Crater Lake - You Simply Have To Go

Let me preface with this that I was born and raised in Portland, born over three decades ago, and I have never once made the trip south to see Crater Lake, Oregon's only National Park. Well, that's sort of true - apparently my parents went just a few months before I was born. I've seen pictures...so apparently I have kind of been there before. Wifey had been there once before, on a whirlwind trip with family from out of town a few years ago.

It's somewhere I always wanted to see... It's a place that helps define the image of Oregon on a national (and international) scale. And it's been in my backyard for 30 years and I've never been there. Literally, people have travelled across the globe from Europe and Asia and been to Crater Lake, and I hadn't been there.

On some level, that's depressing.

On another, when we decided to take this two week vacation but not actually go anywhere requiring a plane, we decided to finally put Crater Lake on the itinerary.

It's not a short trip to be sure. Crater Lake is roughly 4.5 hours (the way I drive) from Portland, which means to make it worth it we had to start early. Like set the alarm at 4am and leave by 5am early. Yikes. While on vacation? Yeah, we knew it then and know it now - it was nuts.

So we packed a lunch, lots of water, our Nikon digital camera, and headed out.

We decided to head down I-5 to Eugene (about 120 miles or so) and go east from there, which looks to be the most direct route. Plus I can push the car up to 80, especially that time of day, and not deal with any traffic. We stopped in Springfield for gas and were heading east of Eugene before 7am - good time.

Now, I have to admit something here. I lived in Eugene for three years in college and only once - late my senior year - did we go east of town. And that was only about 30 minutes on a highway slightly north of the one we took to Crater Lake. As I'm driving east on Highway 58, taking in all the various lakes and forests we were passing through, repleted with a litany of hiking trails and lack of human presence, it saddened me. What the hell was I thinking then? Why didn't we head out here on a nice Saturday? At this point we are 2.5 hours from Crater Lake - and we didn't go once? Seriously? Talk about missed opportunities...

At some point we're going to have to go back to this area to explore, it's that nice. On this day, though, we were focused.

As Wifey napped I drove up through some mountains, getting views of crystal clear lakes and watching out for the early morning truckers. Traffic was light and there was a passing lane while going uphill, so I rarely had to slow down. And every other car on the road wanted to go fast too, so that made me happy.

We pulled into the North Entrance of the park about 9:15 am, paid our $10 entry fee (hey, good for seven days, in case you are in the area!), and headed the nine miles in to the Rim Drive, which traces the circumference of the lake. On the way we passed through some serious desolation.

For those of you who don't know, Crater Lake was created about 7,700 years ago when Mount Mazama literally exploded. It used to be a 11,000+ foot mountain before the explosion, which left the caldera which eventually filled with water to form the lake. That's the short version - if you want the longer version, there are plenty of resources. :)

What you see here is the area surrounding the caldera. It's been 7,700 years and as you can see there still isn't much growing there because of the composition of the soil. It probably doesn't help matters much that there isn't much rainfall in the summer and were there the beginning of August, but I have a feeling it doesn't make much difference. Seeing this moonscape was somewhat reminiscent of seeing Volcanoes National Park on the big island of Hawaii - pure desolation. Pretty, but pure desolation.

There is a lookout just as the road from the North Entrance joins the Rim Drive, so we pulled over. Remember, this is my first in-person glimpse of this majestic site. As we walked up to the edge - it slopes up to the railing from the parking lot, then opens up down to the lake - I knew it would be good, but words cannot describe the view. It's majestic, it's beautiful, it's transfixing - basically, it transcends words.

I don't get left speechless very often and I never put much stock in the idea that a view could "take your breath away" - but that's exactly how I felt. All I could say was "Wow." At that view point Wizard Island (a close up in the preceding picture) was a ways to the right and the sun wasn't too much higher than the eastern rim of the lake.

And again, I was kicking myself at the same time as I stared at this view - why the hell hadn't I been here before?!

