Correction: An earlier version of this story referred incorrectly to U.S. Route 62; the highway is Oregon Route 62. The error has been corrected.
More than 7,000 years ago, a collapsed volcano called Mount Mazama, in southern Oregon, burst open with a force seismologists say was four times greater than the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Once its magma chamber was depleted, all that would remain was a dusty basin that, over the centuries, filled with snow.
Today, with no outlet for all that melted snow, Crater Lake is the deepest body of water in the United States, and because of its depth — nearly 2,000 feet at its maximum — it has perhaps the most haunting blue hue in the country as well. One August afternoon, I stood at the southeast edge of this National Park — the only one in Oregon — balancing along the plunging shoreline that gives way to a small, rocky island. There were few other walkers on the trail, maybe because the larger Wizard Island to the west is more frequently seen on Crater Lake postcards and draws more crowds.
Emerging from the still water, the Phantom Ship, as it is called, commands your view for its quaint likeness to a seafaring vessel with beams and masts – but so, too, does Crater Lake’s entire shoreline. I had to be particularly careful to watch my step as I hiked around it, so captivating are the views.
Two days before, I had begun tracing Crater Lake’s history by heading north from Sacramento to Mount Shasta, a three-hour drive that comfortably broke up the journey onward the next day to southern Oregon. After checking into the Shasta MountInn and unpacking in a room that had a picture-perfect view of the namesake peak, I went downstairs for a massage by owner and professional massage therapist David Knowles. I had stayed in his elegant bed-and-breakfast inn a few years earlier, and was pleased to return — and to listen to him tell me about the variety of travelers who pass through his doors, including many Japanese tourists eager to see the North American counterpart to their Mount Fuji.
After breakfast and chatting with other guests, I drove north and then veered eastward along U.S. Route 97, which is but one stretch of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway All-American Road. The highway’s lonely two lanes originate in the rather cheekily named town of Weed — this is, after all, northern California — and meanders the base of grandiose Mount Shasta, as if not wanting to disturb it.
Tilting telephone poles stand sentinel all along the highway as it crosses grasslands and dry valleys covered in tumbleweeds until it weaves into the ghostlike town of Klamath Falls in southern Oregon. From there, I pushed on until I reached the rustic Jo’s Motel in Fort Klamath. After checking in, I bought some fruit and a sandwich in the country store adjacent to the reception area before hopping back into my car and motoring northward.
For another 20 miles along Oregon Route 62, before entering Crater Lake National Park, I passed a sweeping landscape of meadows, slack wooden fences, meandering cows and spooky, leafless trees with limbs awry. Once in the park and before reaching the visitors’ center, I pulled over at a picnic area to look at dramatic, rocky ravines and spires of pumice and ash bordering Annie Creek.
After picking up a map at the Steel Visitor Center, I drove onto an understandably crowded Watchman Overlook — the view of Wizard Island, and all of Crater Lake, from here is among the best in the park. I didn’t stay long, instead choosing to drive to the lake’s North Shore, where I parked at Cleetwood Cove.
Tour boats depart from here, but I was more interested in walking the steep, downward mile to the shore for a better perspective of the lake. The road that encircles it, Rim Drive, is hundreds of feet above. On the well-marked trail to the water, I hit dozens of switchbacks until I reached a rocky beach, where I perched myself, removed my boots and dipped my feet into the clear, chilly water. It would be a long trek back to the top, so I leaned back into a smooth rock behind me and stared out at the lake for about a half-hour before lumbering back to the trail, occasionally stopping and glancing backward to watch the ferries gliding pleasantly toward Wizard Island to the west.
The next morning, I drove eastward around the lake’s southern rim, past the Phantom Ship overlook and onto the trail head of Plaikni Falls. I had read in my guidebook that parts of the trail to the falls are awash with wildflowers in July; it was late August now, but I was still hopeful. The trail wove first through an old-growth forest and over boulders for a mile until I could hear a faint trickle. Then, rounding a bend, I saw the lush waterfall, which comes from snowmelt, not Crater Lake, I later read. A man sat near the top and appeared to be sketching the scene while his young daughter scampered over the rocks, themselves making for a charming image set against the wildflowers tumbling down each side of the falls.
Before leaving the park, I spontaneously parked my car to hike the short loop of the Castle Crest Wildflower Trail. Built by Boy Scouts in 1929, the trail meanders through forest, swamp, meadows and grassy slopes, boasting more than 200 wildflower species. It was late morning, already hot, and I had a long drive back to Sacramento, so I took my time and let my eyes feast on Lewis’s monkeyflowers, lupines, buttercups and blue stickweed while I sat in a shady grove. The flowers, the stillness, it was all a fitting way to conclude this tour of a once violent, raging, volcanic landscape that is now so very peaceful and welcoming.
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Zach is a fellow at Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.
203 Birch St.
Mount Shasta, Calif.
At the foot of Mount Shasta, the inn boosts cozy rooms, scrumptious breakfasts, a sauna and a Jacuzzi. Rates: $150 to $175.
Jo’s Motel and Campground
52851 Utah State Route 62
Fort Klamath, Ore.
Includes rustic cabins with car ports and gas fireplaces, six miles outside Crater Lake National Park. An organic grocery shop, excellent for stocking up before heading to the park, is adjacent to the reception area. Open year-round. Rates: $55 to $190.
Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway All-American Road
The picturesque, 500-mile route includes U.S. Route 97 and Oregon Route 62 in California and Oregon, respectively, and passes grasslands, wetlands, ranches, waterfalls, pristine lakes and Mount Shasta until reaching Crater Lake National Park. A detour along the route at Tule Lake also leads to a preserved World War II-era Japanese-American relocation camp.
Crater Lake National Park
P.O. Box 7, Crater Lake, Ore.
Visit Oregon’s only national park, which offers dozens of trails for every hiking level winding around the stunning volcanic lake. The 33-mile Rim Drive encircles Crater Lake National Park; there are many vista points along it. Watchman Overlook is the most popular, with a good view of Wizard Island. At Cleetwood Cove, hikers can descend a steep path with multiple switchbacks to the lake shore. The easy one-mile trail to Plaikni Falls rewards hikers with gushing water at the end, as well as wildflowers, which are also in abundance in late summer at Castle Crest Wildflower Trail. $15 per car, $10 for cyclists and pedestrians, all passes valid for seven days. Open year-round, 24 hours a day, however some roads and trails are closed seasonally. Call ahead for current conditions.