Crater Lake


Crater Lake

Crater Lake is one of the ‘major’ national parks – similar to Yellowstone, Rainier, and Grand Teton, with the amount of visitors you’d expect. At the park, I saw more east-coast license plates than I had in all of Washington: 3x NY, NJ, Connecticut, Massachusetts. Maybe it was just a coincidence.

Crater Lake was an enormous mountain (Mount Mazama) until 7,000 years ago, when it blew up and the caldera filled with water. The lake that formed is the deepest in the US (1940 feet!), and has the clearest water in the world – 143 feet of visibility. It’s big, 20 miles around, but not that big. The rim itself is very steep, and the water can only be accessed from one location in the park; from below the rim it’s impossible to tell that there’s a lake, which is why it was discovered very late, by a gold prospector.

The park was crowded – particularly the camping areas – but not nearly as overrun as Rainier. The roads, however, were worse. Here I saw my first ‘negative shoulder’ roads, where the white shoulder line had been eaten away by erosion. I don’t begrudge the park service: there are serious budget cuts and one campground was even closed. The fundamental problem is that a lot of the topsoil in the park is sand. Imagine building a sand castle and letting it dry out, then building a road on top. As the sand crumbles, chunks of the road are taken with it. Make the walls of the sandcastle 200 feet high and you have some idea of driving along the rim here. The roads are closed in the winter, too, because there can be up to 20 feet of snow. They have big poles near the road so snowplow drivers can see where to plow.

The Union Peak trail winds through this

After arriving I secured a site ($29, because I had to get an RV site!) and went on a hike. 11 miles, up to a nearby mountain, Union Peak. This hike also featured about 4 miles of hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail. It was moderate, and I enjoyed looking around and comparing the plants with those 100 miles away near the coast. The final mile of trail before the peak, however, turned into the most frightening hike I’ve been on so far: steep rocky scrambling and the ground was loose sand that frequently gave way under my feet. Parts were actually all a large gravel which, geologically, is known as talus.

On top of Union Peak; smog is obscuring most of the Crater Lake rim

I discovered the peak was already occupied by an older guy from Alaska for a while. He looked like a born runner and he’d hiked 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail… before having to give up because his hips couldn’t take the weight of the pack. Now he was mostly doing day hikes along the trail. I didn’t realize how old he was until he mentioned that he’d last visited Yosemite in 1972! He gave me some recommendations about parks I should visit, before heading back down. I visited the park at the same time that PCT hikers were passing through, and I always saw them congregating near the post office, eagerly digging through their resupply packs and availing themselves of the showers.

Looking down the trail at a switchback (several subsequent switchbacks are visible below). The start of the climb is visible in the upper right.

The view from Union Peak would have been good, except there was intense smog. Apparently local forest fires (about 100 miles away) were filling the air with this smog, and it seriously impinged on visibility. Additionally, I had trouble even picking out Crater Lake among the other mountains, as the water was not visible from the summit’s angle.

The famous ‘phantom ship’ rock formation in the lake

In the evening I had dinner and was invited to have s’mores with my neighbors. Although I declined the s’mores (they have gelatin, produced from pork), I sat by their campfire. There were two women from Portland, and one of them had two sons, about 10 years old. They were large people, to put it politely – I think the boys weighed as much as I did – and I discovered that they were planning on biking around the rim of the crater – about 20 miles through some very intense hills. I kept my doubts about the feasibility of the exercise to myself. The boys, meanwhile, farted on each other and tried to hit each other with firewood. One of them spoke in hashtags, saying for instance “Hashtag can’t stop, won’t stop.” It was as obnoxious as people spelling out “LOL.”

There’s a lot of bikers in the National Parks, and frankly the biking that they do feels like a form of insanity. I don’t mean because of the extensive hills. Rather, people drive quite fast on these roads with no shoulders, and biking on some of these roads seems really dangerous. One of the rangers at Crater Lake said there were 2-3 bike ‘incidents’ per month. I don’t know how severe that is, but I guess it’s less than I expected. Still, I’ll stick with hiking.

Saddle at the top of Mt Scott

The next day I decided to try a few more of the hikes recommended by a park ranger. I broke camp early and was the first person of the day to climb Mt Scott, the highest point in the park at 7900 feet. This was a rather dull trail, filled with switchbacks, but topped with a great panoramic view of the lake. It was 5 miles with 1000 feet of elevation gain; when I reached the top it was chilly in the morning air. Next, I went on a 13 mile hike along a combination of spur trails, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Crater Lake ‘Discovery Trail.’

View of the lake from Mt Scott; the van is circled

The PCT here was a flat, easy hike, but the trail went through miles of land that had been hit with forest fires. What’s unexpected about fires is that they leave residue for decades, charred wood still visible, and although many trees are killed by the fire, they remain standing as their bark peels away and the wood bleaches in the sun. It was eerie walking through miles of this, with no living trees in sight. It also made for slow hiking, as this part of the trail was covered – the dead trees got knocked over the trail by winter storms.

Forest fire residue: miles of standing dead trees

After I reached a spur trail that looped back towards my starting point, I ran into a group of 5 rangers clearing the trail. They weren’t using chainsaws, just axes and handsaws, which was a shock to me. It must have been tough work. They also didn’t seem aware of the state of the PCT; when they asked me how it was, I could tell they weren’t excited about clearing another 2 miles of trail (I didn’t say this, but I thought this section of the PCT was the worst-maintained trail I’d seen so far, long due for a clean-up).

There’s a volcano in the volcano – Wizard Island. The water is exactly the same shade of blue as real life.

This wasn’t a very exciting hike, for 10 miles, and long hikes for a few consecutive days, along with a 4 mile uphill slog, wore me down. The final stretch of trail was great, though – 2.4 miles right along the rim of the lake. At last, the smog had cleared up and I had real view of the water, which was jaw-dropping. I’d heard the lake described as “really blue,” and it was – it almost hurt to look at. I’ve never seen a shade of blue that deep and intense in nature before. There were numerous overlooks along this segment of trail which were invisible to the cars below, and it was basically empty – so it was a real treat. Altogether I covered 18 miles with a lot of climbing; this was the second toughest day of hiking for me after my 20-miler in Mt Rainier.

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