I got over that as the day goes - the actively kicking myself part, not the questioning. It was the first view of a million great ones - and 500 pictures that barely do the lake justice - of the day.

This is one of my favorite pictures. We took it later in the day, towards the east side of the lake. I love the way you can see the reflection of the rocks off the ice blue water. Plus - and both of us are into this - I love the way you can see the different sedimentary layers of rock.

About the timing on this pic... When we got to Crater Lake we decided to hit go right from the North Entrance, hitting the west side first and traveling around the Rim Drive that direction. This meant all of our pictures in the morning on the west side were directly into the rising sun (it being 10 am and all), and it also meant all of our pictures on the east side in late afternoon were directly into the setting sun. In retrospect perhaps hitting the west side first wasn't the best choice with regards to pictures - but that only means we need to go back and drive the opposite direction next time.

This is an area southeast of the lake called The Pinnacles. What they basically are is fumaroles created after Mt. Mazama initially exploded. This valley was filled with ash and varying bits of debris, but there were plenty of places the earth still needed to let loose pressure, so these fumaroles were created by vents of gas and lava pushing up from the crust. Because of the elements that shaped them, they didn't erode nearly as fast as whatever else filled up the valley. The end result is this valley of pinnacles. Quite the site, and worth the extra drive away from the lake to see.

This picture was taken past The Pinnacles. We parked our car at the end of the road about at least a half mile back - I think it was further - to walk down this trail to get some better pictures of The Pinnacles. After the Pinnacles were out of site - they would be on the right hand side and further back in this pic - we hiked a bit more to see where the trail went. After a bit we came to this sign. This is actually looking back towards where we came - our car and the lake is in the direction the picture is taken.

Now, I don't know why, but this sign cracked me up. Think about it. There is literally nothing but a trail we are standing on. There are no campgrounds nearby. There are no parking lots. There are no hotels. The only way to get to the park at this entrance is by hiking a very long ways. But hey - welcome!

And the good news if you go in this way? You save the $10 entrance fee cars have to pay. Of course, it will take you another half day or so to actually hike in far enough to see the lake.

So why is this sign even here? And is it really the official East Entrance? And that warrants a huge sign - well maintained, I should add - on a trail that people probably don't hike into the park on? Sure, people may hike down from the Pinnacles to beyond this sign, and then come back - but they were already in the park to begin with. Kind of crazy. And funny.

I love this picture because of the reflection of the side of the crater onto the lake. Only on a windless, sunny day could you get this. Keep in mind also that from the water to the rim at this point is something like 1,500 feet, if I remember right. Simply amazing.

Wizard Island is to the right in the picture.

This is an attempt to get the entire lake in a single picture. It's - if I recall right - three pictures we stitched together using the handy panorama setting on the camera, and taken from the south side of the park. Phantom Ship (another vent like Wizard Island and the tiny rocks surrounding it) is below to the right. Check out all the different shades of blue, from the sky above to the darkest blue water at the bottom of the picture. How phenomenal is that?

I won't claim to be more than a casual photographer screwing around with a new toy, but it would be pretty difficult to mess up anything that beautiful.

After waiting so long to visit Crater Lake, I'm so glad we finally went. And really, the drive wasn't that bad. I do recommend coming back to Portland through Eugene as well instead of Roseburg like we did (that route takes longer, more twists in the road and less passing lanes), but it's still a pretty drive. Well, the deer grazing next to the freeway just north of Roseburg at dusk freaked me out a bit - deer on the road is a long story I'll share at some point - but other than that it was nice.

I honestly believe this is a pilgramage every Oregonian must make in their lifetime. It's a bit out of the way, sure, but it's worth every single gallon of gas and minute sitting on your butt in the car.

You can say you understand it's a great place, the epitome of being picturesque, but unless you go you will never really know what that means.

So go! Get out there and go! Tell the chipmunks we sent you!

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