Crater Lake National Park
Back in the spring, I declared this 2014 summer The Summer of Camping. My goal was to camp at least once a month during May, June, July, and August, and I’m proud to say I made it! I wrote earlier about my Alaska adventure in May. Now for my Crater Lake adventure just a couple of weekends ago.
Crater Lake is a national park (in case you couldn’t tell by the post title) in Southern Oregon. It’s listed as one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon, which is one of the reasons I wanted to camp there. [Side bar: so far, of Oregon’s Seven Wonders, I’ve hit the Oregon Coast, the Columbia River Gorge, Smith Rock, and Crater Lake. Only Mt. Hood, Painted Rock, and the Wallowas to go!] The moment I mentioned Crater Lake, a whole group of friends seconded my interest, and so a party of 7 of us (and one dog) ended up there one weekend in August.
The biggest trouble with Crater Lake is the short season it’s available for actual camping. Because it’s at an elevation of 6500-7100 ft, there is often still snow in June, and it can snow again as early as September. There are plenty of winter activities, as you might imagine, but as for actual camping, you pretty much have three months (give or take a couple of weeks) to get up there. In other words, campsites fill up quickly. There are two ways to camp there – 1. make a reservation by going here, or 2. take your chances by getting there really early the first day of your trip. They split the available campsites into two groups – some for reservations, some for first-come, first-served. Specifically the Mazama Village Campground is for reservations; I believe the Lost Campground is entirely on a first-come basis. We drove through the Lost Campground, which had a more hippie vibe and less facilities, but actually stayed in the Mazama Campground, which had several loops of sites with toilet facilities (running water); a couple of sites even had showers, though we chose to drive to the lodge for showers when we needed them ($0.75 for 4 minutes of water). The sites were well maintained, with a bear box for food, a picnic table or two, a fire pit, and some logs for sitting. We got pretty lucky in that we had reserved 3 sites, but ended up only needing one of the three, because it was large enough to fit all 4 tents. Of course, this wasn’t strictly in keeping with park policy, so we did give up one site, but kept the second in case park security came to roust us. Luckily there was never an issue, so we all got cozy at one big site. Please be aware, though, that campsites are different sizes, and there’s no guarantee that if you go with a group, you’ll be able to even be in campsites near each other, much less get one big enough for all of you.
Also, for people hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, there are a few walk-in campsites now available specifically for folks taking the Crater Lake turn-off.
My two biggest takeaways from the weekend were that swimming in Crater Lake was a magical, rejuvenating experience, and that I need to go back and do WAY more hiking. In 4 days, I got to hike 2 major trails and 1 smaller trail, but there is so much more to see and do. To scope out Crater Lake hiking trails, click on this PDF, or go to this website.
After driving about 4-5 hours from Portland, we arrived in late afternoon on a Friday, having just enough time to drive to the rim, take some pictures, and set up camp before it got dark. The dark there is absolute, with the most amazing star gazing once you get clear of the trees.
I went camping with a bunch of foodies, so we had ridiculous meals every evening. One of the smartest things these friends did was to plan an easy meal for the first night. D1&P1 had made crockpot chili, still warm after we set up camp, so we pulled out the bowls and spoons, cheese & sour cream from the cooler, I had made my famous cornbread, and dinner was served in about 5 minutes. I highly recommend planning ahead. To give you a taste (sorry for the pun) of the rest of the meals, we had two different types of pancakes with jam and syrup for breakfast day 2, Indian food with campfire baked naan for dinner day 2, bacon and eggs and hashbrowns for breakfast day 3, pulled pork tacos for dinner day 3, and yogurt with granola and berries and leftover cornbread fried in a skillet for breakfast day 4. We had thick sandwiches with kale and spinach and tomato and cheese and deli meats for lunches every day. D1 and D2 were both celebrating birthdays, so there was also pie, and s’mores, and bananas baked in the coals of the fire with nutella. I’m pretty sure I gained weight that trip, even with all the hiking.
At that elevation, even a little effort can feel like a lot, and though the trails were all gorgeous, the hikes were definitely challenging. The first day, D2, A, P2, and I hiked the Crater Peak Trail – a little over 6 miles roundtrip, this trail features no views of Crater Lake itself, but lots of forests, meadows, different types of landscape as you ascend or descend, wildflowers, deer, and incredible panoramic views at the top of miles and miles of forested land. You gain a lot of elevation in 3 miles, so I recommend taking it easy and stopping for breath if you need to. It’s not a loop, but out and back. We kind of guessed where the summit was at first, and then after we’d been sitting there for 45 minutes, one of the guys wandering off to answer a call of nature found the actual plaque that marked it as the summit (don’t worry, he didn’t pee on it). It took us about 4-5 hours round trip, because we were stopping to catch our breath, take pictures, eat snacks, and then rest at the top. It made for a pleasant, full afternoon hike.
