Route 62 is the recommended route from Grant's Pass to Crater Lake, but its reputation for scenery is inflated. The first thirty miles are the ugliest in my entire week. All the towns along route 62 conspired to make it the local zoning whipping boy, so it sees nothing but warehouses, lumber yards, and the like. Worse, the speed limit is set unbearably low. Nobody could have intended travelers to see such ugliness for so long, but the towns did fail to think through to the consequences their decisions. Fortunately, industry soon gave way to light forestation. The scenery from that point was pleasant. However, with the Jedediah Smith forest still fresh in my mind, these woods seemed comparatively plain. Only the rising terrain — Crater Lake lies amid the Cascades — saved it from banality.
En route to Crater Lake, route 62 passes within an half-mile of Rogue Gorge, a narrow crevice cut by the Rogue River. Gorges are plentiful enough in mountain rivers, but this one's tiny dimensions and surrounding landscape made it worth the brief side trip. The moderately-wooded and mountainous terrain sets the mood, and the anticipation of Crater Lake already had me thinking about quirks of geology. Water normally follows the path of least resistance, so it amazes me that this river decided to cut through an igneous deposit rather than follow the flat ground on either side. The smart money is on this tiny gorge having several orders of magnitude fewer books and articles written about it than Crater Lake, but I am sure I can find one that answers my questions.
The access road from the highway to Rim Road, which encircles Crater Lake, is a nice teaser for the treasures to come. As it snakes up the base of Mount Mazama, one can see through the wind gaps separating the peaks surrounding the crater. With a little imagination, the tufty clouds above become Skell, seated and alertly watching the doorway he sealed more than seven millennia ago, lest Llau try to escape from his underworld domain.
Scam alert: The National Park Service advertises an admission fee of $5 per individual, with lower per capita fees for groups. They do not, however, publicize the $10 "car fee." With no parking at the base of Mount Mazama and no shuttle to the summit, visitors have three options: succumb to extortion, forego the lake, or hike six miles to the top. Considering the prize, the fees are reasonable, but hiding them from the public is simply wrong.
The visitor center halfway up the mountain has three features: a tiny gift shop, a post office, and an educational video. A much larger gift shop resides in Rim Village at the top. The post office is a convenience for postcard senders. The educational video is probably nice for visitors unfamiliar with Klamath lore or the "discovery" of the lake by white men. Students of history may safely skip it. While it mentions geology's version of the lake's origin, it fails to do anything approaching the teaching of science. Its closest was along the lines of, "The mountain's volcanic origin caused its peak to collapse, forming the crater we see today." This is (nearly) all the video's scientific content. A kiosk at the visitor center attempts to rectify this deficiency and comes close, but it stops after regurgitating what I learned in the fifth grade. It does, however, mention the term "magma pocket," which sounds like "mama's pocket," which makes many people think of candy.
The first view of the lake's crystal-blue waters comes at the top of the ridge, where the access road, Rim Road, and the driveway to Rim Village intersect at a stop sign. One's instinct is to sit and stare, but the next driver in line would get angry. I pulled into Rim Village to park and got out of the car so quickly I forgot my camera. Later, I tried to reconstruct how much time passed as I stood on Rim Trail, overlooking the lake and the peaks beyond. Nears as I can figure, it was 20–30 minutes. I doubt I remembered to breathe. I am not easily rendered speechless, and the lake did not succeed, but it did come close. I remembered to move only after I realized I had left my camera in the car.
Discovery Point, overlooking the southwest shore of the lake from about 1,000 feet above, is where John Hillman's mule famously almost fell off the cliff. The story goes that Hillman was exploring the Cascades rather haphazardly, prospecting for gold, when his mule stopped short on what he thought was a secondary peak. Looking up from his mule's neck for the first time in hours, Hillman became the first man of European descent to lay eyes on what would become known as Crater Lake. Hillman got lucky — Discovery Point has one of the best views of the entire lake for a general sense of its size and its major features.
From the cliffs above, it is hard to judge distance and size. Impressive as the lake looks before considering the numbers, its size becomes staggering after consulting references. Most vista points along Rim Road are between 900 and 1,000 feet above the surface. If the Eiffel Tower stood Jesus-like on the water, I would be looking down at its observation deck. I estimated Rim Road East, which runs from the visitor center in the south to route 138 in the north to cover about two-thirds of the lake's perimeter (the rest is covered by Rim Road West). Rim Road East meanders around the top of Mount Mazama, crossing the ridge at places to alternate between overlooking the lake and the surrounding Cascades. My car's odometer estimated the meanders at four to five miles long. The road signs gave the distance to route 138 as 38 miles from the visitor center, leaving 33 to 34 miles around the perimeter of the crater covered by Rim Road East. Adding the other third traversed by Rim Road West, the total circumference is fifty miles. True, this is a SWAG and only then a SWAG of the crater's rim. Many of the cliffs are sheer or nearly so, however, and all of them have grades above 75%. Allowing conservatively for 1,000 feet from all points on Rim Road, the lake below still has a circumference of over thirty miles and a diameter of more than ten miles. Larger lakes exist — but none atop a volcano, thousands of feet above the surrounding plateau and tens of miles from the nearest ground freshwater source. Despite being the seventh-deepest lake on Earth, reaching 1,932 feet at its deepest point, Crater Lake's water is clear enough to see almost the entire bottom from the surface.
I am now convinced beyond all doubt that this freak of geology is the second most interesting lake on this planet. VisitingLake Vostok, however, is out of the question.
I will spare my reader a gushy testimonial to the splendor of Crater Lake. These are plentiful enough, although the original one by William Gladstone Steel is so compelling that the rest needn't have bothered. One factual statement of my actions should suffice to convey my feelings on the lake. After consulting travel guides and local recommendations, I planned to spend about an hour and an half at the lake. I could barely tear myself away more than five hours late. I could have spent a week.
The lake obviously dominates the attention of visitors to the park, but its other features should not be completely overlooked. The easterly and southerly views from Rim Road West, on the south shore, are among the finest in the Cascades. Sadly, they are probably among the least-photographed. The human eye (more on that, below) can only take in so much grandeur without resting. Just as the redwoods had become ordinary by the end of yesterday, today's vistas simply could not continue to outdo themselves.
Driving away from the lake, heading north to Eugene and Portland first requires an easterly jaunt on route 138. The map shows 138 as a straight line, and I thought this must be a cartographer's exaggeration at first. I now testify that route 138 is almost perfectly straight for 30 miles, except for a slight bend to the south at one point. The temptation to drive 100 miles per hour must be repeatedly suppressed.
My only thought after exiting route 138 to head north was, "This road, unlike the great wall of China, probably is visible from space." While the Dawes Limit speaks to a telescope's ability to discern points separated by particular angular distances, it was the best jumping-off point I had in memory to calculate this curiosity. I admit that did the calculation on the back of an envelope (literally!), did not double-check my arithmetic, and made assumptions and guestimates, so I do not want to hear any flak for being inaccurate. For example, I remembered the constant in the Dawes equation as 4.5 (not 4.56), assumed an average iris diameter of 5 millimeters, and assumed "space" to begin at an altitude of 500 miles (800 kilometers). All are debatably wrong and probably skewed my results, but I am on vacation so I do not care. My initial thought was wrong, but not grossly so. Fortunately, I redefined "space" to begin at 100 miles high (160 kilometers), and I suddenly became right. After all, what is a few hundred thousand atoms per cubic centimeter among friends?