Less than two hours south of Bend, Crater Lake National Park is an absolute wonder. I hadn't heard much about this park before I started road tripping, and I think that means it must be highly underrated. Speaking of ratings, I would probably list it in my top three national parks at this point. Here's why.
How did Crater Lake National Park form?
Crater Lake sits at the top of a dormant volcano. The volcano, Mount Mazama, stood an estimated 12,000 feet above sea level before it collapsed in on itself. During a volcanic eruption around 7,700 years, cracks in the mountain were exacerbated by the heat. Rather than flowing out the top like your typical science project volcano, the eruption came out the sides and decapitated the top of the volcano. And by top, I mean, a lot of it. The rim of the caldera now ranges from 7,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation. Also, the lake is FIVE MILES WIDE.
After the mountaintop fell in on itself and the lava mixed with rock eventually hardened, what remained was a water-tight crater! What are the chances? It took over 250 years for it to fill to its current depth, with the only source being precipitation. I think it's the coolest thing that Crater Lake has no inlet or output. It is a pristine, almost current-less lake (There was a touch of wind.). It does experience almost double rainfall (and snow) in the winter than evaporation in the summer; however, it cannot fill any further due to a layer of porous rock acting like that weird hole in the front of your bathroom sink. So aside from a small annual change in depth, the water just stays put like a clean water bowl your cat ignores.
Why is Crater Lake so blue?
Because the lake is fed only by precipitation, there is no ground sediment muddying the water. It is crystal clear, like really, really clear. This means that from above, as we learned with Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park, the water looks really blue. It's not as teal as the glacial lakes I saw further north. This was a serene deep almost navy blue, and it was mesmerizing.
How deep is Crater Lake?
One other cool thing about it is that at 1,943-feet deep, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in United States and the ninth deepest in the world. It was a surprising and astounding thing to drive up a mountainside, look over the edge, and find a deep and enormous lake inside. Crater Lake is five miles wide! And due to continued volcanic activity, there is a tiny volcanic island called Wizard Island. How cool is it that there is a volcano inside a lake inside a volcano? I loved it.
Where can you swim in Crater Lake?
One of the best parts of visiting Crater Lake National Park is that you can actually swim in the lake! You can also fish (trout were brought in some years back) or take a ranger-led tour boat to Wizard Island. When Lizzie and I arrived at the park, we only planned to drive part of the 33-mile rim road to see the lake from a few different viewpoints. However, when I first saw the lake, I knew I had to get closer. I'm not a huge swimmer, but Lizzie is, and I wanted to see the caldera from a lower perspective and get up close and personal to this one of a kind lake. We scrapped our plans and made our way to the Cleetwood Cove Trail.
Cleetwood Cove Trail
Because of the instability of the rocky caldera, there is only one place in Crater Lake where you can hike down to the lake to take a dip. The Cleetwood Cove Trail requires a steep hike of 700-ft elevation gain over 1.1 miles. There are a ton of switchbacks, and on the way down, I knew the return trip would be a struggle. But my gosh was it worth it. The trail takes you from the parking lot off the rim drive right to the water's edge. There is a small dock for the boat tours and a very rocky shore with loose towels and shirts. There were also so many chipmunks. I shouldn't be surprised to see these human-loving chipmunks anymore, but I had to snap a few more pictures, of course.
Swimming in Crater Lake
Due to the elevation, Crater Lake is truly absolutely frigid. By frigid, I mean that the surface temperature averages 55-60 degrees in the summer. And those who know me will be absolutely shocked that I went in. But I did! I swam out to this rock and then sat there for ten minutes in complete dread of having to go back in the water. The wind was so warm compared to the lake that I was trying to keep as much of my body out of the water. I wished I had just dunked myself and went right back to shore. Lizzie snapped the above picture so I would have proof I went in. When I did make it back to shore, the sun-baked rocks warmed me back up pretty quickly.