Oregon’s Crater Lake.

When my husband and I were planning our road trip through Washington, Oregon and Northern California, friends kept recommending that we visit Crater Lake National Park. Similar to Yellowstone, which we’d visited the previous year, Crater Lake is a caldera, a basin formed by the volcanic collapse of a mountain. The guidebooks I was using, which had very few color pictures, didn’t spend much time describing the lake, other than to say that it’s the deepest in the United States. That just didn’t seem like a priority.

But then while booking hotel reservations online, I happened upon the National Park Service website for Crater Lake. It featured prominently an aerial photograph of a sapphire blue lake, surrounded by pure white snow – like nothing I’d ever seen. At that point I understood why everyone was telling us to go there. We wouldn’t be able to get the view from directly above, but we could still drive and hike along the rim and look down into the 5-mile wide lake from several different vistas.

It’s impossible to describe the beauty of Crater Lake in words. You have to go there to truly appreciate it.

In 1853, three gold prospectors travelling through the High Cascades of south central Oregon climbed to the top of Mount Mazama, a Klamath tribe holy site. At the summit, they were surprised to discover “the bluest lake we’ve ever seen.” They dubbed it Deep Blue Lake, but then continued on, more intent on finding gold than contemplating the unusual sight before them.

But word of the blue lake spread, and before long people were travelling from all over the world to see it. In 1870, William Gladstone Steel, a 16 year-old Kansas boy, read about what was now called Crater Lake — in the newspaper in which his lunch was wrapped! By 1885 Steel had begun surveying the land around the lake and naming its landmarks. (Llao Rock and Skell Head are named after characters in the Klamath legend that describes the volcanic formation of the lake.)

Describing Crater Lake, Steel wrote, “All ingenuity of nature seems to have been exerted to the fullest capacity to build a grand awe-inspiring temple the likes of which the world has never seen before.” Steel spent years, and a tremendous amount of his family’s fortune, promoting, protecting and managing the lake and its surrounding lands. In 1886, a U.S. Geological Survey party carried a half-ton survey boat up the mountain, and by conducting soundings at 168 different points, determined the deepest point of the lake to be 1,996 feet. (Sonar readings made in 1959 corrected this to 1,932.)

Thanks in part to Steel’s dedication, in 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt designated Crater Lake and the 180,000 acres of land around it as our nation’s fifth National Park. A lodge opened there in 1915, and three years later the 33-mile-long road around the rim was completed.

At an elevation of 7,100 feet, Crater Lake National Park is covered with snow eight or nine months of the year. The three inches of snow on the ground during our late-September visit were nothing compared to the 45 feet (540 inches) of snow that accumulate on average every winter. Although the Rim Drive is closed to cars from mid-October to early July, it is a popular cross-country ski route the remainder of the year. Only one of the visitor centers stays open year-round; snow tunnels are required to make this possible.

National Parks literature describes Crater Lake as “one of the purest and most pristine lakes in the world.” Cut off from incoming rivers and streams, and filled only by rainfall and snowmelt, the lake contained no fish until humans began introducing them in the late 1800s. Some of these stocked species, including rainbow trout and kokanee salmon, continue to inhabit the lake today. There are also raven, stellar’s jays, deer, squirrels and chipmunks in abundance, plus the occasional elk or black bear. Wildflowers bloom along streams in the brief warm season. The outer slopes of the mountain are comprised of hemlock, fir, and pine forests.

Natural beauty is not always easy to appreciate. It’s one thing to discover a breathtaking landscape by accident, as did the gold prospectors of 1853. It’s quite another thing to intentionally visit a place of beauty in order to admire it. This is a problem I run into time and again on my trips to the American West. When a 2-week trip includes several different scenic drives and National Parks, the magnificence of each new place can be lost on the viewer. On the surface, it becomes “just another beautiful site.”

Lucky for me, I am often obliged to amuse myself at these vistas while my husband, a photographer, spends an hour or more, camera in hand, waiting for the light to be just right, or for a bird to follow a particular flight pattern. While occasionally I end up reading a magazine, more often than not, I find myself welcoming the opportunity to look deeper. Moving beyond complacence, I find that there is always much more to see – and understand – about these places. Mostly I find inspiration.


By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
December 2004

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.