Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 22, 2016

Crater Lake, Oregon: Beauty from Violence

This is one of a series of blog posts observing the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service.

Nature creates marvels of immense wonder and beauty, beyond the scope of humans to imitate: from atomic particles to the vast universe. Often, creation is cataclysmic. Crater Lake, in the mountains of southern Oregon, is a perfect example.

Crater Lake Brad Nixon 1666 (640x461)

About 7,700 years ago, a 12,000-foot volcano called Mt. Mazama erupted, then collapsed. The resulting crater — caldera — has subsequently filled with water about 1,940 feet deep, the deepest lake in the United States, 10th deepest in the world (although one of those lakes is beneath 13,000 feet of ice in Antarctica and difficult to visit). This spectacular lake, ringed by craggy, forested cliffs, is roughly circular, 5 to 6 miles in diameter.

Crater Lake Brad Nixon 1651 (640x480)

Due to its depth and the nearly absolute clarity of the water, Crater Lake is a vivid, empyrean blue: one of the loveliest expanses of water you’ll ever see. It is a world of its own: No streams flow out of the lake, and it’s enclosed, out of view of the surrounding world below the mountain, endlessly varied and captivating.

Crater Lake Brad Nixon 1671 (640x456)

Crater Lake National Park is eminently easy to visit. Rim Drive circles the entirety of the crater with numerous pull-outs. That’s wonderful for visitors, but it represents a risk: One can be tempted to drive the 24 mile circuit, stopping to snap a photo or two at each stop, check, “Been there, seen that,” on the bucket list and drive on. Nothing you see that day or that week, and few things in this life will match it. The experience will reward all the time you can devote to it, despite the ease of yielding to the urge to keep driving. You’re there. Let it be, for just this once.

Crater Lake Marcy Vincent 2389 (640x397)

For example, you can find half a dozen viewpoints from which to see the island called “Phantom Ship.” Stop and look.

Get out of the car, stand and gaze. Breathe the pine-scented air. There are numerous trails requiring varying degrees of effort on which to see glacial features, geology, caves and old growth forest. Change your point of reference from far to near to look at details like wildflowers.

Crater Lake Brad Nixon 1678 (640x480)

From the north rim, hike the 2.2 mile Cleetwood Cove trail round trip to the edge of the lake. A hike I regret I have not taken is the “moderate” in difficulty 1.6 mile round trip to Watchman Peak, which puts you above the rim for a panoramic view.

If you need more than the mere power of nature to inspire you, the Klamath tribe of Native Americans hold the place sacred, created by a battle between gods of the sky and underworld. That’s something to think about, and travelers the world over encounter other such correspondences that are worth consideration. Ancient ancestors of the Klamath may well have witnessed the eruption of Mt. Mazama. That’s worth thinking about before you get back in the car.

From the south rim, you can drive 6 miles down Wheeler Creek gorge to see the Oregon Pinnacles.

Pinnacles vert Brad Nixon 1710 (480x640)

Crater Lake is one of my favorite natural wonders on the planet. There is nothing quite like it. Accessible from north and south by car, as well as via the Pacific Crest Trail for hikers, it’s a reason to travel to southern Oregon by itself, and gives you an opportunity to plan travel that might include more mountains and forests, the Oregon coast, wild river valleys, culture in nearby Ashland, or an easy 4-hour drive north to Portland (from which you can see another volcano, Mt. Hood, and, on many days, across the border in Washington, scene of another volcanic cataclysm, Mount St. Helens).

Crater Lake map marked


Weather at Crater Lake is variable, and can change rapidly, due to its elevation, latitude and the flow of moist air from the Pacific Ocean. We visited in late July on a day when the temperature hovered near freezing, we had snow flurries mixed with light rain, and as the photos show, clouds hovered low on the mountain. At one point, The Counselor’s view of the lake looked like this.

Crater Lake Brad Nixon 1676 (640x525)

The next day? Lovely, warm and sunny skies.

The park is open year-round, but snow falls early and can linger well into June, even July. The NPS does its best to clear the access roads, especially the southern entrance, but snowfall can close them any time from October through May. CLICK HERE for seasonal information.

Our itinerary was previously fixed, but if your schedule is flexible, the NPS website includes a link to webcams, HERE, that will give you a look at current conditions.

There’s a lodge with food and restrooms near the south entrance. There are accommodations and camping, but check the NPS website for availability. If you go in midsummer, the lodge facilities will be crowded, a common situation at many popular National Parks.

Have you been to Crater Lake? Leave a comment about anything I missed for the benefit of other readers.

For articles about other U.S. National Parks, see the listing under “Categories” in the right-hand column.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017. One photo © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.



  1. Another post filled with gorgeous pictures! Nature is so beautiful!


    • Thank you, Feisty. Hope the summer’s pleasant there in Fulton County.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. BTW, note that those are photographs of NOT such great weather, for a change. Still a spectacular sight.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Those pinnacles are rather interesting affairs. Almost like the man-made turrets you see on medieval castles.

    Any similarity of pinnacle formation and formation of stalagmites in caves? I have seen some spectacular ‘mites’ at Lauray Caverns in Virginia.


    • Erosion, not deposition in that case, unlike mites and tites.


    • To expand a bit, those spires were once volcanic fumaroles that filled up with ash chemical deposits. Being harder than the surrounding sediment, they remain after the enclosing material’s been worn away.


  3. Great post! Love the science reference and the informative geographical history 🙂


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