Crater Lake National Park: Deepest and Bluest

Crater Lake National Park, the nation’s fifth, was established in 1902 under Theodore Roosevelt to protect over 183,000 acres in the southern Cascades on the slopes of and in and around the caldera of what had once been Mount Mazama, but which is now the deepest lake in the United States. Sean and I were headed back for a final attempt to see the lake’s intensely blue waters in the sunshine before continuing on to the final stage of our “Shasta” trip: a few nights in Portland.

After departing the visitor center of Tule Lake National Monument late on the afternoon of September 18, we drove northwest out of California for the final time on this trip and back into Oregon. In Klamath Falls, we stopped at the post office downtown to grab some flat rate boxes. We were going to do our now-standard trick of mailing home what items we could, from no-longer-needed camping supplies to souvenirs, to lighten our loads as we reached the end of our trip.

Sean investigated Klamath Falls grocery stores, and we chose Holiday Market because it is employee owned and had good Yelp reviews. We grabbed a rotisserie chicken, mac and cheese, tiramisu, and salad from the hot/cold bar to take back to the hotel for dinner. We also loaded up on kombucha and grabbed some packing tape to close our USPS boxes.

Back at the Sleep Inn in Chiloquin, we ate our dinner and then finished up wiping out and drying the tent and gathering our items to box up. We had a momentary stress crisis when we couldn’t locate the tape we’d just bought. But we found it in the car and all was well.

That night, American Horror Story 1984 premiered on FX. We had cable in our hotel room so we watched it (largely for Gus Kenworthy and the crazy 80s nostalgia). Afterward we lay in bed in front of comfort staples Law & Order: SVU and The Golden Girls. Sean loves watching cable TV in hotel rooms.

Next morning, Thursday, September 19, we were up fairly early for free breakfast in the hotel lobby with an amusing mix of humanity before we grabbed and loaded a cart. We packed our things in the car and soon we were on the half-hour drive back up to the Park.

7,700 years ago there was a very large mountain over there.

On the way to the rim, we stopped at Park Headquarters to drop our boxes at the post office.

Then we headed up over Munson Ridge to Rim Village and parked.

There it was, fully visible before us with clouds low enough to add drama but not to obscure views.

Wizard Island

Grouse Hill

Part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Cascades are a relatively young mountain range primarily formed by the subduction of the Juan de Fuca Plate under the North American Plate.

Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel

Western Hemlock

At a likely elevation topping 12,000 feet, Mount Mazama was a major peak in the range, although somewhat lower than Mount Rainier and Mount Shasta, which are both higher than 14,000 feet. Higher than Mount Hood, though, Mount Mazama would have been the highest peak in Oregon. Like these other mountains, its highest reaches would have been snow-covered and permanently glaciated.

Watchman Peak (left) and Hillman Peak (right)

Llao Rock

For roughly 400,000 years, Mount Mazama towered over the Klamath Basin and the southern Cascades in south central Oregon. It experienced some minor eruptions and seismic events before the cataclysmic event that destroyed the mountain.

Watchman Peak (left) and Hillman Peak (right)

Common Raven

Then, roughly 7,700 year ago, Mount Mazama began to experience a more serious eruption on its northeast slope at what is now Cleetwood Cove. That eruption lasted some period of time (weeks, perhaps) before the mountain’s main magma chamber erupted in a gigantic column of pumice and ash. Unlike Mount St. Helens or Lassen Peak where the eruption was more intense on one side of the mountain, the eruption of Mount Mazama progressed to a “ring-vent phase” wherein volcanic vents opened around the perimeter of the mountain between the 7,000 and 8,000 feet elevation points. The eruptions around the perimeter of the mountain vented magma from the central core beneath the mountain’s peak.

Then it collapsed.

From a 12,000 foot peak, the mountain imploded, dropping some 8,000 feet and creating an enormous caldera 4,000 feet deep.

Wizard Island and Llao Rock

Then it stopped erupting. The whole final event likely took about forty-eight hours.

For the next few hundred years, even as the caldera began to fill with water from rain and snow, minor eruptions built cinder cones within the caldera, the largest of which, Wizard Island, is the only one to rise above the surface of the lake.

