After the volcano blows: Crater Lake National Park

Mt. Mazama spilled its guts in a massive volcanic eruption 7,700 years ago, emptying itself out to such an extent that the mountain collapsed in on itself, creating a 3,900-foot-deep caldera. As the centuries ticked by, the caldera partially filled with snowmelt and rainfall, transforming into a sapphire-blue lake — the deepest lake in the U.S., with a depth of 1,943 feet — ringed by a partially forested mountain ridge at an elevation of 7,000 feet. Meanwhile the volcano kept belching up lava, creating cinder cones on the lakebed. One, dubbed Wizard Island, rises like a conical wizard’s hat above the lake’s surface, making a mini-mountain island to one side of the 6-mile-diameter lake.

Such is the dramatic history of Crater Lake, a national park in south-central Oregon that I’ve long wanted to visit and saw during a family road trip last month.

Ombre shades of blue

Crater Lake is famous for its sapphire hue. It’s so blue, we learned, because the water is very deep and nearly pure. No streams or rivers flow into or out of the lake, and so it doesn’t contain river silt or mud. The park receives a tremendous amount of snowfall every year — 43 feet on average — which helps keep the lake at a constant level, compensating for evaporation.

The rim views are stunning, but it’s even more amazing when you think about the fact that you’re standing atop the rim of a volcano, looking into the cone. True, it’s dormant, but no one’s ruling out the possibility of a future eruption.

Wildfires were raging in the area when we visited and the park’s West Rim Drive was closed, so we weren’t able to drive the entire rim. I worried that smoke would haze the view of the lake, and it did get hazier throughout the day. But when we arrived that morning the skies were clear and the lake clearly visible.

The caldera’s steep, crumbly sides make it impossible to reach the lake except along a single trail, the Cleetwood Cove Trail, which usually opens in mid-to-late June. My husband and daughter were keen to hike it. Following tradition, they both plunged into the icy lake — surface temps are around 50° or 60° in summer — just to say they did.

Crater Lake is a snowy place for much of the year, and we saw for ourselves that snow can remain on the ground even into August.

Off East Rim Drive, we saw the Pinnacles: fossil fumaroles — aka ancient volcanic vents — that cemented through intense heat the ash they spewed. Surrounding material eroded over the centuries, exposing the fossilized vents as fantastical spires.

Of course, pun lovers that we are, we immediately dubbed this photo Penickles at the Pinnacles.

Up next: The inspiring, jewel-box garden of Buell Steelman and Rebecca Sams, owners of Mosaic Gardens in Eugene, Oregon. For a look back at our visit to Redwood National Park and Fern Canyon, click here.

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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

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16 Responses

  1. Crater Lake is endlessly inspiring. I love the blasted Pines and other conifers that you can see around the rim. Some of those are very old and some have only a few growing tufts left on them.

  2. Even in your photos you can see how clear the water is around the edges. Beautiful place. Funny pun.

  3. Jenny says:

    You certainly covered a lot of territory on your recent trip. Such beautiful and inspiring scenery in the west, not to mention those cooler temperatures. Glad the smoke from fires did not spoil your trip.

  4. Peter/Outlaw says:

    What a gorgeous place! Looks like the Pennicks have fun where ever they go!

  5. Jane says:

    Thanks for sharing your road trip adventures. It has been a lot of fun to see these places from your perspective.

  6. shirley johnston says:

    There are so many interesting,beautiful,fascinating, places in this country to see!

  7. Rebecca says:

    Just beautiful! Bet the water was very invigorating. (Code for so cold it turns you red and takes your breath away).

    Sounds like you are a fabulous road trip!

  8. Evan Bean says:

    You really covered a lot through this trip! I’m glad you were able to enjoy Crater Lake despite the fires. I’ve only been there once, when I was quite young. I had a cheap pair of sunglasses from the gift shop (having forgotten mine) that didn’t curve so too much light came through at either side. We went out on the lake and it was so bright that I had to spend the entire time with my head down between my knees and a coat over my head. I still had a massive headache by the time we got back to the car. I’d love to go back so I can see it properly, perhaps with extra dark snow goggles in hand.

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