Tales of the Hikists: Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park, Hiking, Hiker, Honeymoon, Oregon, Pacific Northwest
Just a couple of hikists: James and Sarah Riswick at Crater Lake National Park. All photos by James Riswick

My wife and I are not hikers. To call us such would be an insult to those who, hiking staffs in hand, gallantly trek through wilderness trails in search of unspoiled vistas, untamed fauna and whatever else their rugged, Zamberlan-equipped feet reveal to them.

Now, we certainly love to walk places. Wear holes in our shoes in central London? Absolutely. Puzzle our Los Angeles neighbors with tales of walking to the corner restaurant? You bet. Venture off the beaten path during our honeymoon on Hawaii or in the Alpine reaches of Switzerland? Yep, done that, and certainly got a little dusty, dirty and/or cold along the way. Yet, again, hikers we so clearly are not.

That doesn’t mean we can’t nudge ourselves further into the realm of those who possess REI frequent shopper cards, though, so we set our GPS for Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon to put some much-needed miles on our newly minted trail shoes.

Crater Lake National Park, Hiking, Hiker, Honeymoon, Oregon, Pacific Northwest
Crater Lake, Oregon

Crater Lake was formed 7,700 years (give or take a decade or eight) when a stratovolcano now known as Mazama exploded, devastating the immediate area and blanketing the entire Pacific Northwest in a layer of ash. (The eruption was about 50 times greater than that of Mt. St. Helens in 1982.) So much molten rock was expelled from Mazama that the entire 12,000-foot mountain collapsed upon itself, creating in its place a depression 1,943 feet at its deepest. This area would over the course of millennia fill with the pristine water of snow melt, creating the deepest and clearest lake in the United States and one of the world’s truly awe-inspiring sites. It was saved from luxury cottages and jet skis in 1902 when it and the surrounding forest became the fifth national park.

There are 25 hiking trails in the park, ranging from the 0.3-mile Park Headquarters Historic Trail to the 13.9-mile Bald Crater Loop Trail. We opted to get our feet wet, or rather dirty, on the Watchman Peak Trail that ascends from a tourist-friendly parking lot overlooking Crater Lake up a lightly forested, reasonably graded 0.75-mile path that ascends 225-feet to the top of the Watchman – one of the many peaks that surrounds the lake/caldera. At a maximum altitude of 7,881 feet, it isn’t simply a matter of being out of shape that will leave you winded, as we definitely noticed our breathing getting shorter in the thinning air 1.5 miles above sea level.

The view from Watchman Peak is worth whatever effort you expend getting up there, as the peak and its viewing platform provide a 360-degree view of the shockingly blue lake (we didn’t Photoshop these photos at all) as well as the surrounding volcanic peaks and valleys blanketed in lush green pine. The platform is also home to several chipmunks, who would seem to enjoy a pretty swell life.

Crater Lake National Park, Hiking, Hiker, Honeymoon, Oregon, Pacific Northwest
Chip and/or Dale, Park Ranger

After descending the Watchman and eager for a challenge, we got back into our car and began making our way around the 33-mile Rim Drive, which orbits the lake and caldera (make sure to check the park website before visiting the park, as parts of the road are often closed, especially in the winter). Our next stop would be Cleetwood Cove Trail, one of the park’s biggest attractions, since it represents the only way visitors can get down to lake level.

Although a mere 2.2-mile round trip and rather innocuous looking on a map, it takes an average of about an hour to complete each way and is considered “Strenuous” on the hiking difficulty meter provided by the Crater Lake Institute (Watchman is considered “Moderate”). It comes complete with the sort of warnings you’d typically find at the entrance to a roller coaster: “Recommended only for those in good physical condition. It should not be attempted by anyone with heart, back or walking problems…”

The reason is the steep, 11-percent grade that takes you down 700 feet from Rim Drive to the water’s shore and the boat tours that require advance reservations. Plus, despite the best engineering efforts of the trail’s architects, several areas are even steeper and losing one’s traction is certainly possible on the dirt path strewn with rocks.

Nevertheless, children and the elderly didn’t seem too concerned (they probably should’ve been), so reasonably undaunted, we carried on with our hiking aspirations. Unlike beginning your hike going up, though, as on the Watchman, every step down Cleetwood is a reminder that it will require a step taken in the opposite direction with twice or more effort. Real hikers would never have such thoughts.

Crater Lake National Park, Hiking, Hiker, Honeymoon, Oregon, Pacific Northwest
Cleetwood Trail. Come on, kids are doing it.
Crater Lake National Park, Hiking, Hiker, Honeymoon, Oregon, Pacific Northwest
The view from half-way down Cleetwood Trail.
Crater Lake National Park, Hiking, Hiker, Honeymoon, Oregon, Pacific Northwest
The view from the bottom of Cleetwood Trail, the only way to access the shore

Each step also brings you closer and closer to those amazingly blue waters, which turn a brilliant turquoise close to shore. As you reach the bottom, however, Crater Lake frankly starts to lose a bit of its grandeur. The blue isn’t quite as blue at lake level and the view from the rocky shore line populated by fellow tourists honestly seems like it could belong to any number of glacial lakes. It does provide you a chance to take a chilly dip, or take a leap into the abyss from an easily accessible bluff should you choose to be especially adventurous.

Yet, making the trek down, and more notably, up from Cleetwood Trail is ultimately more about the journey than the destination. It’s about a badge of courage and will that you accomplished a physical feat that ordinary, non-hiker folks like us usually comfortably traverse by elevator, ski lift or cable car. When we reached the top of the trail having ascended 700 feet in 1.1 miles, the comfort of our air-conditioned car in reassuring sight, there was a sense of pride in ourselves and a new-found confidence to explore more of what nature has to offer. We certainly didn’t need to tackle that 13.9-mile monster within the park, but a 7-mile journey along the Deschutes River suddenly seemed well within our wheel house days later while staying in Bend, Ore.

Real hikers would surely shrug their shoulders at such accomplishments, so perhaps a new term is in order for novices like us who are more than tourists, but not exactly hikers. How about hikists? Yes, I think that works. Look out world, we are the hikists!

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