Over centuries, the caldera filled with water eventually reaching a maximum depth of 1,949 feet making it the deepest in the United States and ninth deepest in the world.

The path slightly down the southern wall of the rim to Sinnott Point was open (it hadn’t been earlier in the week when visibility was terrible), so Sean and I walked down to have a look.

The elevation of the lake appears to be at equilibrium. It is fed only by rain and snow, and water is lost only to evaporation and seepage. Because of its precipitation source, the water is unusually clear. The clarity and depth create Crater Lake’s famed deep indigo hue, which we were lucky enough to see most brilliantly when we were at the Sinnott Point overlook and the sun fully emerged. The lighter areas are actually higher parts of the lake floor. We were gazing through hundreds of feet of water at the topography of the floor of the caldera.


The interpretive piece above shows the extent of the ash field created by materials from Mount Mazama’s eruption carried by the prevailing winds. It blanketed an immense area compared to Mount St. Helens (the smaller field).

Wolf Lichen

After checking out the interpretive displays at Sinnott Point, we walked back up to the rim.

Garfield Peak

It was crazy to see Garfield Peak looming above Crater Lake Lodge. It had been entirely hidden from us during our stay at the lodge earlier in the week.

Whitebark Pine

Hillman Peak

We ducked into the visitor center, and I picked up the stuffed animal for Crater Lake National Park: a Raven. It felt right, after seeing Ravens in so many Parks from Alaska to New Mexico to give it to this Park of the Pacific Northwest.

It was time to head once more around the lake, or at least as far as the road to the Park’s north entrance.

Vidae Falls

We dropped down Munson Ridge, passed Park Headquarters, and turned onto East Rim Drive. We stopped at Vidae Falls to have a look at it in the sunlight.

Vidae Falls

Vidae Falls

Dutton Ridge

East Rim Drive climbed up onto Dutton Ridge, and we gazed out at views of the northern end of the Klamath Basin.

Upper Klamath Lake

Although significantly better visibility than earlier in the week, the lowish clouds still obscured Mount Shasta, which on clear days would be visible in the distance.

Dutton Ridge

Kerr Valley

From Dutton Ridge, the road dropped down into likely glacially carved Kerr Valley.

Anderson Bluffs

Anderson Bluffs

At Kerr Notch, we stopped at the overlook for Phantom Ship.

Wolf Lichen

Phantom Ship

Unlike Wizard Island, which rose after the collapse of Mount Mazama, Phantom Ship is part of a dike of hard rock within what is now Dutton Cliff. The hard dike survived when the Mountain and the walls around it collapsed.

From the lookouts above Sentinel Rock, we could gaze back past Phantom Ship along the southern rim of the caldera.

Dutton Cliff (left), Applegate Peak, Garfield Peak, and Eagle Point (right)

Dutton Cliff (left), Applegate Peak, and Garfield Peak (right) with Phantom Ship

Phantom Ship

Crater Lake supports little biodiversity. For the most part, the walls around the shoreline are too steep to allow for aquatic plants, which need sunlight. The only places in the lake where aquatic plants grow well are the shallows around Wizard Island. Historically, the lake was stocked with trout and salmon, which have declined, and there is discussion of fishing them out to remove them.

It was a dramatically lit day. With the fast moving clouds, we were treated to moments of intensely blue lake water along with dramatic plays of light on the caldera walls. The recent snow at the higher elevations added texture.

Wizard Island with Watchman Peak (left) and Hillman Peak (right)

Mount Thielsen

North of the Park boundary, the summit of Mount Thielsen was hidden in clouds.

Redcloud Cliff


Mount Scott

In the photo above, Sean is munching on Dot’s Pretzels, which we first discovered at the C-Store in Medora, North Dakota, outside of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

We drove up a side road onto Cloudcap. This lookout, at almost 7,900 feet was the highest on the east rim.

The wind came strongly across the caldera. Not as violently as the car-shaking wind earlier in the week, but still cold and intense.

Mount Scott

We descended from Cloudcap back to East Rim Drive. Directly in front of us was Mount Scott, the Park’s highest point, with a summit at 8,928 feet.

Mount Scott

Mount Scott

We turned back onto East Rim Drive, rounded its easternmost point, and headed northwest toward Cleetwood Cove.

Further Reading

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