Crater Lake's Pinnacles area: A September delight

New Plaikni Falls Trail near Pinnacles is an easy walk to a cascade many visitors didn't even know was there
Hikers enjoy a view of Plaikni Falls at the end of the new Crater Lake National Park trail near the Pinnacles.

Time is growing short for hiking the high country. It may not feel like it here in the valley, with daily highs still in the 80s and 90s, but fall, with its crisp nights, will soon be here nevertheless.

I try to visit Crater Lake National Park at least once every two years, just to remind myself of how new it can feel each time I go, and how familiar, too.

Accommodations, food

PLACES TO STAY: The park's premier place to spend the night is the historic Crater Lake Lodge, with its stunning view of the lake and full-service restaurant. Just spending a day in its grandly rustic atmosphere is more than worthwhile, but rooms start at $164 a night, and reservations must be made far in advance. Lodging also is available at The Cabins at Mazama for $138 a night near the Annie Spring entrance station.

The most economical places to stay are the park's two campgrounds — Mazama, with 213 sites, or Lost Creek, with 16. For more about the lodge, The Cabins at Mazama or campground, go to the park website at There also is an email address, The park phone number is 541-594-3000.

Another option, which is the one I chose, is to stay in a cabin at the Union Creek Resort about 23 miles from the park. Until winter rates set in after Sept. 30, these cabins range in price from $90 a night for two people to $245 (for large families). Some have full kitchens, but if you don't want to cook, Beckie's restaurant is right across the street from the Union Creek store. There also are lodge rooms at the resort for $60, with a shower area down the hall. I was able to stay with my wife and my daughter who was visiting from Chicago for two nights for less than $250 in a full-kitchen cabin. With a $10 car pass lasting for seven days, you don't have to worry about having to pay each time you enter the national park.

FOOD IN THE PARK: A year ago I also could have recommended the national park visitor center cafeteria near the Annie Spring entrance station as a good, inexpensive place to eat. It had a tasty and reasonably priced buffet, but this year the buffet setup was abandoned, and you have to order from a menu. We ended up ordering a family-sized pizza, one of the most economical things listed, and regretted it.

A better bet, particularly if you want something quick for lunch, is the cafe at Mazama Village, which offers prepared sandwiches for about $5, with side dishes such as potato salad you can buy separately.

— Steve Dieffenbacher

As politicians rail and flail this election year, there is no better time than now to appreciate the lake's deeper rhythms. I've hiked almost every marked trail in the park, so it was with delight I heard about a brand new one, the Plaikni Falls Trail, a 2.2-mile path through old-growth forest to a hidden cascade at the 7,000-foot level. It became my rationale for a two-day mini-vacation to the park a few weeks ago.

To get to the trailhead, take East Rim Drive from Mazama Village until you reach the Pinnacles turnoff. The small trailhead parking lot is about seven miles down the road after you make the turn. The walk to the falls is easy and wheelchair accessible, with wider spots at various intervals for anyone wanting to stop for a breather or to take in the scenery. Near the end of the walk, the path ascends, so anyone in a wheelchair might need assistance for the final push.

Plaikni is a Klamath Indian word meaning "from the high country," which aptly describes this torrent over a glacier-carved cliff that quickly diminishes to a stream in a meadowy open area below. There, wildflowers flourish before the creek moves into the shaded forest downstream.

When I visited the falls in late August, the flower show already was much reduced, but you could still find blooms here and there amid the green streamside vegetation.

The walk takes about an hour. Don't rush. Along the way, enjoy the patterns of glacier-carved cliffs through the trees and breathe in the strong forest scents as you wander underneath the Shasta red firs that shade part of the route. They can be identified by the muted red tinge in their bark and their upright cones.

Once at the waterfall, sit, relax, eat lunch, take a good, long look. At this elevation, the water has a crystalline purity that will renew you.

If you aren't ready to call it a day, and haven't been in the park for awhile, head down the road for a reminder visit to the Pinnacles. There, from a larger parking lot, you can set out on a flat one-mile walk along the rim of Pinnacle Valley. This trail, also accessible to wheelchair users, gives a dramatic view of the area's signature fumarole spires. A park boundary sign will let you know when you've reached the end of the trail and should turn around.

This region, one of the most unusual in the park, was created as an aftereffect of the eruption of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago. The peak, which stood where the lake is now, once rose to 12,000 feet, according to scientists' estimates, and was likely not one tall mountain, but a series of summits, each with its own cone. Over time, different cones were active, scientists theorize.

When the great eruption came, it sent down massive lava flows that filled canyons, and the Wheeler Creek drainage, where the Pinnacles are, was one of them. These gorges were filled with smoke as incendiary gases seethed up through layers of deposits. In some places, these gases bubbled out of cone-shaped vents, or fumaroles, solidifying the vents because of the heat.

These pipes stand now as the Pinnacles — haunting, volcanic remnants whose tans and ashy browns briefly turn lurid orange or yellow in early morning or afternoon light.

Although there is vegetation on the rim, along the creek below and on the rises on the other side, the Pinnacles themselves and the slopes descending from them are almost entirely bare, incapable of supporting life because of a lack of nutrients.

It's a humbling landscape, one attesting to the lingering effects of one of the Southern Oregon's most violent episodes of natural change. It makes Crater Lake National Park an enduring paradox, the lake's deep blues and pacifying expanse a beauty created out of destruction that reflects nature's oscillation between slow change and catastrophe.

The lake's apparent silence today is not final. Wizard Island, which visitors can see up close on the park's daily boat tours from Cleetwood Cove, is the remnant cone of a later eruption than Mazama's. And researchers say the diminished mountain that forms the lake caldera is not an extinct volcano. It's fiery heart still beats under the lake and will likely erupt again someday, operating under a timeline we can only guess at. Every visit I make to the park, is a small reminder that its evolution is ongoing and that beneath the lake's calm surface lies a latent, but restive power.

Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 541-776-4498 or

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