Crater Lake National Park is the jewel of southern Oregon's Cascade Mountains, but the beauty found at this magical place rivals just about any other natural wonder found in North America.
In the early morning, fog often can be seen pouring over the crater rim like a slow-motion waterfall. On calm afternoons, the placid lake surface, reflecting the clear skies above, produces some of the most intensely blue hues found in nature. And at sunset, the lake perfectly mirrors and intensifies the oranges and reds streaking across the sky.
Many times I remember trying to capture such spectacular sights in my camera, only to find myself lifting my eye from the viewfinder just to enjoy the view in perfect solitude.
The unusual geography of the mountain was created nearly 7,000 years ago by the cataclysmic eruption and collapse of a huge volcano known as Mount Mazama. The resulting caldera, now filled with crystal-clear rain and snowmelt, is truly a gorgeous place and a mecca for photographers. The opportunities within the 183,224-acre park are nearly endless, especially for those who care to explore beyond the rim and the lake itself.
I began my quest to explore and photograph Crater Lake National Park more than 15 years ago, and the more I returned to this magical place, the more I discovered. I traveled from Boundary Springs in the far northwest corner of the park to Annie Creek in the south. Many of the best sites are miles away from the rim of the lake, and reaching some of them involves moderate hiking and climbing challenges.
I shall never forget a morning in early September when, from the summit of 8,054-foot Garfield Peak, I watched the sun rise across the Cascades. The ever-changing play of light and clouds stretched in a panorama from Mount Shasta in northern California to the Three Sisters in central Oregon - a distance of nearly 200 miles. Later, under an azure sky, the lake surface was like glass, and as blue as I had ever seen it.
One of the most heavily traveled trails in the park is from the north rim to Cleetwood Cove. This trail - the only one extending to the lake surface - is steep and 1.1 miles long (one way). In midsummer it can get very hot on this south-facing slope, so take plenty of water. The locals say this hike is one mile down and four miles back!
The Cleetwood Cove dock, at the end of the trail, is the launching point for the two-hour boat tour of the six-mile-wide lake, which is well worth the time and effort. Tickets for the boat tour can be purchased from the park concessionaire in the small booth at the North Rim Drive parking lot.
If you have a very limited time, I would suggest enjoying the 33-mile Crater Lake Rim Drive. Start at sunrise from Discovery Point on the west rim and proceed clockwise around the lake, stopping at the many turnouts along the way. This is a gorgeous drive, and the mood changes with the light and summer storm conditions. In the early morning, not only do you have the best light conditions, but you quite often have the road to yourself.
I photographed during the short summer season, which begins in June with melting snowbanks and early wildflowers. In the later summer months, wildflowers carpet the meadows. The best wildflower displays occur from mid-July through late August. The Castle Crest Wildflower Trail is an easy half-mile loop, starting from the Rim Drive near the park headquarters. At their peak, the wildflowers here can be spectacular. This area is best photographed in the early morning, when the sun is still behind the crater rim to the east and the wind is not as strong as later in the day.
Another area for wildflowers is Sun Creek, which is reached from Grayback Road. This road is accessed from the Lost Creek campground on Pinnacles Road, a one-way dirt road that runs west from the campground to the Rim Drive near Vidae Falls. About midway along Grayback Road are wonderful views south and west to Crater Peak (7,263 feet) and Sun Creek Canyon.
Some of the best views of the lake itself are from Sun Notch viewpoint, an easy half-mile round trip from the East Rim Drive. In early summer, a large meadow just below the crater rim is full of wildflowers.
Those who wish to stay awhile at Crater Lake during the summer season will enjoy the refurbished Crater Lake Lodge, a classic hotel in the style of the great lodges of the West, located on the scenic southwest rim. It is very popular, so reservations should be made well in advance of your visit.
Hiking & camping
During the summer months, Crater Lake can be photographed extensively on short to moderate day-hikes. If you are limited to three or four days in the park, I would recommend the following hikes:The Watchman Fire Lookout - A 1.5-mile round trip on the western edge of the lake; good in the early morning and late afternoon, with a wonderful panorama.
Garfield Peak - A moderate 3.5-mile round trip to its summit. This trail starts near Crater Lake Lodge on the southwest rim. A sunrise from here is well worth the early start up the trail.
Mount Scott - Another hike that is best in the early morning. The approximately five-mile round-trip hike on the east side of the park will take you to the 8,929-foot summit, the park's highest point.
Union Peak - If you have the time and energy, this 7,709-foot peak in the southwest corner provides one of the finest views in the park. The trail to Union Peak branches from the Pacific Crest Trail and continues another 2.6 miles to the summit.
For campers, there are two campgrounds within the park. The largest is Mazama Village, near the Annie Spring Entrance Station. There are 213 campsites as well as restrooms, water, laundry, a store, etc. Some of the sites also have RV hookups. Lost Creek is the other campground, located three miles from the East Rim Drive on Pinnacles Road. Lost Creek has 16 sites for tents only, and water is available. Both campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-served basis.
For the best fall color in the park, follow Highway 62 toward the south entrance. Along Annie Creek to the southern park boundary are aspen and cottonwood trees, which turn a brilliant golden yellow in late September to early October.
One of my most enjoyable hikes this past year was an October trek to Boundary Springs, the headwaters of the Rogue River. To reach the trailhead, take Highway 230 near Diamond Lake to Forest Service Road 760. Proceed 2.3 miles west to the parking area near Lake West. The trail heads south about 1.5 miles and parallels the Rogue River most of the way. After a half-mile, you will pass the north boundary of Crater Lake National Park. The springs are a very lush area, with wildflowers blooming well into the fall season.
In February 2000, my publisher (Farcountry Press, Helena, Mont.) called and asked me to submit images of the park in preparation for a coffee-table book. The deadline was about 10 months away, giving me time to complete some scenes of winter, which, in the mountainous park, can stretch well into May.
The park remains open all winter from the Annie Spring Entrance to the Rim Village. It is accessible via Route 62, which cuts through the southwestern corner of the park - from Medford, Ore., in the southwest to Route 97, near Klamath Falls, Ore., in the southeast. The Crater Lake Rim Drive, however, is closed by the heavy snowpack from late October to early July. The north entrance will open in mid-June, with the West Rim Drive cleared to the Rim Village, but much of the East Rim Drive will remain closed until early July.
Exploring the south rim during the winter months using cross-country skis or snowshoes can be very rewarding. For the energetic few, the entire 33-mile lake rim can be skied in two or three days. Overnight backcountry trips require a permit, available at the park's visitor centers.
For more detailed park information, contact the Park Superintendent at Crater Lake National Park, P.O. Box 7, Crater Lake, OR 97604; by phone at (541) 594-2211; or via the Internet at nps.gov.