Sights Around Crater Lake

Third in a series about Crater Lake

This is a sample itinerary that starts by entering Crater Lake National Park from the south.  Although it could theoretically be accomplished in a single day with an early enough start, it took us two to visit all the listed sights (and there were many hikes we simply did not have time for).  Information is accurate as of August 2014.

The Villages and Visitor Centers

After paying your entry fee at the Annie Spring Entrance Station, you may wish to stop at Mazama Village.  Mazama Village is named after the historic volcano, Mt. Mazama which collapsed following a massive eruption roughly 7,000 years ago.  The caldera that remained eventually filled with precipitation to form Crater Lake.  Although Mazama apparently means “mountain goat” in a Native American language, Mazama is not actually the local Klamath tribe’s name for the mountain.  Rather, a Portland climbing club named the volcano after themselves and it managed to stick.

Mazama Village contains a grovery store, campground, restaurant, and gift shop.  Mazama Campground is one of two places to camp inside the park.  The Annie Creek Restaurant has decent food at reasonable prices.  When you’re ready to head up toward the Rim, pick up the Munson Valley Road.  On your way to the rim, you may wish to stop at the Steel Visitor Center.  There are relatively few exhibits here, but there’s a decent bookstore and post office (for those of you who appreciate sending old school postcards like I do!).

A slightly hazy day at Crater Lake, with Wizard Island at left
The view from Rim Village, with Wizard Island at left and Llao Rock behind it at right.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

Officially, Rim Drive begins at the visitor center.  The road continues uphill for a few more minutes before it actually arrives at the rim, near Rim Village.  The Rim Village has excellent views of the lake and Wizard Island.  It’s also near the trailhead for the Garfield Peak Trail, one of the high points on the rim.  The village has a gift shop and another small visitor center.  There is a cafeteria in the same building as the gift shop.

The Crater Lake Lodge opened in 1915 and is the only hotel within the park
The Crater Lake Lodge celebrates its centennial this year

Another dining option in Rim Village is the elegant Crater Lake Lodge, the only hotel inside the park.  Like the historic hotels in Glacier National Park, rooms book out way in advance.  This is unfortunate given that there are even fewer lodging options in Crater Lake than in Glacier.  The lodge’s restrooms and water bottle refilling station (supplied by local Annie Creek spring water) are quite useful.

Morning at Crater Lake Lodge
Morning at Crater Lake Lodge
A breakfast of trout at Crater Lake Lodge
A breakfast of trout at Crater Lake Lodge

We had breakfast in the lodge’s classy dining room.  The trout was very attractively arranged but rather bland.

Once your souvenir and nutritional needs are satisfied, head west on Rim Drive.

One of the safer sections of the Rim Road, near Vidae Falls. Lowell Silverman photography, 2014
One of the safer sections of the Rim Drive, near Vidae Falls. Lowell Silverman photography, 2014

Rim Drive

Crater Lake, unlike Glacier or Acadia National Parks, doesn’t have a well developed shuttle system.  If you want to explore the park, you will have to drive (unless you’re one of those crazy people we saw riding bicycles).  Rim Drive is a loop road circling the top of the caldera and provides access to most of Crater Lake’s sights.  I consider this road far more nerve-wracking than Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Highway.  (To summarize: Many people fear the Going-to-the-Sun Road, even though I felt quite comfortable driving it.  So, if you fear the Going-to-the-Sun Road, you probably don’t want to drive at Crater Lake!)

The Rim Drive has quite a few sections with no shoulders, no guardrails, and steep drop-offs.  My impression is that the counterclockwise direction is much more hazardous than driving clockwise (lake side).  Of course, even driving on the safer side, you may find terrified motorists driving counterclockwise start to cross the yellow line.  Safety is not guaranteed!

Looking east towards Wizard Island and Mt. Scott on a hazy morning on the west side of the rim
Looking east towards Wizard Island and Mt. Scott on a hazy morning on the west side of the rim near The Watchman.  From the west side of the lake, it was possible to smell the smoke from wildfires within the park; apparently this is common in July and August.

The Watchman

The Watchman is a high point of the rim on the west end of the caldera.  Watchman Overlook provides one of the closest views of Wizard Island, the cinder cone that emerged during volcanic activity subsequent to the massive eruption that resulted in the collapse of the historic Mt. Mazama about 7,000 years ago.  Unless you have a hang glider (ha, ha, I’m only kidding, National Park Service!) the only way to visit Wizard Island is by boat from Cleetwood Cove.

Watchman Peak
Watchman Peak

A trail leads to Watchman Lookout Station (built 1932) sitting high above the overlook.