The second day was even more exciting, as we had planned to take a volcano boat cruise. There are several different types of cruises around Crater Lake, and this is the only boating available there. We chose to do the trip where we get a brief history while the boat drives us to Wizard Island in the middle of the lake, then we get three house to hike on the island and swim in the water, and then we get driven back to the mainland. Tip: The cruise tickets go on sale 24 hours prior to the departure time. So, if you want to go at 9 a.m. the next day, try to be in line at the kiosk in the lodge by 9 a.m. the previous day. We didn’t know this, so though we wanted the 9 a.m. tickets, they were sold out by the time we got there. Instead, we got tickets for noonish the following day, which actually turned out to be much better. So basically, it worked out for the best, but learn from us and plan ahead.
To get to the boat launch, or to swim in Crater Lake, you hike down the Cleetwood Cove Trail. This is a dramatic trail, very steep, with many switchbacks. Once inside the crater, you can head right down to the water over big boulders, and jump on in. There’s even a portion of the cliff where you’re able to jump off from a really high point into the water. The boat ride was informative and funny, with the rangers peppering their commentary with little jokes; it’s nice to see people clearly enjoying their jobs (and shout-out to Ranger Carl who read us German poetry on the boat ride back, after we saw a bald eagle in a tree). Wizard Island is actually a volcanic cinder cone with another smaller crater inside of it. Because the ground is so porous, no water collects in that crater, so you can hike up to the top of Wizard Island, hike down into the crater, and hike up and out the other side. Inside the crater on WI is a type of stillness that makes you feel as if you’re on an alien planet, all alone. Until you see a inbred chipmunk scampering about.
D2, A, J, and I did the Wizard Island hike. Poor A had blisters on the back of her heels from some bad shoes the day before, so she took it slowly, while the rest of us tramped to the top. One of our fellow tourists was a geologist, who hiked with us part of the way while telling us about the area (thanks, Prof. Magloughlin!). A. eventually met us at the top, and we spent a nice half hour/45 minutes walking the rim of the little crater. The landscape is incredible in how much it changes from foot to foot around the crater. Some of it is red pumice stone, some of it is a forest of deadwood trees, some of it is scraggly brush, some of it is more rocky. It was fascinating to see that all in one place. We had brought suits with us, so after hiking back down to the dock on WI, we changed and ran off the dock into the water. That water is the clearest water I’ve ever had the pleasure to swim in. I seriously feel ruined for all other water, not that that will stop me. I now understand first-hand where the phrase “crystal clear” comes from – it was cold as ice, blue as a crayon, and almost completely devoid of anything other than water. There are some fish in the lake that were introduced by the park service in an attempt to gain the tourists interested in fishing (funny story: this actually backfired, and the fish were damaging the ecosystem, so now there’s no fee for people to fish there because they actually want the fish out of the water; in other words, bring your poles), and of course there are plants along the water’s edge, but none of that was evident in the deep lake waters. No flotsam and jetsam; no pieces of fish poop or slimy water plants. Just freezing cold water with a few brave people paddling about. I wanted to stay in it forever, but I also wanted to dry off in the sun before the windy boat ride. Next time, I plan to do the hike much faster so I can spend more time in the water. Swimming in the lake was definitely my favorite part of the trip. Even D2 went in, who is a self-professed bad swimmer, and said it was the best way to spend his birthday.
My other favorite part of the trip was how often I got to ride around in the back of D2&A’s pickup truck! I’m such a sucker for (sort-of safely) going fast with the wind in my face while gorgeous scenery rushes past me. It’s the best way to see everything. A&I rode in the back on the return trip to the campsite from the crater, huddled together under a blanket while rain drizzled down on us. Chilly, but so much fun.
The last morning of our trip, I got up early and went on a shorter hike with P2 down to the little creek below our campsite. I don’t know what trail this was, but assume it was part of the Annie Creek Canyon Trail, which begins at the Mazama Campground. P2 continued on for a bit, but I sat on a couple of logs near the creek and meditated while listening to the river. Then I hiked back up, got my yogurt & granola & blueberries for breakfast, made some tea, and read for an hour in the hammock D2&A had brought. Tip: ALWAYS CAMP WITH A HAMMOCK. It’s a wonderful spot to truly relax.
Next up: Fall 2014 is The Fall of the Coast! Stay tuned.