Ever since my brother moved to Central Oregon years ago, I have taken trips up to California’s northern neighbor. Typically, this is accomplished by a single, rear-numbing marathon drive that takes me over 14 hours, 800 miles, and through every stage of grief. Though mostly a flat and hazy commute through California’s Central Valley, the geography diversifies after the northern California city of Redding (where our tradition is to stop for In-N-Out). It is from there that we would enter a mountainous pass and emerge on the other side in the impressive presence of Mount Shasta, a 14,000+ ft dormant volcano, marking our entrance onto the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.
The Byway continues into Oregon, flanked on either side by occasional lava flows, cinder cones, and Crater Lake, a massive lake filling an extinct caldera and Oregon’s only National Park. Yearly I would make this drive and every time I would pass the detour to Crater Lake curious but undeterred. Naturally, 12 hours into a drive is no time for exploration. However, it would remain a curious destination tentatively planned into every trip north but never accomplished.
On our most recent trip to Oregon, TJ, Cindy, and I flew. From the air, Crater Lake appeared as a dark-blue, round disk nestled into the ground, as if a mirror pointed at the sky. With the rim of the caldera extending 7,000 ft above sea level, it is typical for snow to block access roads well into June. However, from the sky, it was clear that a lot of snow had melted and we would have unobstructed access to the lake. We knew that we wished to visit.
The next day would begin with a two hour drive to the National Park from my brother’s place, plenty of time for red vines and karaoke (there’s a disturbing rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody somewhere on Facebook, as proof). Once depositing our National Park-fee at the unattended booth, we continued onto a road that began to curve softly across a bald stretch of chalky land known as the “Pumice Desert”. It is at that point that the road begins to climb. Meandering up the west flank of the ridge, excitement grows as you know you will soon meet what is on the other side. So epic is the reveal that moment you crest the ridge, you feel like Little Foot finding the Great Valley in the Land Before Time.
Like most of the visiting drivers, we opted to stop at the very first turnout we found. The vista was not a complete view of the lake but we joined a few clusters of tourists in taking photos of what we could see. The landscape was so massive that it was impossible to take a photo of the lake in its entirety. Though disappointed that I didn’t have a wide-angle lens, the weather was perfect, the lake was gorgeous, and…um, there goes TJ, across the “do not pass this point” boundary!
Though perhaps a few years ago I would have joined him, I’ve grown nervous these days. I suppose I blame reddit’s /r/WTF and all of the other terrible things I’ve seen on the internet, but my mind races to the 1,100” drop to the lake below and the thoughts of adventure get sucked right out of me. Either way, he got a great 360º spherical panorama from the tip of a ledge and I chose to stay behind with Cindy and play in the snow.
Located far from major cities, there seems to be two ways to visit Crater Lake: the quick stop-and-photograph visit or the full commitment visit where you spend multiple days in the park in order to see everything. I suppose that’s true of most National Parks and on this day, we opted for the quick-visit. Driving from our original vista point, we would stop four to five more times along a 6 mile stretch of the western rim, including a pause at the visitor center. Each stop was the same—get out, marvel at the view, take photos (as if the first person to do so), watch TJ cross some posted boundary, get back in the car, and continue. Knowing that we wouldn’t have the chance to hike, snow-shoe, ski, bike, etc., we got our fix within an hour or two and were ready to move on.
That’s not to say that we weren’t awestruck by the beauty and power of Crater Lake. The green trees, the grey rock, the white snow, and the deep, deep blue of the water painted a scene that only nature could over thousands of years. The sight becomes more impressive when you realize that the 33-mile rim surrounds an extinct caldera and was at one point filled, not with water, but with volcanoes and lava flows. Even more interestingly, that caldera was created when a mountain collapsed on itself in a scene that would exceed the eruption of Mount St. Helens and create a “hell on earth” for all living things (including the local Native Americans, as some theorize they may have witnessed the event). Crater Lake is the most beautiful depiction of life regenerating and thriving in the remains of catastrophe and none of this was lost on us.
But when it's time to move on to a brewery tour, you need to line up your priorities. So we left.
For more photos from Crater Lake, check out below…