Wandering the West – Part 4: Crater Lake

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There is something odd about driving uphill to get to a lake. Even more so as you gain elevation over the surrounding land and there is less and less landscape above you. The whole concept of lakes being at the low point of a landscape where everything drains into is turned decidedly on it’s head. Such is the approach to Crater Lake.

Having entered the park miles away from the lake, found a campsite, and then started on the road to the lake itself the journey seemed to take on a very odd quality. I knew that the lake was the filled in caldera of what had been one of the major peaks in the area, which clearly insulated that to get to it you would need to go up, but as I maneuvered the switchbacks past the last remnants of the winter snowpack I came to be less and less aware that I was actually going to a lake. The first view as I turned into the parking area confirmed the feeling that I was on a long and curving ridgeline, as the lake itself couldn’t be seen from my vantage point behind the wheel in the brief time the road pointed at it, and the parking area generally faces the other way.

On opening the door I was surprised by the chill. I knew I was at a little over 7,000 feet elevation, and it had been pleasantly cool when I stopped off to claim a campsite on the way up. I even knew that the van display had shown an outside temperature of 54 degrees F when I parked, and I could see piles of melting snow all around me. Yet it was late afternoon in the end of June, the sun was shining, I had been in the desert for months and used to highs in the 100’s, and I had been at 10,000 feet the day before in Yosemite and quite comfortable. Cold was the last thing I was thinking of. Fortunately I had planned ahead and had a jacket ready, and quickly donned it.

As I reached a point where the lake could be seen, I nearly stopped in my tracks. Nearly as I knew there would be a better view a few feet ahead of me, but I certainly slowed my pace as my gaze focused on the intense blue of the water. On reaching the actual viewpoint area I probably stood still for 4 or 5 minutes trying to take it all in before even thinking about my camera.

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Years before, I had flown over the area in winter when all was covered with snow, and the pilots had pointed out Crater Lake – but when all was white it was just another expanse of snow. The intensity of saturated colors on a sunny summer afternoon seemed unreal, and, having satisified my need to walk the length of the viewing area several times and taking many pictures, I decided that I might just as well grab a book, sit on one of the benches with a view of the lake, and read for a while. Every time I lifted my eyes from the pages it took a few seconds to get them back from the incredible surroundings. Eventually I decided it was time to head back to the campground and setup for the night.

I had looked at the site reservations online before I left and noted that unlike Yosemite they still had plenty of open sites, and I also consulted my atlases which showed numerous other camping facilities in the surrounding area. Giving myself the freedom to have found something else along the way and deferring my arrival to a later day, or even stopping off on the way through and not camping there at all, did lead to a small amount of anxiety as I approached the park and, as mentioned above, I made sure to look after my lodging prior to going on to the lake. On entering the park I had first stopped at the “Mazma Village” lodging area and happily found that they still had many open spots. I mentioned that I would be self-contained in the van and asked if I should take a tent or an RV spot, and the person looking after the campsite allocation responded with an RV spot. It turned out that a tent spot would have worked equally as well, as all of their spots had level, pull-off parking at each one, unlike the situation the night before at Hogdon Meadows where tent campers had to park in makeshift lots in different sections of the campground away from their actual campsites.

Once setup for the night (in other words after hanging the curtains) I noticed a sign to a trailhead and decided there was still enough light left for a bit of a walk. I joined the Annie Creek trail, which the description said was a loop, and set off along the top edge of the ravine carved by the creek. Eventually the trail took a set of switchbacks down and into the ravine, but about halfway down I came to a fallen tree across the trail with a patch of snow on the other side of it. Part of me said to turn back, but the other part noted that the snow showed footprints and carried on. There were several more icy / snowy patches and fallen trees to contend with before reaching the bottom of the ravine, but it was well worth it. Information signs pointed out how the ravine had originally been carved by a glacier on the flanks of the mountain, then was filled with pumice from the eruption and the rather small creek is now slowly carving out a new ravine through the compacted pumice. The portion of the trail near the creek was enchanting in the late evening light filtering in through the trees, and it was impressive to actually see small pieces of pumice that the stream had dislodged floating along on top of the water. I would like to say that that was the only pumice I saw floating, but when a good sized pebble happened to have rolled down the sie of the ravine and come to rest in the middle of the trail next to the water, I did flick it in with my foot and watched it too float away.
Eventually the trail did indeed start to turn back on itself and head back up the side of the ravine, but again there were pockets of snow and ice along with more fallen trees. This section was steeper than the descent had been, and making detours around these obstacles quite often led to needing to use one hand on the ground for stability, and at those points more often than not I found myself pushing into a loose soil generally based on tiny grains of pumice. By the time I reached the top of the ravine both hands had been very neatly exfoliated.

The facilities at Mazama Village included a restaurant, and by the time I got back from my walk the thought occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have some veg with a meal. It was about 7:30 PM, they closed at 9, so I figured it was probably a good time to walk over and have a look at their menu. The menu was surprisingly good, but to my amazement there was a 45-minute wait for a table. I decided I might as well wait, so I put my name on the list, headed back to the campsite to pick up the book I had begun reading earlier, returned to the restaurant and settled in. The wait ended up actually being closer to an hour, but though it was fast approaching closing time the meal and the service was outstanding. My original intent had been a salad, but by the time it came around to ordering I had gotten a touch hungrier and opted for a steak with roasted veg and a side salad. I had expected a basic sirloin steak given the listed price and the usual park concession price inflation, but what appeared was a very well prepared cut strongly resembling a new york strip. Paired with a local beer it made for a very nice end to the day.

I had anticipated a cool night somewhere along the trip so in addition to a regular weight blanket I had also pulled my down comforter out of summer storage and brought it on the trip. As I got ready for bed I decided it was a good night to use it as well, and shortly after I was pleasantly asleep…. For a couple of hours. What I had neglected to think about was the amount of heat lost through the air mattress. After several failed attempts to position the comforter and blanket in ways to effectively make a sleeping bag, I gave up and retrieved my sleeping bag from the backpack and put it down on the air mattress, then covered up with the blanket and comforter combination. After that I slept soundly the rest of the night.

The next morning I awoke just before dawn to frost on the van. I had planned on making use of the showers at the campground before departing, but the ones near me didn’t open until 9 AM and the others would have been a long and cold walk, so I once again dropped the curtains, cleaned up as best I could at the bathroom sink, then hit the road. Rathar than eating at the campground I set the energy bar over a defrost vent (which was on full) and headed back up to the lake (which was on my departure route), where I arrived just after sunrise and had the entire viewing area to myself. What had been stunning in the late afternoon light was a touch less so at sunrise, but the areas that had been a touch less stunning in the afternoon were indeed stunning in the morning light. I luxuriated in the scenery while I ate, then retraced the previous days walk along the viewing area before getting back in the van and starting the day’s trip north along the west rim drive.

Along the way I stopped at nearly all the viewpoints, with most of them all to myself. At the Watchman viewpoint I managed to startle a couple of deer which were grazing at the edge of the parking area, but they very quickly returned to grazing a few yards away. Had the trail to the observation station not been fully covered in snow I may well have opted to have a bit of a morning hike.

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The eastern rim road was closed to traffic, so I was spared the difficult choice of heading at least partially down that side of the lake or exiting the park to the north. Along the way to the park exit the road went past an area appropriately called the pumice desert, where conditions have been such that very little plant life has recolonized since the eruption.

As with the southern entrance, the northern exit of the park is further away than what one might first assume if thinking only of the lake, and it seemed to take a surprisingly long time from the last of the viewpoints to the park exit.

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