Crater Lake National Park: Hiking to Garfield Peak

Garfield Peak in infrared seen from near the start of the trail. Lowell Silverman photography, 2014
Garfield Peak in infrared seen from near the start of the trail. Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

We arrived in Klamath Falls, Oregon the morning of Friday, August 15, 2014 after an overnight trip from Los Angeles on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight.  Enterprise Rent-a-Car picked us up at the train station.  We were a little dismayed to learn that despite reserving an “intermediate” sized car, described as “Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus or similar” we’d ended up with a tiny Hyundai Veloster.  This tiny three door car (with a trunk that barely fit our camping gear) is not an intermediate sized car by any stretch of the imagination.  Unfortunately, it was also the only car available for rental at the facility, so we were stuck.  (When I called corporate to complain, they explained that it was classified as “intermediate” based not on size but on its supposed amenities.  They agreed to refund $10 or approximately 0.5% of the cost of the rental, which they said was the price difference between intermediate and the next smaller size car.) We drove north along Klamath Lake to the southern entrance of Crater Lake National Park.  According to my previous online research, there were only two campgrounds in the park, of which one took advanced reservations.  The Mazama Campground was booked solid by the time we’d be able to commit to the trip, but the website advised that 25% of the campground was reserved for walk-ups starting at noon.  We arrived early and killed some time at the Annie Creek Store.  At noon, we got in line only to find that the last available slot in the campground was being sold to the man ahead of us in line.  The clerk said that the website I’d consulted was wrong about what time the campground opened to walk-ins and that they’d try to have it updated without success.  Fortunately, the man in front of us, Billy, agreed to share his campsite with us since there was more than enough space for two tents there.  We gave him $8 for our half of the site.  Interestingly, he never came back to the campground that night.  Billy, if you’re out there, hope you camped safely somewhere else!

A slightly hazy day at Crater Lake, with Wizard Island at left
A slightly hazy day at Crater Lake, with Wizard Island at left

After lunch at the reasonably priced Annie Creek Restaurant, we drove up to the Rim Village.  It was slightly hazy (probably due to the wildfires common in late summer) but the views were still astounding.  Wizard Island, the cinder cone rising from the middle of the lake, looked close enough to touch…or at least hang glide to.  No matter how many times I see it, I can’t help but be astounded by just how blue the water is at Crater Lake. The lake was formed in the caldera that remained after an ancient Cascades Range volcano now called Mt. Mazama collapsed following a colossal eruption around 7,700 years ago.  “Colossal” is appropriate even by volcanic standards.  It’s estimated that the eruption was a 7 out of 8 on the logarithmic Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), defined as an eruption that ejects over 100 cubic kilometers of material.  The Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980 was a VEI 5 (between 1 and 10 cubic km of ejecta).  VEI 7 events are exceedingly rare; Tambora’s 1815 eruption is the only VEI 7 event that has occurred worldwide in the past half-millennium.

Blue water of Crater Lake seen from the rim
The clear blue water of Crater Lake seen from the rim

Remarkably, the landscape surrounding the collapsed Mt. Mazama have not fully recovered in all areas, even after almost 8,000 years.  The nutrient poor area known as the Pumice Desert to the north of the caldera still has very little vegetation growing after the volcano buried everything that previously lived there under some  200′ (61m) of volcanic material.  Perhaps even more remarkable is what happened within the volcano’s caldera over the millennia.  The caldera has no inlets or outlets; rainwater and snowmelt gradually filled it to a maximum depth of 1,949′ (594m).  The water level does fluctuate slightly, but overall rates of evaporation and replacement by precipitation more or less equal out over the course of the year.  The lack of inlets also explains the lake’s brilliant color and clarity, since streams or rivers would bring cloudy sediments with them.

The Crater Lake Lodge opened in 1915 and is the only hotel within the park
The Crater Lake Lodge opened in 1915 and is the only hotel within the park

Near the Crater Lake Lodge, we located the trailhead for the Garfield Peak Trail.  This 3.4 mile (5.5km) roundtrip trail provides access to a high point on the rim of Crater Lake, the 8,054′ (2455m) Garfield Peak.   The trailhead map labels the route as “strenuous”.  Indeed, the trail gains about 964′ (294m) of altitude over the course of the 1.7 miles to the summit, mostly through a series of steep switchbacks.

View up the Garfield Peak Trail seen from near the trailhead
View up the Garfield Peak Trail seen from near the trailhead
Wildflowers on Garfield Peak
Wildflowers on Garfield Peak
Rachel creeping up a switchback
Rachel creeping up a switchback
View of the lake from the Garfield Peak trail
View of the lake from the Garfield Peak trail

The scenery alternated between the hills south of the rim and magnificent views of the lake itself.  It was slow going, mainly because Rachel likes hiking slowly uphill and I had to wait for her!  It also didn’t help that she had a new camera which she kept stopping to use (yeah, I got a taste of my own medicine!).  The lower slopes of the caldera have plenty of pine trees; the Garfield Peak trail alternates between stands of trees and rocky areas with some wildflowers like Indian paintbrush.

Despite its present shape, Mt. Thielsen is a shield volcano and originally had far more gentle slopes
Despite its present shape, Mt. Thielsen is a shield volcano and originally had far more gentle slopes

At points, there were good views of Mt. Thielsen, a shield volcano located north of the park that has been eroded over the years into its present shape.  Shield volcanoes, like those in the Hawaiian Islands, are built mostly out of lava flows.  Mt. Mazama, like the other large volcanoes in the Cascades, is (was?) a stratovolcano, built of not only lava flows but more explosive ejecta like ash.

Grass on the cob
Grass on the cob!

We saw a chipmunk working on extracting grass seeds.  For reasons beyond my comprehension, Rachel was not the least bit interested in photographing this adorable little critter.  I had no choice but to relieve her of her new camera (her superzoom was better than my SLR for this sort of thing unless I changed to my telephoto lens) in order to take about 15 shots of the rodent.  Hopefully the chipmunk avoided the pair of hawks we observed circling the peak (I don’t begrudge the hawks a meal, but I’d prefer they feed on more obnoxious golden mantled ground squirrels which always seem to be begging for a handout on the more well-trafficked trails out west).

Crater Lake Banner

A ridge not far below the summit provided exceptional panoramic views of the entire lake.  I took a series of three photos which I later turned into one of the banners for this site.

Summit of Garfield Peak. Rachel Pulverman photography, 2014
Summit of Garfield Peak. Rachel Pulverman photography, 2014

After about 1.25 hours of hiking we reached the summit.  The views from the summit aren’t really any more spectacular than those on the last half mile of trail, but you can’t really claim the bragging rights without going all the way up, can you?

Mt. Scott and the Phantom Ship seen from the summit
Mt. Scott and the Phantom Ship seen from the summit.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2014
The Phantom Ship
The Phantom Ship

On the summit, I borrowed Rachel’s camera again to get a close view of the Phantom Ship down in the lake.  The Phantom Ship is interesting from a geological as well as an aesthetic standpoint.  Unlike Wizard Island, which is a cinder cone formed after Mt. Mazama’s collapse, the Phantom Ship was actually formed by a volcano which predated Mt. Mazama.  Although buried as Mazama grew, the Phantom Ship emerged again when Mt. Mazama collapsed.

Descending the Garfield Peak Trail
Descending the Garfield Peak Trail

After about half an hour on the summit, we descended back to Rim Village.  Slow as she is going uphill, Rachel blows me out of the water with her speed hiking downhill. (Hiking the Inca Trail someday soon should prove interesting given our differing styles…)

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