Crater Lake National Park: an iconic wonder of Oregon

Crater Lake National Park is one of those places like the Grand Canyon I’ve seen hundreds of photos of, and just like the Grand Canyon, it was one of those iconic, majestic, awe-inspiring, huge natural places I told myself I would go see someday. This summer, after cancelling a trip to go in 2020, I made it.

The first view I glimpsed after a long morning of driving was just like the pictures I’d seen. But, well, better, bigger and bluer. Much like the immensity of the Grand Canyon, the deep blue hue of the water and the sheer size of it, the steep gradient of the inner slopes, just cannot be quite captured in photographs or words. Seeing something like this in person is truly incredible.

Wizard Island in Crater Lake NP, Oregon

The pale, rocky cliffs with scattered trees somehow clinging to almost nothing only deepens and magnifies the intensity of the water’s color. Hiking back up the Cleetwood Cove Trail from the water’s edge (the only legal access point to the lake itself), I stopped to catch my breath and couldn’t help noticing how amazingly blue the water looked between the green conifers.

Flowers grow right on the edge of the rim at Crater Lake NP
The green trees against blue water makes for a striking contrast of hues

A little further up the trail when I paused again, I was rewarded with the incredible sight of what I at first thought was a squirrel– and on second sight, was, in fact, a Pine Marten! I couldn’t believe it! These mesocarnivores are fairly well-known for being elusive, mostly active at night, and here was one scurrying up and down tree trunks in the middle of the afternoon! I didn’t get a picture because the graceful critter didn’t stick around long, but the memory will last me a long time. I’ve never seen one before and I don’t expect to again anytime soon. It was truly a rare treat definitely a memorable highlight.

A shed at the bottom of Cleetwood Cove Trail, Crater Lake NP
Crystal clear water of Crater Lake

As different from Pine Martens as you can get, Clark’s Nutcrackers made for delightful, gregarious companions in the pine trees at picnic spots and viewpoints along the rim in the pine trees. They play an important role in the ecology of the park and surrounding forest as Whitebark pine rely on the Nutcracker’s seed caches to sprout seedlings. Unfortunately, the Whitebark pines are fighting multiple battles and many of the trees are losing: to blister rust and mountain beetles. Entire ghost forests of dead and devastated trees can be seen at, and around, the park in a possible preview of what the future may hold if the war to conserve the species cannot be won. The Clark’s Nutcracker’s relationship with the pine is a tangible reminder of nature’s connectivity and how damage to a single tree species stretches far beyond the bark, beyond park boundaries, species dependencies, echoing throughout entire ecosystems.

(Read more about Whitebark Pine at Crater Lake National Park and Klamath Inventoy & Monitoring Network’s Whitebark Pine monitoring efforts and results)

Clark’s Nutcracker

There is more than the beauty of the lake, the pines and the wildlife at Crater Lake. So much of the park is dry and dusty (at least in the summer) but along streams and creeks, there are pockets of green vegetation. The trail to Plaikni Falls winds through the forest and along a rocky outcrop before emerging in a vivid green wonderland at Sand Creek that was like a little oasis in a dry woodland.

Summer in the mountains springs forth with a flourish of wildflowers and I think I missed the peak of the season, but there were still spots of beautiful color along trails, streams and in meadows. The orange trumpet flowers below (for lack of knowing their proper name) were like magnets to hummingbirds and they buzzed noisily about the clearing littered with these bright blossoms.

Plaikni Falls, Crater Lake NP

The name Crater Lake is a misnomer. The lake was not formed due to an impact but by the eruption of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago, which then filled with rainwater. So there is no input or source of water to the lake other than what falls as precipitation and its waters are some of the purest in North America. Fun fact: Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. The ash deposited by the eruption of Mount Mazama is a highly useful and distinct time marker for geological studies in the western US and Canada.

Downstream of Plaikni Falls (above) on Sand Creek, just on the edge of the National Park boundary is an easily-accessible volcanic feature: The Pinnacles (below). They are remnants of fumeroles, or volcanic vents, originally beneath pumice that have been eroded to the spires seen today. Of course, the famous Wizard Island (top image) was also formed by more recent volcanic eruptions and Mount Mazama is active and will erupt again someday.

(Read more about the Geology of Crater Lake and the Mazama Ash deposit)

The Pinnacles at Crater Lake NP
The Phantom Ship at Crater Lake NP

Volcanoes and near distant wildfire smoke are a reminder that the earth is in a state of constant flux. Sometimes the changes happen in a moment or a season and sometimes they are slow on a human scale. That does not mean we should sit idly by as trees are swallowed by beetles and decimated by fungus exacerbated by a warming climate caused by us. Only we have the power and ability to make the right choices for the world in which we live, to support earth as she supports us and we should treasure the beautiful, preserved places like national parks as well as the habitats and life closer to home.

The view east of Crater Lake and wildfire smoke

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