In Greater Depth

If you think Crater Lake is nothing more than an old volcano filled with pretty blue water, it's time you got up there and did some exploring.

At 1,943 feet, it's the deepest lake in the United States and one of the 10 deepest in the world, reason enough to put Crater Lake high on your bucket list. And because it's fed solely by rainwater and snowmelt — there are no inlets or outlets — it boasts some of the clearest water in the world, too.

Fun facts about Crater Lake

It is the deepest lake in the United States and one of the 10 deepest in the world at 1,943 feet.

  • The deep blue color is the product of the lake's great depth, the purity and clarity of its water, and the way solar radiation interacts with water.
  • Seven different trees live on Phantom Ship, an island in Crater Lake. There are also colonies of violet green swallows, and several varieties of wildflowers and lichens living there.
  • Crater Lake National Park gets an average of 533 inches of snow per year — more than 44 feet of snow.
  • The last time the lake froze was in 1949. The last time the lake was mostly covered with ice was in 1985.
  • An average of 482,000 people visit Crater Lake National Park each year.
  • The depth of Crater Lake was first measured in 1886 with a simple sounding machine that consisted of a crank and a spool of piano wire. Those first measurements showed the lake to be 1,996 feet deep — not far off from the depth of 1,943 feet that was measured with high-tech equipment in 2000.

Many visitors will drive the rim, get a bird's-eye view of the lake from the Sinnott Memorial Overlook near Rim Village, and buy a sandwich and a souvenir or two at the Rim Cafe and Gift Shop.

But there's so much more to do at Oregon's only national park.

"The lake is so spiritually renewing," says Linda Hilligoss, education coordinator at Crater Lake's Science and Learning Center. "But I wish we had a bumper sticker that says, 'We're so much more than the lake.'"

There's the Castle Crest Wildflower Garden Trail, a half-hour hike off the east rim affording views of meadow wildflowers. Geology buffs will want to take the Pinnacles Trail, a milelong hike where they'll see volcanic spires in canyon walls. There are the Plaikni Falls, which few knew how to get to until a trail was built off Pinnacle Road last summer.

For the more adventurous, there's the one-mile hike down the north rim to Cleetwood Cove, where visitors can get an up-close shot of the lake's amazing depths, then take a two-hour boat ride that includes Wizard Island and the Phantom Ship, revealed after Mount Mazama blew its top 7,700 years ago.

If they're lucky, they'll catch a glimpse of the Old Man, a 30-foot-long hemlock snag that's been floating around the lake, in a vertical position, for over a century and even has its own Wikipedia page.

There are lots of easy but awesome hikes, the favorites being Watchman Peak or Garfield Peak, both under 2,000 feet gain in elevation and an hour or two of hiking, with vast vistas as rewards at the top. Garfield is the highest point on the rim, offering stupendous views of the lake and surrounding mountains and desert country.

"You've got the evening campfire program at Crater Lake Lodge or the campgrounds below, vehicle tours around the lake on trolleys driven by rangers, wayside exhibits, guided hikes," says Marsha McCabe, the park's chief of interpretation and cultural resources, who notes the park regularly gets a half-million visitors a year.

Hikers should be prepared for un-summerlike weather — the snow often doesn't fully disappear from roads till late June. McCabe notes there was enough snow last year to continue the free ranger-led snowshoe treks on weekends through July 12.

Park Ranger Dave Grimes recommends the Garfield and Watchman hikes but notes it's a whole different planet — and a much more beautiful one — if you go at dawn or sunset. You won't bump into many people, either. He says his favorite stroll is the West Rim Trail, where you can hike between the road and the rim for six miles, from Rim Village to the North Junction, without noticing the road is even there.

Grimes says it's surprising that only a third of the park's visitors drive around the entire 33-mile rim. The rest stop halfway and drive back, missing scads of diverse scenery, he says.

"My favorite thing is to do nothing," says Grimes. "I like to pull over, have a picnic and read a book, while I enjoy the scenery. Hanging out on the lodge deck and having appetizers, desserts and drinks is also wonderful and offers a great view of the lake."

Crater Lake is an amazing jewel that draws visitors from around the globe, but Hilligoss says she meets lots of people from the Rogue Valley who are seeing it for the first time.

"I love to watch school kids the first time they see the lake," she says. "They reach the rim and look down into the water and you hear this sharp inhale. They can't believe how big it is — and how blue."

Crater Lake's remote, high-altitude environment adds to its allure.

"I love the snow up here," says Hilligoss, who interprets the science of the park to visitors in understandable ways. "It's fascinating how plants and animals adapt to the harsh climate."

Hilligoss also notes her love of the silence, "both what you hear and what you don't hear."

"I was talking to an artist-in-residence here and he asked me how the lake makes me feel. I said, 'small.'"

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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