Translucent. Startling. Sapphire Blue.
Seeing Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the United States, for the first time causes most people to sharply suck in their breath. Stand at any overlook and you’ll hear phrases like “Oh my goodness.” “It’s so blue.” “You can see through the water.” “It looks like a jewel.”
Dubbed the “gem of the Cascades,” Oregon’s Crater Lake is a geologic anomaly: an extraordinarily deep lake situated in a huge volcano filled with
water that’s eye-poppingly blue and incredibly pure because it’s a closed system — no water comes in or out other than rain or snow that falls and evaporates. And for those who live in or are traveling through the Northwest, Crater Lake National Park makes the perfect RV getaway.
We head south on Interstate 5 around noon on a Friday under brilliant summer skies, an ideal start to our three-day adventure. It’s about five hours from Oregon City to Crater Lake and, just south of Salem, we leave the work-a-day traffic behind and cruise through the rolling hills and fields of wheat and sunflowers of the Willamette Valley.
Just south of Albany, we’re ready for a break from freeway driving and, on a whim, turn off on exit 216 at the sign for the Brownsville historic museum. Just a few miles down the quaintly named Over the Rivers and Through the Woods Scenic Byway, we come to the village of Brownsville, population nearly 1,700.
The Brownsville Historic Pioneer Museum (aka Linn County Historical Museum) focuses on relics from the pioneer migration on the Oregon Trail to the early 1930s. Too often, community museums are just collections of old stuff donated by area residents. The Brownsville museum features plenty of donated items, including the 1865 Drinkard covered wagon, one of only three remaining wagons known to have come over the Oregon Trail.
Museum coordinator Mandy Cole and her small volunteer staff also know how to tell a good story. They’ve created a miniature “town” complete with blacksmith, dentist office, beauty parlor, post office and dry-goods store. They also have old musical instruments, neon signs, an unusual 1909 Brush two-person runabout car and an impressive collection of antique guns, including a flintlock musket and an 1878 Springfield rifle.
Historic Brownsville is intriguing, too, with period brick buildings and wooden storefronts that beg further exploration, but Crater Lake beckons so they’ll have to wait for another day. Back on I-5, the land has become drier and hotter with oaks replacing fir on the hills and poison oak already turning red along the roadway.
Along the Umpqua River
At Roseburg, we leave the freeway and, after a quick fuel stop, head east on state Route 138, a dotted highway on the map. This is the North Umpqua Highway and it soon becomes apparent why this road has been designated the Rogue-Umpqua Scenic Byway. Almost immediately we begin to climb into mountains dressed in thick forests of oak, madrone, pine and Douglas fir.
The two-lane road meanders along the North Umpqua River, a clear, shallow ribbon of green with occasional rapids and waterfalls. As we climb up and up, the forest thickens with more fir, cedars and maples shading the road, and the canyon becomes steep and narrow with impressive rock outcroppings. There are plenty of trailheads and forest campgrounds and, at 4,500 feet elevation, RV camping at Lemolo Lake.
Crater Lake National Park is located in southwest Oregon on state Route 62. From the south take U.S. Highway 97 to Route 62. From the north, follow state Route 138 to the park’s North Entrance. The park’s North Entrance is closed for about seven months each year, beginning November 1 (or earlier, if there is significant snowfall). When the North Entrance is closed, take Route 138 to state Route 230 to Route 62 and the park’s West Entrance.
Our ears are popping as we reach the summit (5,920 feet), pass Diamond Lake (another RV camping option) and sail through Crater Lake National Park’s North Entrance. A seven-day pass to the park costs $15, but we’ve got an America the Beautiful Senior Interagency Pass (a one-time $10 fee), so we drive through at no cost. One of the best bargains going for older RVers, this lifetime pass also entitles us to half off camping in the park.
Our first park view is Pumice Desert, a broad, flat plain covered with ash and pumice up to 200 feet deep from the explosion of Mount Mazama. After nearly 8,000 years, this desert is just starting to be invaded by scattered lodgepole pines.
We climb to 7,270 feet and pull over at the first turnout overlooking the crater’s rim. We’re mesmerized by the sight — a 5-mile-wide expanse of bluer-than-blue water surrounded by soaring cliffs 2,000 feet high and a black dollop of volcanic rock called Wizard Island that’s topped with a 700-foot cinder cone studded with trees. Across the indigo blue water, we spot the frothy wake of a single boat as it churns away from the island. While dozens of people stand with us, the only sound is the wind. All of us are rendered speechless by our first view of Crater Lake.
Scientists believe Crater Lake was formed 7,700 years ago when 400,000-year-old Mount Mazama, then 12,000 feet high, erupted in a series of massive explosions. The eruptions drained the mountain’s giant magma chamber and the massive peak collapsed, leaving a 4,000-foot hole. Over time, the crater filled with water. As the water rose, the mountain blew out a few more eruptions, one that formed Wizard Island. Today, the lake holds 4.9 trillion gallons of water and is 1,943 feet deep in spots, so deep it causes all the colors of the spectrum except blue to be absorbed, giving the lake its distinctive color.
