Each summer we migrate to British Columbia Canada to mountain bike on the regions legendary trails. This year the trek north presented an opening to check out additional National Parks on our “to-do” list. Redwood State and National Park, the first destination of our road trip, was our 20th National Park in the last year and a half. Though it seems like a lot of parks to us, we are trying to see all of the parks and 38 parks remain to be seen. Reaching all of United State’s National Parks will keep us busy.
The next National Park on the route was Crater Lake. A “drive through” visit crossing over from the wet northern California coast to dry central Oregon fit our plans. Alas sometimes plans must change.
Established in 1902, Crater Lake is the sixth oldest National Park in the United States. Along the volcanic crest of the Cascades in southwestern Oregon, Crater Lake is away from the main travel corridors. Nevertheless the park receives a reasonable number of visitors. In 2010, Crater Lake National Park recorded 448,319 visits, 34th out of United State’s 58 parks.
We planned on crossing through Crater Lake National Park to reach US-97, a scenic and more pleasant alternative to dueling with 18-wheelers on I-5 north. But when we reached Crater Lake, we found that the road crossing the park and circling the lake was closed. Though it was June 20th, just before the official start of summer, over six feet of snow remained on the ground. The snow pack was unseasonably high even considering Crater Lake’s typical 533 inches of snowfall per year.
Fortunately we could still enter and visit the National Park. Though we couldn’t cross the park as planned, a small section of the Crater Lake’s road was cleared to the rim of the caldera. Afterwards we’d have to back track and take the long way to reach US-97. The snow pack caught us by surprise. We hadn’t considered that the road through the park might not be open in late June.
Even with limited access, Crater Lake is impressive. Crater Lake was formed by an explosive eruption of Mount Mazama around 5677 BC and the subsequent collapse of its magma chamber. The eruption of Mazama was massive, nearly 150 times the size of the Mount St. Helens blast. Calculations suggest that Mount Mazama was around 12,000 feet high prior to the eruption. Today the highest land that remains from Mount Mazama is along the 7,000 to 8,000 foot-high crater rim. Held within the rim inside the caldera is Crater Lake. At 6,178 feet, the surface of the lake is over a mile below the original height of the volcano.
Crater Lake is deep. At its deepest point, lake bottom is 1,949 feet below the water’s surface, vertically a mile and a half below the pre-eruption summit. Measured at its deepest point, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States, second deepest in North America, and 9th deepest in the world. When comparing average depths, at 1,148 feet Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere and the third deepest in the world.
The caldera that holds Crater Lake sits above the surrounding terrain making the lake’s depth even more surprising. No rivers or streams flow in or out of the lake. Only the water from the Oregon Cascade’s heavy precipitation feeds the lake. The lake’s water is lost only by seepage and evaporation. The combination of Crater Lake’s great depth and effectively sediment-free water inflow produces a body of water that is an intense deep dark blue. Indeed, it is the memory of the color of Crater Lake’s waters that stays with me the longest after I leave the park.
When visiting Crater Lake, as with all visits to active stratovolcanoes, there’s an inescapable feeling that you are staring down the muzzle of a smoking gun. One trusts the scientist’s assurance that another eruption is not eminent. Still, being there at the edge of the caldera is just a tad unnerving. Is this why we visit? Is this why we head north on US-97 down wind of the spine of explosive volcanoes in the Cascades? Sometimes it feels this way. But seriously though, if we were looking to take a real risk we’d be dicing it out on I-5 with the speeding interstate truckers.
Crater Lake National Park and US-97 is a small adventure on the way north. Doesn’t it seem that the back road, the back way, has more to offer? Though the destination arrives more slowly the journey passes easy.