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Into the Blue

Dive into America’s deepest lake—Crater Lake in Oregon.

Known as the Jewel of the Cascades, the stunning indigo blue Crater Lake in south central Oregon offers visitors an unforgettable vision in one of America’s great national parks. Steep cliffs surround the bluer-than-blue body of water, considered among the clearest in the world. With depths reaching 592 meters, the United States’ deepest lake holds significant cultural importance to local Native Americans, whose oral history carries down the dramatic story of the lake’s formation nearly 8,000 years ago. After a volcanic eruption on the 3600-meter-tall Mount Mazama, the empty magma chamber collapsed and formed a caldera that eventually filled with snow and rain. 

As Rennie Anderson drove up the highway with her family toward Crater Lake National Park, her anticipation grew. “We knew there was this incredible blue lake just out of our view, but you can’t see anything as you approach from the other side of the caldera rim,” she explains. “When we finally saw the lake, the blue was almost shocking. It blew my mind.”

The 53-kilometer Rim Drive surrounds the lake, offering spectacular views at over 30 pullouts along the way, where visitors stop and picnic, hike or just take in the scenery. For those who prefer to look out the window rather than drive themselves, ranger-led trolley tours run from July through October, making several stops at scenic overlooks. Driving the entire loop takes two to three hours, including stops.

A favorite is Watchman Overlook, offering an excellent view of the larger of the two Crater Lake islands, Wizard Island, named for its shape evoking a sorcerer’s cap. The second island, Phantom Ship, can be spotted from the overlook sharing its name along the southwest edge of the lake. Reach for the clouds at the highest paved access viewpoint in the park, Cloudcap Overlook, situated on the eastern side of Crater Lake at a height of 2,427 meters. 

For visitors who prefer to get out of the car and walk around, the park has over 140 kilometers of hiking trails, from easy to strenuous. Many visitors enjoy the Castle Crest trail, an easy 20-minute hike near the park headquarters, showcasing meadows full of wildflowers in July. Another easy hike, to the colorful Pinnacles rock formations located off the Pinnacles access road, offers wheelchair and bike access to these volcanic spires. 

A moderate 2.6-kilometer round trip hike to Watchman Peak brings park visitors to the historic fire lookout tower, affording panoramic views of the park, along with a favorite spot for watching the sunset. The highest point in the park can be reached with a strenuous seven-kilometer round trip hike to the top of Mount Scott, where the 2,721 meter elevation offers views of Mount Shasta in California on a clear day. Crater Lake, too, looks mighty fine from up there.

Accessing the lake itself is limited to those who can handle Cleetwood Trail’s 213-meter elevation change in the 1.7-kilometer hike down to the water and back up. Two-hour-long ranger-led boat tours run daily during the summer months, but seats should be reserved well in advance. Some of the tours include a stop at Wizard Island and the option to disembark there for a few hours to hike, swim or fish.

For a $10 entrance fee good for seven days, the park welcomes visitors to the lake year-round, but most of the roads and facilities close from November to April due to very heavy snowfall. In the winter, outdoor activities include snowshoeing, sledding, cross-country skiing and backcountry camping. The best time to visit Crater Lake is from June through September, when visitors enjoy the most options for sightseeing and touring along Rim Drive, and when in-park lodgings are open.

Staying in the park offers the ideal Crater Lake experience, but visitors must plan ahead as these spots book up months in advance. Comfortable rooms can be found at the historic Crater Lake Lodge, located in Rim Village along the southern edge overlooking the lake. The lodge is open from May to October, depending on snow. The dining room and common areas feature big windows, exposed timber beams and stone fireplaces. The back porch offers rocking chairs and lake vistas. Simple cabin rooms are located 11 kilometers from the lake at Mazama Village, near the park’s south entrance. Situated nearby is Mazama Campground, offering affordable tent camping and recreational vehicle sites, and the newly reopened Lost Creek Campground near Pinnacles for the true Oregon outdoors experience.

 

Jane Varner Malhotra is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.