detonated the former Mount Mazama and created the lake.

It costs extra but, for those who like to hike, make reservations for tours that offer three- or six-hour Wizard Island stays. Reserve tickets in advance by calling 888-774-2728. Once on the island, it's a 970-foot elevation gain on the mile-long walk to the top of the summit. A second choice is the 1.8-mile roundtrip trek to Fumerole Bay, another swimming area and also a great place to savor inside-looking-out views of the caldera wall.

  Crater Lake, view from Mt. Scott  
View from Mount Scott

Mount Scott

It's the kind of view usually reserved for high-flying birds. Mount Scott, the highest point in the park with an elevation of 8,929 feet, requires an elevation gain of about 1,580 feet over its 2.5 mile distance. Because its generally even grade, it's a hike that can be taken by physically fit people of all ages. That's appropriate because the views along the way are for the ages –panoramic views of the lake that just get better higher up the trail. Pack water and food, and plan to spend time enjoying the view. The trailhead is located off East Rim Drive 14 miles from park headquarters.

Other Easy Hikes

The Watchman

For sky-high panoramic lake vistas without a boat ride, hike The Watchman Trail. It’s less than a mile and 413 vertical feet from the trailhead at the Watchman Overlook on Rim Drive to the lookout for views of surrounding Cascades peaks, including Mount Thielsen, Union Peak and Mount McLoughlin.

Castle Crest Wildflower Garden

The easy Castle Crest Wildflower Garden Trail loops a half-mile around a meadow seasonally bursting with wildflowers, including paintbrush, penstemon and red columbine, creeping phlox, pasque, shooting star, scarlet gilia and more. The trailhead is located a mile east of park headquarters on the East Rim Road.

  Crater Lake monkey flowers  


Crater Lake asters
Monkey flowers
Asters, and friend

Annie Creek Canyon

Wildflowers and a deep, stream-cut canyon are good reasons for hike the 1.7-mile long Annie Creek Canyon loop trail. Reached from the Mazama Campground, the tranquil canyon offers a sense of restful beauty not found at Rim Village.

  Crater Lake, Annie Creek Canyon  
Annie Creek Canyon

Garfield Peak

Gee-whiz views of Crater Lake and the often hidden Phantom Ship make the 1.7 mile, 1,010-foot elevation gain atop Garfield Peak worth the effort. The several lake viewpoints offer good reason to use the camera and rehydrate on the way to the top. The trail begins near the Crater Lake Lodge.




Crater Lake View from atop Garfield
  Crater Lake Phantom Ship from Garfield  
View from atop Garfield
Phantom Ship from Garfield

Crater Lake Lodge dining

  Crater Lake Lodge  
Crater Lake Lodge

The toughest part of dining at the Crater Lake Lodge is deciding what to order. The night I visited, the drool-inducing appetizers included Oregon mussel meuniere, wild mushroom bruschetta, wild salmon satay and baked crab and artichoke fondue. The solution? Make friends, order one of each and pass them around.

The entrees often change, but it's hard to make a bad choice. On a recent visit the possibilities included baked Oregon bleu cheese halibut, filet mignon with wild mushroom merlot, grilled marinated lamb chops, roasted prime rib of bison or Northwest citrus duck. All good reasons for staying more than one night.

  Crater Lake A view from the lodge's porch  
A view from the lodge's porch

The food is delicious and so is the setting. Along with the ground floor dining room and Great Hall, the historic lodge, which opened in 1915 and was extensively rehabilitated in 1995, has 71 rooms. From the dining room, hall or from the outside chairs, it's easy to be transfixed watching as the setting sun reflects off clouds floating over the lake, creating a borealis-like light show of ever-varying hues.

The lodge and its restaurant is open from late May to mid-October. Reservations are required for dinner, but it’s also possible to share appetizers in the adjacent Great Hall. Breakfast and lunch are also served daily at the lodge. For information and reservations call 888-774-2728, email reserve-cl@xanterra.com or visit their website at craterlakelodges.com.

About the Author

  Crater Lake, swimmer Lee Juillerat  
Lee enjoying the water

Lee Juillerat is a reporter-photographer in Southern Oregon who has written about Crater Lake for several newspapers, magazines and journals. He's also the author of Crater Lake Lodge: The Lodge of the Imagination and Story Behind the Scenery. He has written about travels in the U.S. Europe, Japan, New Zealand and other destinations for High On Adventure. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.com.

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