The first real stop on our vacation this summer was Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Our previous attempt to stay there had been unexpectedly thwarted 11 years ago. At that time we were headed in late June to Wyoming to attend a wedding. We drove north from California and planned to turn east across Idaho to Cody. Crater Lake National Park was, more or less, on the way. This deep blue pool cupped in the caldera of an ancient volcano is the iconic image of the rugged and beautiful American West. I had seen many photos of it and was eager to experience it in person.
When we pulled up to the park entrance booth, we were stunned to discover that the campground and most of the park were still closed due to deep snow cover. The forest near the entrance was mostly snow free so it was difficult to imagine that just a few miles away, the land was trapped under feet of snow. The higher we got in elevation, the higher the walls of snow. An extreme winter scene in early summer.
The Rim Village was buried and deserted. Only a few miles of the famous 33-mile Rim Drive were open. But the view of the lake was exceptional and we were the only ones there. Heading north out of the park we drove through a canyon of snow, perpendicular white cliffs towering above us to each side. Possibly 15 feet or more. I’ve never seen anything like it. The snow-covered meadows promised the opportunity of a lifetime, that is, to cross country ski in early summer. But we, of course, had not brought our skiing equipment.
The spring melting of the snowpack unleashed the spring explosion of mosquitoes. Whenever the car window was opened, a cloud of hungry insects surged in. We drove past the lake and found a forested area at lower elevation, without snow, to camp for the night. We were essentially trapped in the van; it was difficult to even leave to pee since every inch of our bodies were bombarded by voracious mosquitoes when outdoors.
During this past winter, Crater Lake had received average precipitation amounts. However, it had the lowest snow pack on record. The moisture fell as rain, instead of snow. (Alas, climate change . . . ) So I wasn’t worried about snow this trip, but I did fear hordes of mosquitoes as well as hordes of tourists. But when we arrived, the campground was not full, the insects were few and the weather was perfect. Over the next several days, we went on a couple hikes, drove the circumference of the lake, took a boat trip to Wizard Island, and relaxed in the campsite.
My hike along Castle Crest Wildflower Trail brought me to an area bursting with Lewis monkey flowers, yellow monkey flower, monkshood, and asters. A ranger on the trail said that this week in mid-July was usually peak wildflower time in the park. However, because there had been little snowpack, spring had arrived six weeks early. What we saw now was more like the flower display at the end of August.
Perhaps the highlight of the experience was swimming in Crater Lake. There are two spots where swimming is allowed, near the boat dock for the boat tours on the crater’s edge, and along Wizard Island’s shore. The water is so clear, so blue, so pure, so inviting, how can you not go in? It was also cold, of course, but not as cold as the Pacific Ocean in Santa Cruz nor as freezing as the mountain rivers we would visit later in the trip.
We chose to go on the Wizard Island shuttle boat tour; we would be dropped off and given three hours to explore the island on our own. Wizard Island is the cinder cone that arises out of the lake bottom. To get to the boat dock requires hiking down the steep side of the crater on a trail of sharp switchbacks. Going down was relatively easy but I knew the hike up would be very demanding, especially at 6,500 – 7,000” altitude. At the lake’s edge, people were gathering, some for boat tours, and others to swim from the rocky shore.
While enjoying another sunny day, we sped across the lake to Wizard Island. Most of the people in our boat, including us, immediately began the hike to Fumarole Bay, a favorite swimming spot. The water here is pristine; we were even encouraged to drink right from the lake. Crater Lake is renowned for the remarkable blue hues of the water and it did not disappoint. At the shoreline, it shown with a rich turquoise glow and then deepened into cobalts and ceruleans.
The trail was longer and more difficult than expected. It went over lumpy, rough volcanic rock and, at one point, everyone we followed, and therefore us too, lost the trail. We found ourselves scrambling over an unstable, dangerous jumble of boulders. Only on our return hike, when we saw a ranger on the lost section of trail, did we correct our previous mistake.
Once at the bay, Chris took immediately to the beautiful waters. I hadn’t brought a swimming suit which I regretted terribly. Everyone had said how cold the water was, and being someone who doesn’t like frigid temperatures, I figured I’d stay on dry land. But the water was just ordinary cold, not intolerable extreme-cold. Maybe around 60°.
Returning to meet the boat shuttle back, we arrived early at the island dock and still had about 50 minutes. The water gently lapping along the rocks was extraordinarily attractive, compelling. Finally, I could stand it no more, and I stripped off my pants and went in with my underwear and shirt. It was gorgeous; the cold quickly faded, becoming instead refreshing, rejuvenating and restorative. I hadn’t showered for three days so it felt particularly cleansing. Being enveloped in the shimmering clear blueness was therapy for the soul.
After the boat trip back, we began the grueling trudge up the steep slope to the parking lot. The sweat and grime that had been washed away, returned.