Road Trippin’: Why You Have to See the Purest Water in the World at Oregon’s Crater Lake

Photo by Sébastien Goldberg

When you see the Golden Gate Bridge, no one has to tell you where you are. The same holds true for Yosemite Valley, Lake Tahoe, Disneyland, giant redwoods and the Hollywood sign. These have become icons, symbols recognized worldwide for the place they are found, California. 

OK, so Crater Lake National Park is not in NorCal, but hey, it certainly is close; about 2 ½ hours from Yreka, only an hour from Klamath Falls. If you’re anywhere near the area, it’s well worth a visit. When you see it, the word grandeur naturally comes to mind like when you’re staring into the Grand Canyon or inhaling the mists from Niagara Falls. To feel a bit small is normal in the presence of something so magnificent, America’s fifth National Park.

The water is dazzlingly blue like Lake Tahoe, but because you have to stand on the rim of a collapsed volcano to see down into it, the landscape also seems impossibly grand. It took me three motorcycle trips to finally manage to take the 33-mile trip all around the lake because snow blocks the road well into July. 

Not That Ancient

Most of our famous natural wonders are much older than Crater Lake. Geologists tell us the lake was formed about 7,700 years ago when historic volcano Mount Mazama collapsed into itself in a tremendous eruption witnessed by Native Peoples living in the area at the time. The 1,949-foot deep hole (caldera) it left took over 250 years to fill with water from abundant snowfall and precipitation. 

No rivers flow into or out of Crater Lake, yet the water level somehow remains fairly constant. This seems strange in that the lake averages about 43 feet of snow each winter plus about 33 inches of rain. Some of this water naturally evaporates, but scientists have concluded there must be major underground seepage as well or the lake would overflow. No one has a clue where all the water goes.

While 7,700 years sounds like a long time ago, there were already Native peoples living in the area who witnessed the collapse of Mount Mazama. The stories of the great cataclysm live on today in the oral traditions of the Klamath people. One Native legend holds that a war existed between Mount Mazama and Mount Shasta to the south. According to tradition, Llao, the spirit of the underworld who lived near Mt. Mazama, fell in love with a beautiful daughter of a Klamath chief, but was rejected. Llao swore to destroy the people with fire, but Skell, the spirit of heaven who lived in the sky above Mt. Shasta vanquished Llao by causing Mazama to erupt. Skell then filled the giant hole with pure water so the people would have something beautiful to look at all the days of their lives. 

Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States, the second deepest in North America, and the ninth deepest lake in the world. It is widely accepted to contain the purest water on earth.

Lake Things to See

Photo by Steven Coffey

Wizard Island is a prominent feature of the lake visible from nearly everywhere on the rim. Tours are available and people regularly climb to the top of the island almost every day of summer. Check out these tours:

The Old Man of the Lake is the name given to a massive hemlock tree that has been floating vertically in the lake for at least 100 years. The tree is at least 450 years old, and opinions vary regarding how long it has been there or where it came from. The Old Man is just another character in the story of Crater Lake.

The Phantom Ship is a small island in the lake resembling a ghost ship, especially in foggy or low-light conditions. When you are out on a boat on Crater Lake the Phantom Ship becomes all but invisible as it blends in almost perfectly with the walls of the caldera. It is more easily recognised from the rim looking down.

 Other Things to do

Of course, you have to see the lake first. You really can’t miss it and you wouldn’t want to. But the park offers plenty of other things to do.

Getting out on the lake in a glass-bottom boat is a real kick. When the light is right you can gaze into the deep and see down into the water almost 100 feet. Find out about Crater Lake boat tours here:

The park is rich in hiking trails, from easy to difficult, and wildlife abounds. Just a few of the critters you might encounter includes deer, elk, pronghorns, foxes, black bears, Canadian lynxes and bobcats. Birders should keep their eyes open for possible encounters with American dippers, Peregrine falcons, bald eagles, hummingbirds, owls and Canadian geese.

Throughout the summer months the park provides a series of ranger-led programs covering a wide range of topics. You can find an updated list of programs in the park newsletter here:

People actually fish in Crater Lake where you may find rainbow trout and Kokanee salmon. There is no evidence that Crater Lake contained any fish at all before stocking took place between 1888-1941. Today the fish population is self-sustaining. The park also offers backcountry camping. Not for the faint of heart or those in less than excellent physical condition, elite bicyclists ride the 33-mile Rim Drive around the lake past 30 designated lookout areas.

The only negative thing we can say about Crater Lake is that it is somehow not part of our beloved NorCal, but danged close. A visit to the park won’t soon be forgotten, and don’t forget to bring your camera.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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