North Junction and Llao Rock

Continuing clockwise around the rim, you arrive at North Junction.  This is where the road from the North Entrance Station arrives at the rim.  A drive north down the North Entrance Road provides views of Red Cone (an attractive cinder cone) and the Pumice Desert (where poor soil has resulted in a dearth of vegetation even though roughly seven millennia have passed since the major eruption buried whatever used to live there).  After you’ve had your fill of Crater Lake, you may wish to consider heading down this road to visit Diamond Lake or Mt. Thielsen, located north of the national park.

Llao Rock in infrared
Llao Rock in infrared

The junction is close to Llao Rock, a formation of lava from the historic Mt. Mazama that survived when much of the rest of the volcano collapsed.  Llao Rock is also visible from Rim Village.  According to legends of the Klamath tribe, Crater Lake was created during a battle between the god of the underworld, Llao, and the god of the sky, Skell.  The speculation is that these legends resulted from the ancient peoples witnessing the powerful eruption and passing their interpretations down from generation to generation.

Ignoring the North Entrance Rd for the time being, continue clockwise on the Rim Drive.

View from Cleetwood Cove
View from Cleetwood Cove

Cleetwood Cove

Main article: Crater Lake National Park: Hiking to Cleetwood Cove

Cleetwood Cove, on the north side of the Crater Lake, is the only safe (and legal) way to access the water of the lake itself.

Mt. Scott Panorama
Mt. Scott Panorama

Mt. Scott

I regret that we ran out of time to hike to the summit of Mt. Scott.  At 8,929′ (2,721m), it is the highest point in Crater Lake National Park.  Mt. Scott is an extinct stratovolcano.  Although it is only a fraction of the size of the historic Mt. Mazama following Mazama’s collapse, Mt. Scott is slightly taller.  It is located east of Crater Lake.  Mt. Scott predated the main Mt. Mazama cone and weathered the younger volcano’s cataclysmic eruption and collapse.

View from the Phantom Ship Overlook in the evening
View from the Phantom Ship Overlook in the evening

Phantom Ship Overlook

Despite its name, the Phantom Ship Overlook is relatively far from the Phantom Ship, a formation of rock that predated the main Mt. Mazama cone and was exposed when the younger volcano collapsed.

The Phantom Ship
The Phantom Ship seen from Garfield Peak (albeit with significant magnification by way of telephoto lens)

I felt the view from Garfield Peak was actually better in terms of being able to appreciate the Phantom Ship’s shape, although both viewpoints are a similar distance away.  Certainly, by car there’s really no better place to view the formation than the Phantom Ship Overlook.  (I can’t speak from personal experience but I would suspect boat tour from Cleetwood Cove is the best way to get a close look at the Phantom Ship.)

The Pinnacles of Sand Creek Canyon
The Pinnacles of Sand Creek Canyon

The Pinnacles

Near the Phantom Ship Overlook, a spur road leads to one of Crater Lake National Park’s most unusual sights.  Pinnacles Road provides access to the Lost Creek Campground and formations known as (surprise!) the Pinnacles.  The Pinnacles are located near the southeast corner of the park.

Like the Pumice Desert (and of course, Crater Lake itself), the Pinnacles are a remnant of the climatic volcano eruption.  Technically, the Pinnacles are known as fossil fumaroles.  Hot volcanic deposits buried Sand Creek during Mazama’s ancient eruption.  As the top layers cooled, the deeper deposits were still quite hot.  As the hot gases migrated to the surface, they altered and hardened the deposits in their escape path.  The altered rock proved more resistant to erosion and the Pinnacles have survived as wind and water scoured the canyon over the millennia.

Close-up of the Pinnacles
Close-up of the Pinnacles

Although some Pinnacles can be seen from the Pinnacles Road and the small parking lot at the end of the road, the best view of the formation is reached by a short, easy hike to the east.  The trail actually continues out of the park into the neighboring Winema National Forest, although its condition is not quite as good there.

Vidae Falls, seen shortly before dusk
Vidae Falls, seen shortly before dusk

Vidae Falls

Rejoining Rim Drive from Pinnacles Road, turn left to continue clockwise around the lake.  The road continues to twist and wind, but it gradually descends to travel below the rim rather than on top of it.  Congratulations: The scariest portion of the drive is over, though the best views are over as well!  There is one sight left to look forward to: Vidae Falls.

Crater Lake isn’t really known for its waterfalls, but a small, pretty one sits on the south end of the caldera’s outside rim, easily visible from the road.  Vidae Falls is fed by a spring located high on the rim, not lake water.  (Crater Lake itself has no outlets.)

West of Vidae Falls, Rim Drive completes its loop, arriving back at the Steel Visitor Center.  From here, it’s a quick jaunt uphill to Rim Village or downhill to Mazama Village.


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