We drive toward Rim Village, stopping at some of the 30-plus turnouts to admire the ever-changing blue water as evening descends. We encounter two of the lake’s residents: the golden-mantled squirrel and Clark’s Nutcracker, a handsome gray and black bird about the size of a crow. The squirrels, which resemble chipmunks, scamper fearlessly over, under and around the rocky scree, stopping occasionally to beg for a handout (don’t feed them!). Clark’s Nutcrackers, who possess the same bold personalities as blue jays, are the lake’s gardeners, cracking open whitebark pine cones and planting thousands of seeds that eventually grow into trees.
Fatigue pushes us to seek out Mazama Village Campground, one of two campgrounds within the park and the only one that accommodates RVs (214 sites; $31/$35 electric). Pull-through sites accommodate rigs as large as 50 feet, but many other RV sites are challenging to back into. While the online reservation system ensures a site, it doesn’t actually assign one and both nights we encounter difficulty securing a campsite with power. Once we do, however, we set up and head out for a free ranger talk at the amphitheater. Tonight, it’s “Pikas in Peril,” about how climate change is impacting resident rodents; the next night it’s “Denizens of the Dark” on nighttime animals in the park.
Historic Lodge, Rim Tour
The following morning, we wake to radiantly clear skies and, on the road to Rim Village and Crater Lake Lodge, we can see all the way to Klamath Basin. We snug the motorhome into an RV parking spot in the upper parking lot. RVs aren’t allowed in the lower lot near the lodge and by 11 a.m. this RV-designated lot quickly fills with cars that can’t find a spot elsewhere. By noon, RVs and cars are double- and triple-parked, awaiting a spot.
We walk along the paved trail to Crater Lake Lodge, an impressive stone hotel and restaurant celebrating its 100th birthday. Originally built in 1913 in a slipshod manner, by the 1980s the old building was falling in on itself. The park service wanted to tear it down, but the public rebelled. So from 1989-1994, they built a new building within the original stone shell, retaining the old lodge’s character while installing modern systems and upgrading seismic standards.
The dining room, all gray chiseled stone and massive tree trunks, offers impressive lake views. We grab a seat at one of the Mission-style tables and enjoy a sumptuous breakfast of stuffed biscuits and gravy.
There’s a 33-mile drive around the lake’s rim, and while we could drive it in the RV, we opt for a two-hour, narrated tour in a natural-gas-powered trolley. When we discover dusty, gravelly road construction, we’re especially happy with our decision.
Trolley tours cost $27 per person ($24 for 60 and older) and stop at some of the most photographic views, including Phantom Ship, a craggy cinder-cone remnant that looks like a ghostly pirate vessel. Ranger Karlie tells us about the lake’s geology and natural history, including fascinating facts like how the neon green staghorn lichen on the trees marks the yearly snow level.
After the tour, we check out Sinnott Memorial Overlook, a small rock parapet and indoor room built into the cliff with killer water views. There’s a fascinating relief model of the lake and exhibits on the lake’s geology and ongoing research.
All Levels of Hikes
Whether you like to boat, bike, fish or hike, there’s plenty to do. If you’re willing to navigate the dusty, steep Cleetwood Trail down to the water (700-foot elevation loss), the park offers boat tours ($40) and you can fish for rainbow trout and kokanee salmon from shore (no limit, no license required, artificial lures only). Don’t forget to factor in the steep hike back up once your boat tour ends! The beautiful Rim Drive is also a favorite with bicyclists and motorcyclists.
Hiking is more our style, so after a late afternoon lunch in the motorhome we set out for a 2-mile hike along the caldera’s western rim. The park offers more than a dozen hikes from easy half-milers to challenging 10-mile treks up steep terrain. Our trail along the rim is perfect — just enough up and down to get our hearts pumping, and there are plenty of spectacular views along the lake. By the time we head back to Mazama Campground, we’re ready for another interesting ranger talk and a restful night under the trees.
Sunday is our last day in the park, but we want to get in a little more fun. After breakfast, we head to Steel Visitor Center at Park Headquarters to watch a 22-minute film about the park and to pick up a few souvenirs in the book/gift shop.
Then it’s one last hike. We choose Godfrey Glen, a path that wends through old-growth forest and along steep and narrow Annie Creek Canyon. The trail follows Annie and Munson creeks, and there are several places where the waters have carved the volcanic ash and pumice into impressive pinnacles that look like giant, otherworldly soldiers standing guard over the landscape.
By the time we reach the motorhome, the weather has changed dramatically, a phenomenon not uncommon at these rarefied elevations. The temperature has plummeted and threatening clouds gather over the lake. While we’ve marveled at Crater Lake’s majesty, it’s definitely time to head home.
For More Information
Crater Lake National Park | 541-594-3000 | www.nps.gov/crla
Diamond Lake RV Park (110 full-hookup sites) | 541-793-3318 | www.diamondlakervpark.com
Lemolo Lake Resort (20 full-hookup sites) | 541-643-0750 | www.lemololakeresort.com
Mazama Village Campground | www.craterlakelodges.com/lodging/mazama-village-campground