Explosive Beauty: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Seven thousand, seven hundred years ago Mount Mazama, in southern Oregon, erupted violently,  leaving behind a gigantic crater six miles wide and a half mile deep. For over 7,000 years, rain, snow and glacial ice slid down the sides of this crater to form a lake–the deepest in North America. At nearly 2,000 feet in depth, there are no inlets or outlets to cause sedimentation. It is so deep and clear that it is one of the bluest lakes of our continent.

In the 1870s, the naturalist John Muir spoke with a Hewisedawi (Pit River Indian) elder, who described an ancient oral tradition of a gigantic volcanic eruption. Muir recorded this in his book Steep Trails (1918): A mountain erupted so violently that “the whole sky was full of cinders and threatened all living things. When the eruption finally ceased, the sun peered through the dark volcanic clouds as a blood-red ball.” Most of present-day, northern California and southern Oregon is full of lava cliffs, lava beds, and cinder cones.

Crater Lake

Crater Lake

My wife, Maura, and I traveled with friends of ours to Crater Lake National Park in October 1997. Once we arrived, we could see nothing through thick layers of fog and mist. Douglas fir trees drooped with icicles, and five-foot piles of snow lined the rim-top road. At Phantom Ship Overlook, we could sense a vast void of space out there, but the few gusts of wind exposed nothing more than sheer cliffs with snow-laced trees clinging to the sides. Needless to say we were all quite disappointed!

Seventeen years later in September, 2014, Maura and I drove up from Crescent City, California, to Roseburg, Oregon, to have a nice, hot lunch. We continued on highway 138 for perhaps an hour before we saw the sign for the north entrance to Crater Lake National Park. We continued through scattered forests and passed the great volcanic Pumice Beds before we reached Merriam Point on the north shore of the lake. Unlike seventeen years ago, it was a crystal clear, cold and windy day with a very bright sun.

Wizard Island

Wizard Island

We anxiously climbed up to an overlook slightly above 7,000 feet elevation to see a vast expanse of a sparkling deep blue lake and Wizard Island, rising straight out of the western shoreline with its miniature crater at the very top. We just stood and stared in the cold wind for perhaps fifteen minutes before continue to a higher point of the rim and look across to Cleetwood Cove, the lowest point of the crater’s rim. During the summer months, boat tours sail around the lake and provided an amazing perspective from below.

2,000 feet at the bottom of the lake, geologists have determined that there are hydro-thermal pools that much deeper residual lava continue to heat. These pools have thick mats of bacteria that thrive in these warm spots deep in the lake. As far down as 400 feet, layers of bright green moss line the underwater cliffs. Scientists in the Deep Rover, an exploratory submarine, discovered these features just a few years ago.

a close-up view of Wizard Island

a close-up view of Wizard Island

We climbed back down to our car and proceeded to the East Rim Drive and the Rim Village, where visitors can stay a the famed Crater Lake Lodge. We could not help but become mesmerized by the sheer beauty of rim views all along the way. We just had to stop a half dozen times to get out and look at things, whether the lake itself, Wizard Island, windblown forests, pumice fields or distant dormant craters rising into the sky. After a nice hot cup of coffee and huckleberry rolls at village’s café, we continued our journey northward to Bend, Oregon, and eventually to our home in Denver, Colorado.

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